Arlington’s trails are a welcome respite from the noise and traffic of the street. They draw thousands of daily users from the whole of Arlington’s citizenry. Unfortunately that includes some of its lesser element, who take advantage of Arlington’s open and engaging nature.
While violent and serious crimes are incredibly rare on Arlington’s trails, this week brought us an awful reminder that it is possible. While this shouldn’t turn us away from our welcoming approach to our neighbors, we do need to stay alert.
So in the spirit of expecting the best while preparing for the worst, trail users – especially those who feel vulnerable – should take affirmative steps to stay safe.
Among the most effective steps when using the trails alone is choosing a trail with lots of traffic. In Arlington this includes the Mount Vernon, Custis, and Washington & Old Dominion trails. Even among these, however, care should be taken along the less-traveled tributary trails sometimes used to access them.
Trail users should also stay visible. Those dressed in bright or reflective colors not only help others see them on the trail, but make themselves more visible if forced off of the trail. Personally, I’ve taken to carrying a small blinking light when running on the trails at dusk or night.
One key component of staying alert is being able to hear the environment around you. If you can’t be convinced to leave your earbuds at home, try at least leaving the left earbud out. Don’t convince yourself that you can hear through the music just fine. You really can’t.
Arlington County has placed numbered markers along many of its trails. Take note of these, as well as any nearby emergency telephones (particularly if you don’t carry a cell phone). It’s remarkably easy to be unable to relate where you are, relative to the street grid, on a trail. The numbers are on orange, yellow or blue reflective squares. Look for these markers the next time you’re out.
Trust your own sense of danger. Is that person sitting at the edge of the trail making you uncomfortable? Turn around. Does that connector trail seem a bit dark to you? Take the long way home. Jogger behind you too close? Change your own pace.
Finally, remember that keeping our trails safe is the responsiblity of the entire community, and you are part of it. If you see something that doesn't seem quite right, err on the side of examination and assistance. I'd far rather have to awkwardly explain why I stuck my head into someone's business than find myself reading about a violent attack and realizing that I heard something but thought it was probably nothing.
Arlington’s trails are, to be sure, wonderful places worthy of many of our recreational hours. But as much as it often feels like Arlington exists in some kind of bubble of safety, we still face unfortunate risks from time to time. So continue to enjoy those trails along with your neighbors. Just do it carefully.
Speaking of trails, the Washington Boulevard Trail extension is a big step forward in providing a much needed off-street connection between Arlington's northern and southern ends. I'll write more about it soon, but this piece from Along the Pike does a good job of laying out the case for the extension (which is under a rather misinformed attack from a small — but vocal — group of opponents).
Also, this past weekend brought a lot of trees down onto the trails. While I regularly (and justifibly) give Arlington County a lot of criticism for its inability to clear the trails in the winter, they deserve a lot of credit for getting the major trails clear of trees before the weekend was done. Many thanks to the crews that made it happen.
Mark Blacknell is chairman of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.