Of the many not-completely-bike-related skills that will save your tucus time and time again on the bike—and generally make your rides more enjoyable—knowing how to plan and navigate a route to get where you’re going may be one of the most important, yet most overlooked. It’s not like car route planning, where you can ignore terrain and a wrong turn means “nothing” more than wasted time and gas; bad bike navigation can leave you fighting 60 MPH traffic while going uphill into a construction zone…only to have to turn around because it was the wrong way. Conversely, good navigation can lead you to little-known, scenic, or easier bypaths that can add to your ride, and sometimes be worth taking on their own merit.
There are a few paradoxes involved in planning routes, especially if you’re more used to car navigation than, say, hiking. The most direct routes are almost always Bad Ideas when not explicitly off limits, and might be the hardest…unless you know their secrets. Learning the lay of the land, revealing the hills and rivers that have been paved over in centuries of urbanization, becomes a key trick. Knowing back streets, hidden neighborhoods, and out-of-the-way landmarks is part of the attraction and trade of the master navigator.
So, how do you go from “generally lost” to “can give directions to places you’ve never been?” Well…
1. Use your tools…wisely: When all else fails, grab a map. Before anything fails, the map. So that nothing fails, map.
The best map of the DC area you’ll ever see—it’s the one I give to people who are new to the area, visiting family, tourists who just need directions when I’m towing the Bike Ambassador trailer—is the amazing DDOT Complete DC Bicycle Map. It’s the one we have hanging on the wall by the coffemaker at Proteus that I use to show people how to get into DC, or to UMD, or wherever, if you want to have a look—if you want one of your own, we’ll give you one for free! Besides being a good road map with bike paths and lanes marked, it also tells you which streets are bike unfriendly (pro tip: New York Avenue near 295 is a BAD IDEA); where exactly you can’t legally bike on the sidewalk in DC; where the “secret” access points to all of the Potomac and Anacostia bridges are, and how best to navigate them; rules for bringing bikes on the Metro; and where every Capitol Bikeshare station was when the map was printed. It’s your secret weapon for getting around inside the Beltway.
Of course, it doesn’t show anything outside the Beltway—truth be told, it doesn’t even quite make it out all the way to Proteus—so its utility is limited for the rest of the world, which I’ve been told is a pretty big place. It also doesn’t show terrain features, good ice cream shops, or that, contrary to the signs, there really isn’t a bike lane along Irving Street between the hospital and the Soldiers’ Home.
I’m a fan of USGS topo maps myself—call it a throwback to my Boy Scout days—but will make do with Google Earth. Sometimes I’ll even use the Google Maps bike route planner, although I find it has a very different idea of what a “bike friendly” street is than I do—e.g., it usually suggests I take Rhode Island Avenue/US Route 1 into DC, which isn’t something I’d usually advise.
If you’re on Strava, you can use user-generated heatmaps and routes to find out how other people get around, as well as scout segments to find commonly used paths—though beware of segments with words like “climb” or “hill” in them. Chances are, those are the highest, steepest hills around for miles, and the worst ways to get where you want to go. Look instead for segments that have been traveled thousands of times by thousands of people; those are probably the well-worn commuter paths. Of course, the most commonly traveled path may not be the best; according to Strava’s global heatmap (you may need to zoom in to look at the DC/Maryland border), Route 1 is the most common way to get into DC from about Hyattsville, but, as I said above, it usually isn’t the best. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s the most used route because it’s the most obvious, so everybody tries it at least once, but many regular commuters each have their own individual paths that never coalesce to the degree that the path along Route 1 does—which seems to be especially true for getting from Eastern Avenue to Catholic through Brookland.
2. Follow the rivers: This is especially useful around here, what with Rock Creek, the Anacostia Tributary Trails, and the C&O Canal Towpath all following river and creeks—or, in an “extreme” case, our shop route to Baltimore that roughly follows the tributaries of the Patuxent and Patapsco rivers, becoming steepest when we cross from one watershed to the other. Unlike the rolling hills that you get into as soon as you leave a floodplain around here, rivers tend to level out the terrain they pass through—so if you can find a path or road that follows alongside, you might be in business! You might want to make sure it’s more along the lines of the Indian Creek Trail than the George Washington Parkway before you plan on taking it, though.
Roads for cars cut straight, heedless of the terrain—they’ll sooner go over the steepest hill than around it. Hills mean nothing to cars. Water follows a gentler course. Follow it.
2.5: Avoid the hills: Rivers avoid hills, which is why you should follow them first. This one can be hard, especially in north DC or east of the Anacostia, where you aren’t near any friendly river valleys to smooth your path. Look over a good topographic map or for steep Strava segments to find out where the worst hills are so that you can stay off of them.
A word of warning, though: just because a hill isn’t the worst doesn’t mean it might not be bad. I once lead a coffee ride to Qualia in Petworth that, despite a fair bit of planning on my part to avoid the really nasty hills I knew about from working in that part of the world, still hit a few rollers that were a bit more than we were anticipating. Sometimes, “flat” is “by comparison to everything else in the area.” Be Prepared, and, if possible, go around. Longer distances at lesser grades are usually more enjoyable than shorter, steeper hills, especially with loaded panniers.
3. Know your obstacles: In DC, the best known obstacles are the rivers—the Potomac, the Anacostia, and Rock Creek—and the bridges that span them. Spend any time in the District, and you’ll eventually have to find your way across the Duke Ellington, Woodrow Wilson, Frederic Douglas, John Philips Sousa, 11th Street, or Key bridges, all of which have their own peculiarities, difficulties, and access routes. Lesser known, but more frustrating for those of us who live northeast of the city, is the hospital/Soldiers’ Home/Rock Creek Cemetery complex that stretches from Girard to Gallatin, with no good bike routes in between. Sure, there’s that sidewalk along Irving Street that has signs that say “bike route,” or you can screw your courage to the sticking place and take the six-lane highway (complete with cars merging into you from the onramp) past the hospital complex, but those are not fun at all. And if you go north, even the easy routes are easy in comparison to the hiller kills you’re trying to avoid. If there’s a good way around this mess, the People of #BikeDC would love to hear about it.
However, here in College Park and Greater Greenbelt, we have our own share of Funthings. While we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to north/south trails, finding a nice, safe, legal, route from east to west across the Metro tracks that’s open on federal holidays and after dark isn’t easy. From north to south, there’s Sunnyside (great going east, not so fun going uphill, and out of the way); the Greenbelt Metro station (have to dismount, closed when the station is closed); Greenbelt Road/MD 193 (NO. JUST @#$% NO.); the pedestrian overpass at the end of Berwyn Road (long, twisty, and I’m not sure if it’s legal to ride a bike on it); the Northeast Branch trail past Lake Artemesia (floods frequently, technically closed after sundown when it turns more than usually dark); Paint Branch Parkway (better than 193—the traffic’s lighter and there’s a wide sidewalk—but so’s a root canal); the UMD Metro underpass (sometimes closes with the Metro station, if I remember correctly); and Riverdale Road (calm, never closes, but oftentimes out of the way, a bit tricky to reach until the Cafritz development is completed, and has about a 1 in 4 chance of a train crossing). Barring a miracle and the State Highway Association deciding to put a cycletrack on MD 193—about as likely in the next five years as me becoming King of Sweden—there’s no perfect all-weather, 24/365 way to get from one side of the tracks to the other. You eventually figure out what the least worst option is for any given day, but it takes time…and finding closed Metro gates. There are other navigation tricks to learn—how to avoid the worst hills in Greenbelt and Berwyn Heights and how to avoid Route 1 north of 193, for instance—but the railroad tracks are my personal least favorite.
4. Phone a friend: If you’re reading this, you have a host of friends who can navigate. Why? Well, you’re invited to come to potluck next Thursday night—7 to 9 PM at Proteus, don’t have to bring anything but yourself unless you want to—and ask us what a good route is to wherever you want to go. “Hey, I was thinking about biking to Alexandria on Saturday, does anyone know a good way to get there?” will get you a great route (with a few highlights, coffee suggestions, and ice cream stops thrown in as well) and probably a couple people to ride with as well. I know this region, and how to get around it, pretty well; Jeff knows the good commuter routes, and has videos to help you know them too; and, if you’re lucky enough to be here on a night with Rod (AKA “the guy who pulls the trailer I see EVERYWHERE” to #bikedc), you can find out the best route to get anywhere within, oh, about a hundred mile radius…especially the places you’d never thought to go.
We’ll tell you when Google Maps is being stupid, what the alternate shortcuts are to get downtown, what the best landmarks are, and how to get past the Brookland ridge. If there’s a way to bike there—and there is—someone will know how to do it.
Don’t live nearby (what do you MEAN, “this blog has a global readership?”), or just can’t make it to the shop? Not a problem! One of my favorite cheesy Strava tricks is to look at where other people have been, especially if it’s somewhere that looks like a good ride, and study their routes. Where they have been, you can go.
5. Everybody’s biking for the weekend: Okay, you know how I kept saying that biking on Rhode Island Avenue in DC was generally a bad idea? Well, guess what: that’s pretty true during daylight hours on weekdays—commuter hours, in other words. But 9 AM on a Sunday, when you and the folk you’re riding with are the only traffic? Go for it. Ditto the normally awful Bladensburg Road; I wouldn’t usually bike on it (there’s a reason I make Battle of Bladensburg jokes whenever I do), but, coming home from a late night at Bike Party that finished up on H Street or going to the Arboretum or a brewery tour on a Saturday, it’s probably the best way out and back, if not exactly scenic in parts. I would never bike east to west on Massachusetts Avenue, NW in DC—it’s the worst combination of a main road and gnarly uphill—but going the other way, when you’ve got the downhill, you can pretty well keep up with traffic. Even Greenbelt Road is okay after about, oh, 11:30 PM!
Oh, and parts of Beech Drive and Sligo Creek Parkway close to motor vehicle traffic completely on Sundays. It’s worth biking out to them then just to enjoy it.
Needless to say, this is a technique that requires you to know both local traffic patterns and your own habits. If you only bike during daylight hours, then you shouldn’t count on the midnight calm in your route planning. If you’re riding on off-street bike paths in the morning or evening, keep a sharp lookout for deer—I’m not the only one who’s had a close encounter of the venison kind. Even with the fast downhill, Mass Ave can be an adventure if you’re not used to urban riding in traffic, and might be best avoided. While some main roads (Rhode Island, Bladensburg) become calm on weekends, others (Georgia, New York) never do, and are best avoided if you can. If you can find someone who knows the area, ask them before you try anything that looks like it might be a Bad Idea—and remember that what was once a calm bypass can become a major thoroughfare due to road construction, closures, or people trying to avoid other main roads by taking “your” secret back way. All roads are part of a system, and what affects one causes changes everywhere else.
6. All else being equal, keep it simple: There may be a slightly shorter way that involves five turns, but that’s four more chances to miss a turn, have to consult your map, confuse one street with another, or just take the wrong way. And trust me on this one: the wrong way you take will, for whatever reason, inevitably end up sending you up the nastiest hill in the county. If you have a chance to not take the risk of getting lost, take that chance.
7. Have a plan F: No matter how well you plan, something unexpected will crop up. You’ll miss a turn. You’ll find an unexpected hill in the way. You’ll hear about a great ice cream stop just off the path. You’ll hit a few random one-way streets that go against you at every block. The path by the river will flood. A protest or motorcade somewhere will block your usual route across the tracks. The street you were going to take turns out to be a set of stairs.
Be Prepared. Have at least a rough idea of the road network, major obstacles to navigation, and a general idea of which way you’re going. Know a few major landmarks (the US Capitol, White House, Washington Monument, Big Bear Cafe, and Basilica of the National Shrine at CUA are all good ones that are near major DC bike routes, for instance) Have a map, if only a phone map, handy for when you need to reroute.
And you will need to reroute. The number of ways I know to get through Brookland thanks to missing one of my usual turns…well, there’s a reason I know the neighborhood so well, let’s put it that way.
A case study:
Every year, WABA puts on the 50 States Ride—you ride every street and avenue in DC that’s named after a state. Those of you who have seen my really nifty “I Biked the 50 States” shirt…that’s the story behind it. The ride starts at Walter Pierce Park at 8 AM (be there 7:30) on 13 September—a Saturday. Cool. Early morning weekend rules apply here—Rhode Island Avenue is good to go.
First thing I do is figure out where in Adams Morgan that street address is on Google Maps—and, while I’m at it, see what it suggests a good route from the shop might be. While the first route it suggests is completely nuts, the second one—take the Northeast Branch trail to Route 1, Route 1 to Franklin, then Irving to Columbia road—isn’t actually that bad…at least, not for a Saturday morning. I wouldn’t simply reverse it to get back home, and I certainly wouldn’t do this on a weekday morning, but at that time and day? Sure, it’ll work! What’s more, the hills and road hazards (glass, etc) on that part of Route 1 aren’t that bad, so I won’t have to worry about blowing my legs and bike apart before I even get to the 62-mile, start-and-stop, hill-intensive urban ride I’m about to do.
Of course, I know a few shortcuts Google doesn’t immediately think of, and I have friends. I’m going to teach Google the “Josh Route,” the surprisingly little-known but shockingly convenient signed bike route through Hyattsville I have Josh to thank for showing me. This actually takes a fair bit of doing; Google doesn’t seem to know that bikes, like busses, can enter Queens Chapel in University Park from Route 1, nor that biking on Queens Chapel Road after you cross East/West Highway is an extremely bad, awful idea. Traffic aside, there are some decent hills on that road, along with broken glass, road hazards, and some really inconveniently spaced stoplights at the DC/Maryland line. Even at 7 AM, it’s a road I’d stay off. Ditto New Hampshire Avenue and the hills near Fort Totten. I’m going over those later in the day; best to do them just once, if I can help it.
Hm. The more I fiddle with that, the less I’m sure that’s actually the fastest way—or the simplest—for exactly where I’m going. I’m going to take an alternate route, one that takes me past the UMD Metro to the new Trolly Trail extension, and drops me off at Franklin’s…where I’ll take Route 1 to Franklin NE. Easy to remember, no? Check to make sure Franklin’s not a one-way going against me at any point…no, no it’s not. I should be good. I also know, contrary to what DDOT’s told Google, that Irving Street is not a better cycle route than Michigan Avenue past the hospital—might actually be worse—so there’s no reason to go out of my way for it. Once I’m at Columbia Road I’m on autopilot until I hit Adams-Morgan, so I check the last few feet of my route—turn right on Adams Mill when I get to the big intersection in The Morg. 11.4 miles, 64 minutes—probably a bit less, actually, given that I don’t actually live at Proteus. Cake!
Okay, so the route I actually ended up taking to 50 States wasn’t quite the exact one I described above—I forgot about how much broken glass there can be on Rhode Island near the District line and hopped onto my usual route through Mt. Ranier just short of the roundabout (though I have no idea why I went north rather than taking Bunker Hill west like I meant to…). Sometimes effective navigation comes down to being able to make schtuff up and run with it.
I think I also may have been a bit too negative when it comes to riding on main roads, especially given how often I’ve been doing the Bladensburg Races lately. There is a time and a place for vehicular cycling—taking your lane, owning your piece of the road, and claiming your place in traffic—and those times and places are whenever it makes it easier to get from one point to another. It doesn’t mean, however, that I enjoy it. I bike to avoid traffic, not to be stuck in it. I wonder if my objections to Rhode Island and Bladensburg aren’t as much aesthetic as practical. I mean, it doesn’t help that large stretches of both are poorly lit, littered with glass, and have some groan-inducing hills, but that feeling of being trapped, unwelcome, and confined to a barren tarmac devoid of life is exactly what I’m trying to escape on the bike. A good explanation is more than any mere tangent tacked on to the end of an already long post can really handle, of course, but you might want to take my dislike of main roads with grains of salt if they’re your thing.