Crowded but Moving Toward the Mall

By Eric M. Weiss and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The crush of inauguration attendees pushed the region's transit system to its limit yesterday, with many riders waiting several hours to board packed trains and miles-long traffic jams for coveted spots at Metro's parking structures, but the agency managed to handle the largest crowd in the city's history.

A woman fell off the platform and was pushed to safety at Gallery Place, closing the Red Line for about 45 minutes, but the agency still got passengers where they needed to go.

People, hundreds of whom had lined up before dawn, waited several hours at some stations, including West Falls Church and New Carrollton, for trains to the city. By midmorning, officials had closed one downtown station because of the crush. As people tried to leave the Mall following the swearing-in, L'Enfant Plaza and other nearby stations swelled with riders. By 6 p.m., Metro officials said, ridership had hit 930,772, already a record with eight hours of service to go.

Virginia Railway Express also had its highest ridership day ever.

Attendees also arrived by the thousands by bus, church van, bicycle and foot.

And for the most part, the regional transportation plan outlined by officials worked as it was supposed to. But the sheer numbers -- the largest inaugural crowd in history -- caused problems: long waits for buses, huge lines to enter and exit stations, and trains swollen with passengers that bypassed crowded platforms.

Attendees were confronted with an unprecedented plan that closed major highways and all bridges from Virginia into the District to regular traffic. The plan was so complex that many charged with carrying it out were confused. The worst gridlock was caused by pedestrians, and problems were exacerbated, attendees said, by limited and conflicting information.

"All I want to do is go to my hotel and watch the parade," attendee Sam Harte said. "So far today, I haven't seen anything but cops and concrete barriers."

National Guard troops charged with checking the identification of drivers entering security zones downtown enforced the rules sporadically, if at all. Officials on the ground were just as confused as the out-of-towners.

One District police sergeant at 17th and H streets NW was exasperated from trying to answer questions from hundreds of befuddled visitors. "I need a big, fat 'I don't know' stripped right across my chest, man," he said.

In some places, officers stopped trying to manage the crowds as pedestrians ignored orders to stay on the sidewalks and climbed over concrete barriers for shortcuts.

As people poured out of clogged arteries leading from the Mall before the parade, several onlookers were trapped in narrow human alleyways at the Washington Monument. "I think I'm being crushed!" one woman yelled as a throng of people tried to navigate a two-foot-wide space between a chain-link fence and the monument.

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