Cherry blossom congestion: A rite of spring

Robert Thomson
Columnist March 15, 2013

Touring around the National Cherry Blossom Festival is somewhat like commuting around Washington. Sure, the views are a lot better, but the festival congestion can be overwhelming. Ask anyone who has walked around the Tidal Basin on a weekend day during the peak bloom: Do they remember more about the blossoms or more about the pedestrian jams?

But like the nightmare of D.C. traffic, the congestion around the festival depends on when and where you go. Cherry blossom season is more than a Tidal Basin stroll and a big parade on Constitution Avenue. It’s a string of events that travelers can manage with good planning.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

To get started, here are some activities that are likely to draw big crowds, and some tips for getting to them — or getting around them.

Events

The 2013 festival begins Wednesday and continues until April 14.

Saturday, March 23: Opening ceremony. Some events are held earlier, but the official opening, with its stage performances, will be 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. All tickets have been given out. The nearest Metrorail stations are Metro Center and Federal Triangle.

Saturday/Sunday, March 23-24: Family Days. There are a variety of indoor and outdoor activities for children and adults at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Nearest Metrorail stations: Gallery Place and Judiciary Square.

Friday, March 29: The Washington Nationals play an exhibition game against the New York Yankees at 2:05 p.m. at Nationals Park. Nearest Metrorail station: Navy Yard.

Saturday, March 30: Kite festival. Competitions and open kite-flying areas will draw many participants and spectators to the Washington Monument grounds from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This date depends on good weather, so watch for updates. Nearest Metrorail stations: Smithsonian and Federal Triangle. (This is likely to be the weekend closest to the peak bloom for the Tidal Basin, so Smithsonian station will be especially crowded.)

Monday, April 1: Nationals’ opening day against the Miami Marlins at 1:05 p.m. This will add to midday crowding on streets and bridges near South Capitol and M streets, and at Metro’s L’Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place transfer stations.

Saturday, April 6: Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival. Free music during the day at venues around Seventh and Water streets SW, and after sunset, fireworks on the Washington Channel. Nearest Metrorail stations: Waterfront and L’Enfant Plaza.

Sunday, April 7: Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run and 5K Run-Walk. From 7:30 to 11:30 a.m., starting and ending on the Washington Monument grounds. Nearest Metrorail stations: Smithsonian and Federal Triangle. The event, which draws about 15,000 preregistered runners, goes around the Tidal Basin and through East Potomac Park. Lincoln Memorial Circle and Independence Avenue near the Tidal Basin are good viewpoints.

Saturday, April 13: National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. The annual parade, a festival highlight, begins at 10 a.m. at Seventh Street NW and Constitution Avenue, going along Constitution to 17th Street NW, where it ends about noon. Nearest Metrorail stations: Archives and Federal Triangle.

How to get to the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin
Tips for travelers

Riding Metrorail. The transit authority notes that ridership can spike by 15 percent during blossom season, and the weekend ridership can approach weekday levels. Metro will suspend its weekend track work program from Saturday, March 23, through Sunday, April 14. Despite the crowding, taking Metrorail will almost always be better than driving to downtown Washington because of the traffic congestion.

On the escalators, do as we do: Stand to the right, and walk on the left. Don’t try to hold the train doors open. The operators get cranky about that, and sometimes they take the train out of service. Trains are especially crowded weekdays between 8 and 9 a.m., and between 4 and 6 p.m.

Metro fares. They’re higher than they were for last year’s blossom festival. Tourists who plan to make a few trips on a single day should consider buying a One-Day Pass for $14. The cost has gone up since last year, but there is no longer a restriction on what time of day the pass can be used.

Parking is free on weekends at the lots and garages operated by Metro. Drivers who park and ride on weekdays will need to have a SmarTrip card or credit card to pay at the exits of most parking areas. Use the SmarTrip cards to ride the trains and buses, too, rather than using the paper Farecards. People who use paper Farecards pay $1 extra on every trip.

Walking. Smithsonian is the Metro station closest to the Tidal Basin, but it’s jammed at blossom time. If you’re up for a little more walking, get off at L’Enfant Plaza, Federal Triangle or Foggy Bottom. For a great walk in good weather, get off the Blue Line at Arlington Cemetery station and cross the Potomac River on the Memorial Bridge, past the Lincoln Memorial to the Tidal Basin.

Consult visitor maps on downtown streets or the ones posted by the National Park Service around the Mall. Bus shelters often have maps to consult.

Smartphone apps. The National Cherry Blossom Festival (www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org) has a helpful app for mobile phones that includes a map and events calendar. Among other apps with walking maps: City Walks for Washington, D.C.; and the National Park Service National Mall and Memorial Parks app.

Biking. Capital Bikeshare has many bike stations along the Mall. See a map at www.capitalbikeshare.com. You can sign up to be a member for 24 hours, three days, a month or a year, then take a bike from any station. The first 30 minutes of each trip are free; riders pay an additional fee for every 30 minutes.

Riding around the Mall and East Potomac Park is delightful, but bike parking is limited. There is some parking near the Washington Monument and by the Jefferson Memorial.

Parking. Parking near the Tidal Basin during blossom time is extremely scarce, and traffic is heavy. Drivers can park at Hains Point and take a shuttle. Very limited parking for disabled people is available near the memorials.

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