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Wanted: A Miracle of Compression

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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You were amused by a YouTube video of 19 boys crammed into a car the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

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You were awed by photographs of 25 students from South Africa stuffed in a telephone booth built for one.

Now, be prepared to have your mind boggled and blown as the nation's capital tries to squeeze 2 million to 4 million people onto a 2 1/2 -mile swath called the National Mall. Come one and all to the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

See more people packed between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial than were joined at the hip on Copacabana beach in Rio when Rod Stewart drew 3.5 million people for the biggest rock concert of all time.

Never before has such a feat been attempted on such a small plot of U.S. soil. Garth Brooks in Central Park drew only 750,000. Then again, there's never been a star like Obama.

"We're being very realistic in terms of telling people that the weekend will be extremely crowded," Steven Taubenkibel, a spokesman for the Metro system, told me recently. "On inaugural day, we're expecting eight consecutive hours of crush capacity."

Six weeks out, and you can already feel the tension.

Metro rail cars, which ordinarily hold 140 passengers, could max out at 160, Taubenkibel said. On the other hand, if 19 boys can cram into a four-seater, then expect 200 to cram into a Metro car. And that could feel more like 300 when people are dressed in winter coats and carrying backpacks and babies. Oh, wait! Backpacks and diaper bags aren't allowed.

The chills and spills don't stop there.

"The parade route will be completely filled way before the inaugural speech even happens," D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty told reporters recently. "That's something people will have to think about, whether they want to see the parade firsthand or see the inaugural swearing-in and speech. You can't do both."

And you might not get to do either.

For now, France holds the world record for longest traffic jam -- 180 miles from Paris to Lyon in 1980. But that could easily fall next month, and you could be part of the reason. The Capital Beltway alone is 64 miles around. Multiply that by eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper tour buses, RVs, SUVs, stretch limos, taxis and trucks, and you've got at least a million people stuck on 512 miles of concentric circles even before Obama can say, "I do solemnly swear."


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