A Scenic Commute by Foot

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A survey by the Brookings Institution rated the Washington region as the most walkable urban area in the country. Such findings are put to the test by Peter Owen, a lawyer and former chairman of a citizen advisory commission on transportation in Arlington. He works near Union Station and lives in Clarendon. Several times a week, he walks home. Owen has more than a half-dozen basic routes, which can take him across the Roosevelt, Memorial or Key bridge. I tagged along on Oct. 24. The temperature was in the mid-50s. The sun set at 6:17 p.m.

-- Robert Thomson

· Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building: We start walking from the plaza at 5 p.m. Owen is dressed in work clothes, wearing a jacket and tie, but the jacket will come off as we progress.

· Cross Massachusetts Avenue at Columbus Circle: It's a wide expanse with heavy traffic that many walkers complain about. It's destined for some pedestrian safety improvements.

· Across Capitol Hill's parks: The scenery is great, and the sidewalks are wide. The cool fall temperatures are fine for a brisk walk, but Owen will do this year-round.

· North of the Capitol Reflecting Pool: We're heading for the path along the Mall and past the Smithsonian museums. We encounter many other after-work walkers here, but their numbers will diminish as we continue.

· North of the Washington Monument: Since we live in a capital region where much of daily life is dominated by politics, I ask Owen if he is ideological about walking. Does he do it to prove a point? No, he says, he started doing it because it was fun. But he'll point out that much of our route reflects the 20th-century love affair with the automobile at the expense of other forms of transportation.

· Crossing Constitution: We're leaving the Mall and heading east into an area where we need to pay more attention to traffic. Capitol Hill was downhill and the Mall was flat, but we'll start to gain elevation slightly now.

· Along Virginia Avenue: Owen explains the choice of bridges. The Memorial Bridge route would take us through Arlington National Cemetery, which from April 1 to Sept. 30 closes at 7 p.m. At this time of year, it closes at 5 p.m., so we're too late to walk through it this night. Our route today wouldn't be a choice for the darker months. Once we cross the Potomac, I'll see why. The Key Bridge is the well-lighted way through Georgetown.

· Crossing over I-66: Owen knows this is the best route to reach the footpath on the north side of the Roosevelt Bridge, but the route is not marked by signs. Did he work out such routes on maps before taking them, or navigate by GPS? "I chose to get lost," he says. If anyone else tried this particular route, they must still be lost. No other walkers are on our course.

· Crossing Roosevelt Bridge: In the fading afternoon light, this is beautiful. We have got the gray-green river below, the Kennedy Center and Georgetown lighting up to the north and the elegant Memorial Bridge to the south. We have to be careful, though, because the path isn't wide enough for us to walk side by side and allow for passing cyclists.

· Bridge ramp toward George Washington Parkway: Almost every cyclist is equipped for visibility and follows safety rules, signaling to us before passing. They also are very polite and call out greetings. I remark that these are commuters, not casual riders. "These are my people," says Owen. "They're professionals." The car-free commuters stick together, it seems.

· North on the Mount Vernon Trail: I see why this isn't the best route when the sun sets early. We're in the woods, and it's really dark. A sign in a parking lot warns drivers not to leave valuables in their vehicles.

· North Lynn Street at Lee Highway: After crossing over the parkway on the trail bridge, we reach Rosslyn. That's the end of the woodsy scenery and the start of another zone where we'll need to pay close attention to motorists at intersections.

· Wilson Boulevard: This last part of the commute is the steepest. We go from 72 feet above sea level to 226 feet along the boulevard. (I'm glad we stop for a bottle of water.) Although we have just passed through some of the capital's best park views, the evening bustle of the Arlington street scene also has its charms.

· Court House Metro Station: Owen lives a few blocks away, so at 7 p.m., I peel off to return to Washington. It took us two hours to cover what I calculate is 5.76 miles of great views, good exercise and pleasant conversation.

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