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On a typical weekday evening, the Metropolitan Branch Trail is quiet, save for a few biking commuters who got stuck late at the office. Last Friday wasn’t typical. Convened hastily by community leaders, a group of about 60 cyclists and neighbors took to the trail—on foot, instead of on two wheels—in response to the latest assault to take place on what’s become the most violent bike trail in the city.
“We’re not going to be scared away by senseless acts of violence,” pledged Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, to the assembled crowd.
“The biggest piece of this is getting more of you out on the trail,” said Eckington Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Tim Clark, who co-hosted the event. The only way to make the trail safer, he said, “is to get more people on the trail, to get more eyes on the trail.”
That’s the common refrain of the past week: The way to prevent crime is to get more eyes on the trail. Yet at the time of the incident that prompted Friday’s march—when a 37-year-old Silver Spring resident was knocked off his bike and beaten by about 15 teenagers last Tuesday—there should have been an electronic eye keeping watch. The assault took place within range of one of the three cameras installed in 2010 by the District Department of Transportation to deter crimes after reports of rock-throwing by teenagers at cyclists.
But according to DDOT spokeswoman Monica Hernandez, that camera wasn’t working and “hadn’t been working for a while.” (It’s being repaired, with work underway before last week’s attack, according to a DDOT official.)
What’s more, the cameras are solar-powered, Hernandez says, so they don’t work that well at night. And DDOT is “not in the security business,” so there’s no one monitoring the feeds.
Clearly, three barely functional DDOT cameras—soon five; DDOT’s installing two new ones under the New York Avenue bridge—aren’t enough to prevent violent crime. Highly functional cameras wouldn’t be enough either. To reclaim the trail for commuters and recreational users, what’s needed is a combination of community engagement, police action, and city commitment to the trail’s safety. The community’s making its voice heard. Now it’s time for the police and the city to do their part.
The heart of the Metropolitan Branch Trail, an off-road 1.5-mile stretch from Franklin Street NE to New York Avenue, opened in 2010. It’s a joy to ride on: a smooth trail with no street crossings that takes cyclists past graffiti, industrial sites, train tracks, a brewery, and a touch of greenery. Last year, Washington City Paper named the trail the “Best Self-Guided Tour Through Industrial D.C.”
But since the 2010 opening, trail users have reported attacks with unsettling regularity. Some have been robberies by criminals armed with handguns and tasers. But a disconcerting number were more like last week’s assault, where nothing was stolen and violence itself was seemingly the attackers’ end, with no other apparent motive involved. One cyclist was pushed off her bike in September 2010 by a teenager who then sat back down and watched her struggle to ride her dented bike away. Another, also in September 2010, was doused with urine by a kid “no more than four feet tall,” according to an email list posting by the victim. In October 2012, a third was clotheslined by four teenagers, who then fled the scene. The list goes on.
Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump says MPD can’t provide accurate statistics on the number of incidents that have taken place on the trail. “This is an eight-mile trail that runs into [Maryland], both on and off road,” she writes in an email, “and we would have to do a radius surrounding the entire trail which would yield completely inaccurate statistics and include crimes not necessarily related to the trail.” But the message from the police is clear: At a community meeting in March, an MPD sergeant told neighbors not to ride the trail alone.
“Even though we’ve always [had] this diverse neighborhood, I don’t know that we truly coexist sometimes,” says Ward 5 Bicycle Advisory Council representative Silas Grant, who cohosted Friday’s trail walk and says he represents both “that generation of the new, revitalized D.C.” and the mostly African-American population that’s been in the city for decades. “I don’t know how to put it in the perfect words, but I may live next door to you and live in a totally different world. If children don’t understand you, it’s almost like they don’t consider your life to be as valuable as theirs.” (Some of the discussions of the assaults in online comment threads have drifted rapidly toward ugly, racially charged language.)
“It seems like every summer we get these spikes in crime,” says Clark, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (who recently admitted to using a D.C. Council debit card to pay for personal expenses and was fired by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie). Clark says MPD increases its patrols of the trail each year after neighbors, in response to crimes, invite them to block meetings and patrol the trail themselves. “But once they suppress the crime, they move units out,” he says. “There’s not a continual focus on the trail.”
In an email, Crump calls last week’s assault “an extremely unusual incident” because no robbery occurred, but she did not respond to multiple requests for additional comment. But Kristopher Baumann, the chairman of the department’s union, says MPD hasn’t been living up to its responsibilities, in part because the city needs more police officers and better policies to address juvenile crime specifically.
“It is our responsibility to keep people safe, and we’re not doing that,” Baumann says. “We should be ahead of the curve on this, absolutely.”
Local ANCs and activists have taken action on their own in a number of ways. A second trail walk took place on Monday, and more are planned. The volunteer Guardian Angels are patrolling the trail; they handed out flyers on Friday with safety tips. WABA is launching a “trail ranger” program within two weeks that will see interns from the Student Conservation Association doing their own patrols, courtesy of stipends paid for by the District Department of Transportation. (The program was planned before last week’s attack.)
But the community can only do so much, says Grant. While neighbors can report broken lights and inappropriate graffiti, they can’t take law enforcement into their own hands. “I heard [McDuffie] make a statement that we’ve got to take back the trail, and I think that’s important, but I think we also have to rely on the people who are put in place to do this on a professional basis,” Grant says. “We don’t want the community members to be vigilantes.”
Clark also questions MPD’s warning to trail users not to ride the trail alone—a message that could scare away commuters and people biking to the grocery store, who comprise much of the trail’s traffic. “I think their messaging isn’t in line with what the community wants to see,” Clark says. “When you say things like ‘Don’t ride alone,’ that’s going to deter people from riding on the trail.”
And, as Clark and others emphasize, what the trail needs more than anything is eyes. Tony Goodman, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for NoMa, says the best way to get those eyes is to make the trail a place for more than just passersby by adding retail or pop-up uses in some of the vacant buildings along the path. He cites the city’s recent announcement that it will be leasing pop-up space to retailers at the Congress Heights Metro station in an effort to attract retail to the St. Elizabeths development. A similar move at the MBT could serve both trail users and neighbors. Goodman rattles off a list of trailside properties where this could take place.
“The more we develop it, the more pedestrians are going to be on it, and the less of a bike superhighway it’ll be,” Goodman says. In other words, cyclists would be less likely to find themselves alone on the trail with potential assailants—and senseless crimes like last week’s beatings would be less likely to occur.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery