How many pages does it take to assess the environmental impact of banning cars from six miles of road running through a national park?
The answer, in the case of Beach Drive in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, is 141 pages. And for all that, the National Parks Service came to the following conclusion: The road, which has been entirely closed to cars since the pandemic jolted everyone’s habits in the spring of 2020, should be reopened to traffic on weekdays from September to May.
On the one hand, the NPS writes, opening the road to walkers, runners, cyclists, and anyone else without an internal combustion engine has “led to an increased number of visitors to the park,” surely the very thing that the 2,000-plus-acre park at the heart of a metro area of 6.4 million souls was meant for. On the other, 5,500 to 8,000 cars a day once used the park for “commuting and scenic driving,” so it’s impossible to say if the park without cars is good or not.
With that, the District becomes the latest city drawn into the tug-of-war between car-free public spaces created during the pandemic and the drivers eager to take them back.
In San Francisco, for example, a battle has been raging over the now carless John F. Kennedy Drive, which runs through Golden Gate Park. It proved to be immensely popular after the city closed off access to cars during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Three months ago, city supervisors voted to make that change permanent. Now, opponents of that project say they have gotten enough signatures to put the question on the ballot in November. They call their movement “Access for All.”
That is more or less the same argument the NPS makes about Rock Creek Park. “The preferred alternative is a compromise that will allow us to best protect natural resources, while providing access to this beloved area of the park to the greatest number of visitors,” Julia Washburn, the Rock Creek Park superintendent, said in a press release on Monday.
But the idea that a road shared between cars and everyone else is a “compromise” is a little like saying it’s a compromise to put a shark and a seal together in an aquarium tank.
The situation in Washington is unusual, since Rock Creek Park is run by the federal government. The D.C. Council has already voted in favor of keeping Beach Drive car-free; so too has the council in Montgomery County, Maryland, the commuter suburb where the road empties out. Public commenters have been overwhelmingly in favor of a car-free road year-round. But it’s not their decision to make.
In other ways, however, the Park Service’s logic is a perfect example of some of the blind spots of modern American environmentalism. Taking 5,000-plus cars out of the park every day should be a no-brainer for both the park’s natural inhabitants (cars kill deer, turtles, and other animals crossing the road; car noise can drown out bird calls) and the environment writ large, since driving is bad for the atmosphere and local air quality. The impact of the closure on neighboring streets, NPS says, is “not substantial.” Because scenic drivers are unlikely to relocate to, say, Connecticut Avenue NW, the closure almost certainly reduces emissions and air pollution in the city.
But this basic premise—fewer cars good—is not at all a built-in feature of American environmental law. New York City is spending years to prepare environmental studies to justify the self-evident environmental triumph of charging drivers to enter the Manhattan core. To fund mass transit!
Instead, straining to justify a return to the status quo, NPS mounts an environmental argument in favor of more cars in the park: Too many pesky people are walking through the woods, creating “desire paths” that may threaten endangered species. NPS is particularly worried about the habitat of the Hay’s Spring amphipod, a blind and colorless shrimp less than a centimeter long that spends its entire life underground eating decayed leaves. By opening the park road to people on weekdays only in summer, when the forest undergrowth is thick, the NPS reasons it can discourage people from threatening the shrimp’s habitat.
This marks a misunderstanding about the fundamental purpose of parks in cities, which is to make life peaceful and pleasant for the people who live there. They are habitats first and foremost for hairless apes, and by luring and keeping homo sapiens happy in compact settlement patterns, such parks do their greatest work for the natural world elsewhere, by reducing the comparative appeal of wetland-devouring sprawl. Perhaps this shrimp must die so that a thousand more can live.
Such conflicts happen frequently, since many cities were founded in fragile ecological zones—the mouths of rivers, fall lines, boundary zones between one climate and another—precisely because they made attractive places for human activity. Many cities remain vibrant natural worlds, both because they didn’t quite squash out what lay underfoot and because they are habitats in and of themselves for adaptive species, like falcons. But the great environmental benefit of a city is as clear as Rock Creek: Housing as many human beings as possible. And that means giving them a nice park to enjoy without worrying about getting run over by a car, 365 days a year.