Housing Complex

Met Branch Fail

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

  • NE John

    “We don’t want the community members to be vigilantes.”

    That's too freakin bad for you.

  • joe attaboy

    I know most of you "progressives" reading this will howl in protest, but allowing citizens to carry a concealed weapon would end this in literally no time. The first time a citizen draws down on someone threatening them, watch the rate of these occurrences to fall, literally overnight. Criminals are fearful of people willing to defend themselves. Criminals think they can prey on cyclists because of their limited protection and their lack of mobility *after* they've been forced off the bike.

    I can absolutely guarantee you that the the second I felt a legitimate threat on a ride, just the display of my 9 mm would stop anyone in their tracks. This is not vigilantism. This is self preservation. And I would not have to actually pull the trigger.

    This is also a prefect microcosm of why cities like Washington, by disarming the people who most need to protect themselves, are the most violent centers in America. New York, most of urban California, DC and Chicago: all with highly restrictive gun laws. All pits of violent crime.

  • Anon


    Because New Orleans, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Atlanta are all perfectly safe utopias thanks to their well-armed militias...from one who has been to all four there are more parts of those cities where I feel unsafe than the Bay Area, LA, NYC, or Chicago.

  • Luis

    If DDOT wont watch the video feeds, they should record and stream them online. Every little bit helps.

    It is a shame, but I feel that until the bike trail reaches critical mass in usage/ridership, these problems will continue. The people committing these crimes are opportunistic - they will just lay in wait for the "optimal prey".

    I hope the victim is able to make a full recovery.

  • SEis4ME

    @Anon, thanks for making sense....

  • Anon2

    As much as I'd love to see the barriers between communities broken down, to see person to person links among neighbors reducing fear of the other, etc

    I don't know I want to wait for that (one generation? Two? Never?) to use the MBT.

    This will be solved sooner than that by the working of the real estate market. Eckington is hot now, and at some point maybe Edgewood. DC will still have affordable housing, but not so much right near the MBT.

  • Jaybee


    I believe this critical mass is coming sooner than you may think.

    Only when people start brandishing weapons on teenagers, because that makes people around the area feel really safe.

    But in all seriousness, Eckington, Edgewood, Brookland, Noma...all are transforming with a younger crowd more concerned about alternative modes of transportation. MBT offers a great way to get from NE directly to destination spots.

  • Mark

    Those nonfunctioning cameras may be part of the same ill-conceived and managed contract that previously brought you non-functioning lights. Some deadbeat outfit out of Florida.
    If so, I imagine after all this time there might be cause for legal action?

  • lesserlesserwashington

    I'm a progressive who supports a tri-state (MD/DC/VA) CCW permit. The only long term solution is to get rid of some of these thugs permanently.

  • Amy

    I really like the idea above: good camera coverage with streaming video. The videos could be shown at every bar or office building lobby so many unpaid eyes would curiously watch; soon thugs would realize they could be seen the whole time and identified.

  • bill johnson

    The oddly unspoken issue - negroes - needs to be addressed.

  • Asuka

    When seconds count, the police are minutes - or hours, or never - away. This is what happens when law abiding citizens are prevented from defending themselves.

  • Read Scott Martin

    #11 "Needs to be addressed"? Because every bigoted troll in the comments section of The Washington Post (and City Paper) has been laying low and planting hearts and flowers on our public discourse? Yessiree.

  • name

    There aren't any barriers between communities. There are just kids with parents who beat them silly from a young age and learn to act violently as a result, and other parents who love their kids and treat them with respect who go on to happy successful lives.

    Guess which type predominates among long time residents?

  • dc only

    First off, if you think that weilding a gun is going to decrease this type of crime you are wrong. If you draw a gun and the other person either has a weapon or can overtake you, they will then kill you. It is one thing to go to the range and practice where it is safe and a completely different scenario when faced with actual danger. Secondly, all the talk about redefining the neighborhoods is just a code word for gentrifying. And the folks you are trying to move out are getting smart to this ploy and, well look at the news. Maybe communicating with people instead of trying to push them out might work. And by the way before any of you go on a tirade about this is not about gentrfying, the effects of gentrification are only now being seen and it is not pretty.

  • Okeydokey

    I called this when this trail was being built. It runs through a horrific ghetto and parts of it that do, are also so isolated that you could have an hour long "beat-down" fiesta back there and no one would know.

    We have cops on bikes, these beat downs always happen in the same ~3 hour window. Schedule a cop to bike or drive down the trail every 30 minutes during that window. How hard is that?

  • Mario

    I don't know what world that Tony Goodman guy lives in, but the MBT has never been a bike superhighway, because it has never been finished. It’s hilarious hearing this from some “NoMA” guy because the REST of us commuters who can’t afford new condos in NoMA NEED a damn bike superhighway! The world doesn’t end at Franklin St NE, clowns.
    I find the trail as crowded as it should be after work. I see dozens of people using it between 5-8pm---pedestrians, exercisers, homeless folks moving their possessions around, people hanging out on benches, cops, and cyclists. Exactly how many more people do we want using this sparse 8 foot wide road? Do we want it to turn into those horrible routes in VA that are completely congested and basically unusable?
    There are clearly a few trouble areas on the off-street 1.5 mile stretch. Anybody who uses the trail regularly knows where these are. They are areas completely isolated from the street with many places to hide from and escape to. Focused patrols in these areas would go a long way. Little wanna-be punx be warned though: You mess with me and you will get a mouth full of U-lock.
    You know what else would help the problem? Year round school!

  • James

    I'd like to see some cyclists pack heat. Then the muggers and assault thugs along the trail would be in for a well-deserved surprise.

  • 17BobTreyO

    OkeyDokey. Unfortunately you are correct. There is an unspoken race and class component to all this and until the naive "bike path liberals" realize that they are the prey, and start doing something about it other than lighting candles and hoping for "dialogue" it will never change. The cops aren't there to help you. They're busy committing crimes of their own.

    You're responsible for your own safety. Choose wisely.

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  • Walter Smith

    Isn't it time to stop this politically correct two-step and call a spade a spade.

    Regardless of how people may want to present it, it IS non White youth attacking majority White riders.

    Pointing out the obvious is NOT racist, as some would have us believe.

    Until the true reasons are accepted for these continued crimes against European-American District Residents, nothing can be done to fix the problem.

  • Zonker Brainless

    There's a gang of kids at Rhode Island Ave metro, they hang out at the parking lot of what used to be the Safeway.

    It sounds like all the violent incidents were done by them, based on where they occurred.

    Don't know what to do about it but there you are. It's one small group of kids who like to act up and the MBT was built to go right through where they hang out.

  • pickaname

    racially motivated hate crimes

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