Inauguration transportation system did well, but persistent trouble spots could be eased

Robert Thomson
Columnist January 26, 2013

This letter came in just before Inauguration Day, and I used it to compare and contrast how the D. C. region’s transportation network handled the crowds of 2009 and 2013.

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

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I was interested to see in [the Jan. 20 column] that you followed the same strategy for inauguration-watching in 2009 that I did: Taking the train to Arlington Cemetery and walking across Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial. That morning was frigid but majestic.

But I’m writing to talk about my experience after the 2009 inauguration when I left the Mall. The shutdown of streets and bridges was a nightmare. I got caught on mobbed Independence Avenue, where if there had been a panic, people could have been stamped.

I eventually made it to what I thought would be a lightly used entrance to L’Enfant Plaza Metro. A thousand people were there, coming from every direction, and the entrance was shut anyway.

I began a trek back toward the 14th Street bridge, but it was still shut to pedestrians. I was feeling the cold, but had reconciled with walking back to Memorial Bridge, when the police opened the HOV lanes on the 14th Street bridge to pedestrians. I joined an exodus along that empty span to Pentagon City . . . before a trip home on Metro.

Now, that crowd was of historic proportions. But the crowd control and precautions for the safety of the throngs were sorely lacking. Much of this stems from the idiocy of barring people from crossing Pennsylvania Avenue, even though the parade does not start until two hours after the oath-takings.

You mentioned that they eased up on the bridge closings this time. With the size of the crowd cut in half, and with temperatures in the 40s, everything may go more smoothly Monday. But we dodged a bullet in 2009, averting a potential soccer stadium/rock concert stampede only by happenstance or dumb luck.

— Chris Connell, Alexandria

The crowd was much smaller this time, and the tension points after the inauguration were somewhat less tense than in 2009 — but they were the same tension points for the same reasons.

Overall, I give transportation and security planners an A for handling these two enormous and challenging events. The one traffic problem I observed came at the fringes of the security zone, where pedestrians who had gotten used to walking in streets and ignoring traffic signals suddenly confronted oncoming cars.

The more liberal plan for the river crossings matched up well with this year’s needs. (I wish more pedestrians and cyclists could have joined me on the Arlington Memorial Bridge this time. It was quite lonely on the bridge and by the Lincoln Memorial in the hours before the swearing-in.)

The most unfortunate link between 2009 and 2013 was the crowding and confusion south of the Mall around Seventh Street SW and L’Enfant Plaza after the inauguration. With Pennsylvania Avenue again shut down, Monday was a repeat of the 2009 scene that Connell described.

Crowding is inevitable, but is the confusion? People need to know what they can do if thwarted in reaching their first goal, as when access to the L’Enfant Plaza and Federal Center SW Metro stations was temporarily blocked for safety. More signs and bigger signs would help. Many people had no idea they could continue south to Waterfront station.

Others around Seventh and D streets SW could have followed the virtual pedestrian Beltway around to Capitol South Metro station or moved north on Second Street SE/NE. But they didn’t know that.

Fortunately, confusion did not lead to crisis. Attribute that to the helpfulness and professionalism of transit and safety personnel, and to the patience and flexibility of the public.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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