“Not only can it not be done, we should not try it,” said Ron Kirby, transportation planning coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Ten years ago, people fled after a terrorist attack; in January, they tried to escape a particularly treacherous winter storm; and this week, they headed home en masse after an earthquake.
Each of those events provided emergency planners with a fresh template for improvement and underscored the futility of an unstructured exodus from the city.
“You can just look at the evacuations that are taking place for the hurricane that’s approaching to see that in most cases they take several days,” said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews, who chairs the Emergency Preparedness Council, a regional committee under the Council of Governments.
Information stream vital
No matter the event that encourages people to flee, Kirby and Andrews agree that providing the public with a steady stream of information about conditions is an essential component.
“You should never try to tell people what they ought to do, because all of their circumstances are different,” Kirby said, “but if you give them very good timely information, they are going to make their own decisions in ways, in general, that are going to be better for them and better for the system as a whole.”
Kirby, who commutes on Metro, said the Transit Authority should have provided better information. “None of us felt like we had adequate information on the service level at Metro until we were already jammed on the train,” he said.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the agency released information as soon as officials knew what level of service they would be able to provide — 43 minutes after the earthquake.
“We immediately put it out to the public through every communication channel — wire services, broadcast media, Facebook, Twitter and our Web site.”
He said Metro also shared information through transportation command centers in the District, Maryland and Virginia as well as the Council of Governments.
Rail riders experienced additional delays because crews had to inspect tracks, bridges and tunnels.
Andrews said a new regional Web site that will coordinate all available transportation information in real time is expected to be up and running this year.
Despite congestion and frustration on the roads, the people who track data on the region’s traffic said that Tuesday’s back-ups were no greater than what drivers experience during a heavy rush hour. It just began early.
“Once people began moving out, it was just a volume issue,” said Taran L. Hutchinson, facilitator at the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination center in Greenbelt.
A formal plan in works
After 9/11, people realized the importance of leaving the city quickly if terrorists unleash an attack.