What Makes a Trail Great? The Ride

On Oct. 28, Women & Bicycles took to the trails to explore trail design and learn what makes a great trail a great place to ride. Trails expert and DC Trail Ranger Coordinator Ursula Sandstrom joined us as our expert speaker.  

The group on the Anacostia River Trail

  The ride started with a quick downhill from Congress Heights and across the busy, multi-lane Suitland Parkway road to our first stop on the Suitland Parkway trail.  

Lesson #1: Connectivity!

Great trails connect to each other, and to amenities we need in the city. The Suitland Parkway Trail follows the bottom of a ravine, but while it is near multiple Metro stations it fails to connect any of them- they are all out of reach beyond steep hills, or across wide and busy roads, or both. It just doesn’t connect to much- it doesn’t go all the way to the large employment centers just a few miles away in Maryland on the Parkway; there are only three spots along the entire mile length that folks can get onto the trail; and only two spots are accessible from the east and those are of dubious quality for pedestrian or bicyclist safety. It doesn’t directly connect to the other nearby trails, as we would find out as we crossed ramps, took the lane on a busy street, and rode small dirt stretches.

Narrow curvy trail with poor sightlines around the trees

Once we got to the Anacostia river trail, connectivity was a different story. The trail connects to the Maryland Anacostia Tributary Trails, has clear direction signs, is easily accessible from many trail adjacent neighborhoods and makes amenities like the ballpark and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens easy to find and easy to ride to.  

Easy, smooth rolling.


Lesson #2: Situation!

In our first stop, we noticed that the Suitland Parkway Trail was separated from the busy road by mere feet at its furthest. Traffic exposes riders to heat, vehicle exhaust, and noise pollution. Additionally, without a buffer, a trail user immediately next to a fast road faces significant dangers in the event that a driver loses control of their vehicle, with no other protections between cyclists and cars. Great trail construction plans for buffers between cars and trail users. A wide, safe, green buffer with physical impediments between cars and bikes shields riders-and their cargo – from unnecessary exposure.  

No buffer and a short curb isn’t ideal construction.

The flip side of that coin was the wide trail with huge buffers on the National Park Service Anacostia Park. The heavily used multiuse trail is a great destination ride for families with kids (playgrounds), adventurous people (there’s a roller rink!), sports fans (with access to community sports such as track workouts in the Kenilworth neighbor tracks, and professional sports like the baseball and soccer teams of DC), and pet owners (with wide fields for dogs to run in).

This wide buffer and thick curb accommodated the entire group during a short educational break.


Lesson #3: Maintenance!

As the adventure continued on the Suitland Parkway, we stopped in an area near a number of homes. We discovered the trail marker sign down, and a trail exit point which curved around some trees effectively hiding it from view (and also startling a jogger).  There were many leaves and debris scattered over the trail.

A downed trail sign on Suitland Parkway

The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail was pristine in comparison. Trail maintenance goes a long way towards helping a rider feel like the city knows about what trail amenities can do.  One super fact is that the Anacostia river trail is constructed with mixed materials and with the intention of allowing flooding. The trail rangers go out in the summer after flooding rains to sluice the sludge off the trail surface in the NY Ave area.

Discussing trail design and flood planning near NY Ave.

Overall, we have a lot of great trails in the DC area, and we also have some trails that were good starts which would benefit from upgrades and connectivity. Interested in learning more about advocacy with the trail network? Follow the Capital Trails Coalition for the latest news. More information about the Trail Rangers program can be found here. Support Women & Bicycles with a donation. Your support helps fund programs like these.