The paths of least resistance when walking from D.C. to Virginia

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 27, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I would love to have a map showing several possible routes from downtown Washington to my home, just south of Old Town, and other walking routes. I am in my late 60s, with some limitations.

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

The day of the 2011 earthquake, I had taken the Yellow Line to Gallery Place for my volunteer day at Catholic Charities. Our building was evacuated. I had a hat, water and good shoes, so I set out trying to get a bus or cab, with a backup plan of walking to the Pentagon, where I knew there were a lot of buses toward my home.

I occasionally walk a mile and a quarter to the Metro, but not regularly. On Earthquake Day, I could not get a bus or cab and kept walking what I would guess was five or six miles, from Ninth and G streets NW to the Pentagon bus area, and waited a long time for a bus.

I came over the Arlington Memorial Bridge, generally followed the parkway and started cutting across to the Pentagon. I think I walked for an extra half-hour because I did not know how to do it. At the Pentagon, I waited a long time for a bus. If I absolutely had to, I could have walked all the way home. The weather was perfect.

I was stiff the next few days but figured that if there were a major emergency, I could walk it again.

My biggest problem was trying to figure out where to walk when I got near the Pentagon. I do not have a smartphone, but even walkers with smartphones could not get walking routes around the Pentagon area when they could get phone service.

There were streets blocked off near the Washington Monument, and at the time, no one could say which ones or why. So, alternative routes are necessary in these kinds of situations, and we could face much worse.

Angela Anderson, Alexandria

DG: Just as I did when Alice Cave of Alexandria began our discussion of commuter walking routes, I went to the walking directions on Google Maps to find some advice for Anderson, although I think her urban survival skills are top tier.

If she heads home on foot, she might consider crossing the Potomac River via the 14th Street bridge rather than the Arlington Memorial Bridge. That would probably be a shorter route to the Pentagon and home, depending on what obstacles she faces along the way.

When people think about walking over bridges, they’re more likely to think about the Memorial or Key. But the 14th Street bridge works, too. So does the Roosevelt Bridge. Although the latter are off-putting in appearance, consider a tip I once got from a veteran walking commuter, Peter Owen of Arlington County. He told me it was better to walk across the ugly bridges and look across the water at the pretty ones, rather than vice versa.

The 14th Street bridge is formed from so many spaghetti strands that it’s difficult to pick out the walkway, so it’s best to guide on the Jefferson Memorial, and look for the bridge walkway on its south side.

Once you reach the Virginia bank, it’s easy to pick up the Mount Vernon Trail for the trek all the way down past the Capital Beltway. For Anderson, the entire walking route would be about 9 1 / 2 miles. It probably would take more than three hours.

From the Virginia side of the 14th Street bridge, the Pentagon seems so near, but the walking route is convoluted, heading north over the Humpback Bridge, into Lady Bird Johnson Memorial Park and across a footbridge to Boundary Channel Drive before reaching the bus depot.

If Anderson planned to go no farther afoot than the Pentagon bus stop, she might well be better off using the Memorial Bridge, so she could pick up the path south along Washington Boulevard, following a fishhook route around the west side of the Pentagon Metro station.

That’s a slightly shorter route to the station than the one using the 14th Street bridge, and probably easier to follow.

Printing out a map with Google, Mapquest or a similar online map tool is a useful support for another Earthquake Day. Pocket maps are less than $10. I like the Streetwise map of the Washington area for its clarity, and because it’s laminated.

We are a tourist town, so in a pinch, locals could swallow their hometown pride and check one of the visitor maps posted across downtown or look for one of the National Park Service maps around the Mall. And bus shelters often have maps to consult, even if you don’t plan on using the bus.

Low-rise Washington makes it easy to use the high-rise Washington Monument as a guidepost. From there, a determined walker can find the Jefferson Memorial for the 14th Street bridge path, the Lincoln Memorial for the Arlington Memorial Bridge walkway or the Kennedy Center to reach the path on the upriver side of the Roosevelt Bridge.

So far, most of our discussion about walking commutes has been about getting across the Potomac River, so I’m curious to hear from anyone who takes a long walk within the District, between downtown and the Maryland suburbs, or from community to community within Maryland.

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