Whatever the preference for use – running, walking, biking, riding scooters, maybe even roller skating – the popular 45-mile Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Regional Trail has become much more busy, according to users, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s crazy more busy, almost like 100 percent more,” said Arlington resident and longtime trail user Gladis Bourdouane. “I wake up early now, like 6 a.m., to run the trail and avoid the crowds because there are too many people the rest of the time. Some new users don’t understand the etiquette, and that can be a problem.”
The asphalt trail runs through urban and rural areas, from the Nauck neighborhood in Shirlington to Purcellville in Loudoun County.
Mark Whaley is the trail’s park-operation superintendent. He explained the trail never closed during the pandemic, which has led to an increase in use.
“We don’t have any specific numbers and we haven’t done any study or anything, but we have seen a big uptick since the pandemic started,” Whaley said. “Many parks were closed. People wanted to get outside, and there was no other place to go. So the W&OD has been a great place for that. Everyone is there for the same type of understanding.”
Whaley said maybe the biggest increase in use has been more bikers, with many bikes being sold during the pandemic. He’s heard some users have stopped using the trail because it’s too crowded.
“It can be bumper-to-bumper out there sometime,” a Vienna user said.
Regular user Jody Patrick of Vienna said she has seen a big increase in walkers since mid-April when the weather turned nice. Patrick and her husband, Dick, walk and bike the trail multiple times a week. She also has seen more litter along the sides of the trail, especially facemasks.
“The volume is much higher and you see a lot of newbies and more families of multiple generations using the trail now,” said Patrick, the varsity girls high-school basketball coach at Flint Hill School. “Sometimes the challenge is the safety part and collisions on bikes because of the volume.”
Patrick kidded that she and Dick have been dubbed the “running couple of the W&OD” by another user they see on a consistent basis.
“We are blessed to have such a great trail like this,” Patrick said.
Arlington resident Chris Holland started riding bikes on the trail in 1987 when he attended high school at South Lakes in Reston. He still uses the W&OD often, including multiple trips in early August, riding from the Bluemont Park neighborhood in Arlington to Waters Field in Vienna to do the scorekeeping for the Arlington Post 139 baseball team in post-season tournament action.
With so much use now, one of the biggest concerns Holland sees is the crossing, or choke points, at busy intersections like Route 123 in Vienna and at Lee Highway and in Rosslyn in Arlington.
“People got bunched up big at those spots. Then when it’s time to cross, it can be like the start of a busy marathon race,” Holland said.
Holland said he has seen more activity on the trail in various manners, like dog walking, young children riding bikes and families gathering.
“I was riding one Saturday from Arlington to Reston, and I almost saw two or three accidents on bikes. With the increased volume, it’s much easier for wheels of bikes to touch when they get too close,” Holland said.
Longtime Arlington runner and race director Jay Jacob Wind said the W&OD trail through Bluemont Park has become especially busy. The trail has become so crowded, Wind did his own quick count of users.
“I counted a dozen users per minute, compared to five a minute in the same spot before the pandemic,” Wind said.
Officials with the trail, in August broke ground for a 1.5-mile stretch of “dual-use” trail in Falls Church. The project, which officials hope will be replicated on other portions as funds become available, will give bike riders and walkers/joggers/runners their own separate lanes.
A similar effort has been proposed for a two-mile stretch of the trail in Arlington, but has been held up by county officials after the proposal came under attack from some environmental activists. The W&OD trail occupies the footprint of the former Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, operated from the 1850s to 1968. The first conversion to trail use came in 1975 in Falls Church.