Last week, Washington Post reporters raced each other by car and public transportation along several typical commuter routes. Today's report compares commuting by car and subway and (it was intended) by bus and subway from the Kettering development east of the Capital Centre in Prince George's County to the Department of Transportation in Southwest Washington.
Start: 8:03 a.m. at Kettering Drive and Central Avenue in Largo, Prince George's County.
Finish: DOT building at 7th and D Streets SW.
Car: 37 minutes.
Car and subway: 48 minutes.
Bus and subway: Disqualified.
It was 8:03 a.m. and chilly when I reached the stop for the T-11 Metro-bus at Central Avenue and Kettering Drive.
I saw the bus immediately: two enormous wheels, some lights and exhaust. In other words, I saw the back of the bus. I was not supposed to see the back of the bus at 8:03. In fact, according to the Metro schedule (verified by a later call to Metro headquarters), I was not supposed to see the front of the bus until 8:09.
With the next bus not due for another 30 minutes, I decided that I had to resort to some other means of transportation. Walking was out of the question for many reasons, one being that Central Avenue does not have sidewalks. Bicycling might have worked if only I had a bicycle.
In desperation, I stuck out my thumb.
At 8:12, a young man in a dark blue sports car pulled onto the gravel shoulder to pick me up. "I'm going to the D.C. Armory," said I. "Can't get you that far," said he. "I'm going to the Beltway." It was the right direction, at least, so I got in.
Six minutes later, I was dumped from his car at the Capital Beltway entrance ramp. At 8:21, an orange pick-up truck (International orange, it was) responded to my feeble hitching gesture.
"Hop in, pal," said a friendly old man. "Late for work, huh?"
"Yup, missed the bus. The damn thing left early. I was standing there at the bus stop at 8:03 waiting for the 8:09, but the 8:09 was an 8:02, or at least acting like one."
"My wife has had the same trouble. She sits in the house until the last minute, then races down to the bus stop. Usually, she makes it. Sometimes she don't.
"Well, I was there 6 minutes early.
"Yup. You know, myself, I haven't been on the inside of a bus or subway or cab for 20 years."
The friendly old man slowed his orange pick-up. In front of him, moving at perhaps 12 m.p.h., was a yellow caterpillar tractor.
"See that beauty?" he asked.
I look around for a woman, then realized he was talking about the Caterpillar.
"Know what one of them will cost ya?
"It'll tear the hell out of $100,000. Tear the hell out of it."
The friendly old man was slowing down again, pulling over to the side. He had told me that this was as far as he was going. And there I was, still on Central Avenue, still a few blocks outside the city limits of Washington. It was 8:32.
Well, I thought, as I stood on the side of the road and watched a bunch of kids dart across the street on their way to school, no more Mister Nice Guy. I was ready to pull out all the stops. I was ready to take a taxi.
At 8:35, a black-and-white cab came down the street. I waved at it. I could see the whites of the cabby's teeth. He was smiling at me. That means he wasn't going to stop. At 8:39, another taxi appeared. This time, it was a simple shake of the head. Finally at 8:43, a third taxi came by. It stopped for me.
The first thing I noticed when I got inside the cab was the meter. I couldn't help but notice it. For one thing it was right there on the dash, taking up the room where my knees would have liked to have been. For another thing, it was ticking. I didn't know they had metered cabs around the nation's capital.
"I notice you're metered," said I.
"Yup. I'm a P.G. cabbie. We got meters. So do the cabbies in Virginia. I couldn't drive one of these in the District. They zone it there. Don't know how they make any money."
Money, I thought, as we crossed the Anacostia River. The meter read $2.60 already. The ticks grew louder.
By 9.05, we had reached the Capitol. 'Never been to that waddaya-call-it plaza," said the cabbie, referring to L'Enfant Plaza. "How do you get there from here?"
Never ever, had I heard such words from a cabbie. Particularly from a metered cabbie. They always know how to get there from here, even if they have to rack up a few extra bucks in doing so.
"Let's see," he finally said. "Around 12th Street (SW), right."
It was 9.13 when the cabbie pulled over to the curb on a bridge above the railroad tracks. We were in the maze of federal buildings that call themselves a plaza. But we were not at DOT. And, I realized, to get there from here would require another circuit of where-am-I-driving. Not to mention another $1.20 on the meter, which at this point read $6.20.
"This is fine. This is great," I said. I gave him a ten. He gave me four ones back. I stuffed them in my coat and jumped out of the cab.
"I ran over the bridge, past a branch of Riggs National Bank, past a religious mission. I looked up at the tall buildings and saw, inside the windows, hundreds of bureaucrats already at their desk. Many were reading the paper, which is what I wanted to be doing. I ran past that weird U-shaped building. I ran across the street and into the plaza of the Department of Transportation. It was 9.20 a.m.