This weekend I did a ride that’s been tempting me since we first moved from Arlington into the District three years ago: The Great Washington Loop. Starting from Georgetown, the loop takes you up the Capital Crescent Trail into Montgomery County and then circles the District via the Georgetown Branch Trail in Bethesda, Sligo Creek trail in Silver Spring, the Northern Branch Trail near Brentwood, and finally the Metropolital Branch Trail back into the District. Clocking in at more than 30 miles. It is an epic ride, to be sure.
These trails are some of the best maintained, least-congested bike infrastructure in the area. When there’s pavement it’s smooth if not fresh, usually wide enough to ride abreast with room to adjust if someone tries to pass, and not overcrowded. Unlike the Rock Creek Park Trails there’s typically room to pass walkers and runners without slamming on your breaks, and there’s almost always space for them to run or walk off the pavement if necessary.
No steel plates were encountered during the duration of the ride.
About 90% of the ride is on some kind of trail if not always paved. The on-street segments are for the most part easy (though, see The bad for a big caveat) and where you’re required to cross large highways you are given a crosswalk and flashing lights to help cars see and stop for you.
The Georgetown Branch Trail remains unpaved, for the most part it’s not a problem but you can’t ride it with pizza cutter tires and watch out for erosion. The bridge crossing over rock creek and the old railroad bridge you cross right before joining the road are breathtaking views.
Inconsistent signage across the various trails was a bit difficult. For example, the Georgetown Branch does not simply connect to Sligo Creek Trail (at least not obviously). After the separated trail ends, the signage for Georgetown Branch takes you on back streets and eventually through the middle of downtown Silver Spring. The best way to connect to Sligo Creek is to break with the signed trail and either ride with traffic on Colesville Rd. for a few miles or take back roads occasionally crossing 16th St. Georgia Ave, and riding briefly on Colesville Rd. The closest trailhead we could find was off Colesville Rd. and Sligo Creek Parkway just past Dale Dr.
In short, this is not a loop like Minneapolis’s “Grand Rounds” but the trail connections are manageable and, for the most part, don’t get in the way of enjoying the ride.
Signage, or lack thereof, made the ride most difficult. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that the turn-by-turn guidance on Bike Washington is sorely out of date and difficult to read on a phone. It should really be replaced by a really clear Strava route or a mobile-friendly layout. But it also needs to be updated as we missed every trail connection after the CCT–Georgetown Branch linkup in Bethesda.
This isn’t a knock on Bike Washington. They’re a volunteer organization and keeping that page up to date is probably a low priority given all the other priorities for bike advocacy in this region. If you’re going to attempt this trail, I recommend combining their directions with a Strava route or riding with someone who has done it before.
The worst of our mixups came at the end of the ride. Sligo Creek Trail takes you pretty far east into Prince George’s County without going very far south back toward the District. Around the West Hyattsville Metro station Sligo Creek Trail becomes the Northwest Branch Trail (the directions say to watch for a “basketball court”, there are at least four of them before the split). The part of the directions for getting from that trail to the Metro Branch tell you the “trail will end” and to take an “unpaved street” around a building to connect to 37th St. Either the trails were less developed when the directions were last updated or we were simply enjoying the ride too much.
Comparing the route we ended up taking with the directions from Bike Washington we probably went a few miles off course and ended up riding Rhode Island Ave. into the District and joined Metro Branch at 4th and S NE. We could have joined earlier, but by the time we realized we had gone off route we were too tired to “figure it out” and stuck with what we knew.
Recommendations and our route
The normal route has you take Metro Branch down to the mall and loop back to start off of the trails around the mall and the river. We were at 34.5 of 30 miles when we got to Union Station. Our Strava Map is below. If you follow it, I’d encourage remixing it a bit to avoid riding on Rhode island at all. I’d espcially recommend turning off Rhode Isand Ave. at Monroe St. NE into Brookland to meet up with the Metro Branch trail in Brookland. I suspect Taking Queen’s Chapel Road off the Northwest Branch trail and following Michgan Ave. Down to Catholic University is also a better option.
For folks who want a longer ride, the Northwest Branch Trail is outstanding, low traffic, and might loop around to meet the Anacostia River Walk trail. I’m not sure, but it’s worth exploring.
All told we rode 34.5 miles, three of which was each of us getting to the trail from our homes. If I were to do it again, I’d probably start at Union Station and run the loop in reverse. Attempting to figure out how to connect into the Northwest Branch trail at the beginning when I’m feeling more adventurous, instead of at mile 27, would probably make the rest of the ride more enjoyable.
I stumbled upon a fascinating article on Chart-It this week about Capital Bikeshare’s 2014 data. Bikeshare makes its data available and Chart-It did a wonderful job of breaking down ridership and bike usage for the year 2014. Some highlights:
Nearly 80% of rides are made by “registered members,” that is someone who is paying the monthly rate, not a tourist or “casual rider.”
Registered members, despite taking more rides, take rides that are, “on average, 61% shorter” than casual riders. The average ride for a casual rider lasts 38.2 minutes with a wide standard deviation of nearly 51 minutes.
3% of rides taken by registered members last longer than the free 30 minutes.
The longest rides lasted nearly an entire day and cost the user “around $100”
2.9 million rides were taken last year over 50 million minutes. “That’s about 90 years of bike rides.”
On the bikes:
There were more than 3,000 bikes in operation during 2014
Of those about half of them were active throughout the whole year.
Some bikes work much harder than the rest: “the busiest 15% of bikes carried out about 72+% more rides,” over “more than 159 hours.”
2014’s hardest working bike was a beast, but you’ll have to read about it yourself.
What’s more interesting than simply the numbers is what they tell us, or could tell us, about the city. What can we say about the fact that the hardest working bike finds itself most often at the most frequented stations? What can we say about how people get around our city if bike rides among people who live here last less than 30 minutes? Does that mean it’s possible to get everywhere in less than 30, or does it mean local riders are clever enough to return their bikes before they have to start paying more for the ride?
It will be fascinating to see Chart-It’s follow on posts about stations and routes and tends over the last four years of Bikeshare.
Five years ago a small group of cyclists in Minneapolis got together a great idea: Ride a bike every day for the month of April. They called it 30 Days of Biking. I was in Korea at the time, riding my bike around the city of Ilsan, sometimes going as far as Paju near the Third Tunnel of Agression. Back then we had the luxury of not having to work until after noon so going for a long ride every morning was pretty easy and didn’t require waking up early.
I’ve been thinking a lot about bike infrastructure lately. It’s a subject where I’m increasingly of the mind that we should be building cities that allow safe and convenient travel for anybody, no matter how they’re traveling, but what often happens is that city planning ends up sort of shimming bikes into the grid in the way that’s least intrusive on people driving cars.
Bike lanes are a great example of this. Bike lanes are perfect for going straight or only turning right onto other bike lanes. Turning left? Good luck crossing out of the bike lane and however many lanes are between it and the left turn lane. Hit a stop light? There’s probably a car (let’s be honest, they’re mostly from Maryland) taking up most of its lane and the bike lane attempting to turn right. Even going straight can be difficult when cars slide over and use the bike lane as an idling lane. I can’t count how many near misses I’ve had with taxis swooping in to rescue a stranded commuter on 17th street. And when it happens, the biker now has to merge with the traffic of dozens of drivers white-knuckled on their steering wheel, silently (or often loudly) screaming “Just Use the Fucking Bike Lane!”
Especially in the dense, downtown corridors of cities, there’s no need to drive unless you’re entering or leaving. I know of nobody who drives to get their lunch, for example, in DC. That would be insane; you walk to get lunch or bring it from home. This is also why we have the Metro and giant “Kiss and Ride” lots in the suburbs for folks who commute from The Faraway Places with names like “Loudon” and “Fauquier.” Even the nearby places like Takoma Park have these lots.
Instead of getting a city optimized for the people who use its pathways most efficiently, we have cities optimized for nothing, and dangerous for everyone not in a car. Cars are really good at getting in and out of cities, bikes and feet are really good at getting around them.
You’re right. I did turn left onto N St. from 11th St. NW yesterday. It was not even 8:00 in the morning but there I was, on Brooks Saddle attached to my Surly frame, riding comfortably in the bike lane until about a block before my turn when, signaling as I went, I merged: first into the right lane, then the left, then, finally, into the turn lane.
I have a driver’s license so I know how hard it is to move that right foot from the accelerator all the way to the brakes in order to accommodate slower moving traffic in front of you. And how difficult it must be to see such inferior technology making its way through our city faster than the half ton pickup truck you were driving. Such amazing amounts of energy to go so slowly through an urban area. How much gasoline did you us on your commute yesterday? About a gallon? And there I was impeding you ability to use it more quickly.
How thoughtless. I deserved to be nearly run off the road by you.
But honking wasn’t enough for you to tell me how disgusted you were with my choice to make a legal left turn. No, you also had to stop at a green light and slow down everyone behind you so you could verbally let me know exactly how inconvenienced you were. I suppose you would have rather I darted into your lane without signaling. Or perhaps, better, you would have rather I sped up, crossed N half way and ridden in circles around the intersection before running the red light to cross 11th in front of you. That certainly would have made it easier for you to exact your death wish upon me.
I swear to better reinforce dangerous behaviors in the future.
Maybe I just have you all wrong, fellow driver, because even yelling at me wasn’t enough for you. No, you had to take it one step further and impersonate a police officer who could “lock me up” for turning left. I wasn’t aware left turning was a jail-able offense but thank you for sparing me, oh wise one. You are just looking out for the law abiding people of the District of Columbia. I assume you also honk and stop to berate every driver who has ever cut off a cyclist, or driven their car without headlights at night or through a snowstorm, or idled in a bike lane, or failed to signal a turn.
Yes, I judged you all wrong, Driver. You weren’t a rude, snarling human being driving a vehicle 20 times the size of mine but a misunderstood civic activist, making sure that every traveler through DC’s streets is doing so to your liking. I should be thanking you for helping me better understand which vehicles are larger than others. I only wish I could have learned more from you. I hope we can meet again so you can teach me how to properly turn left on a bicycle, or how you might better design our streets to safely accommodate all modes of traffic.
Best wishes from your favorite cyclist,