Metro stations were packed for a while, drivers detoured around blocked streets, there were delays on the Red, Blue and Orange lines, motorcades whisked about town, people pedaled bicycles all over the place, and tourists were as perplexed as ever by the SmarTrip Card machines.
In the end, however, everyone seemed to get where they were going, a special-edition re-creation of the daily miracle that delivers people to their destinations in one of the most congested cities in America.
It was Inauguration Day and a federal holiday, so the mix of people roaming downtown Washington was different than any other Monday. Most out-of-towners who ventured back for their second Obama inauguration said smaller crowds made this one easier to navigate than the one in 2009.
“It seemed like Metro was better equipped this time and people were better prepared,” said Tonya Albert. “I have been pleasantly surprised.”
“It was pretty painless,” her husband, Brian, added as they entered Metro’s Capitol South station after the ceremony.
Metro said there were 657,000 riders entering the rail system by 6 p.m., compared with 923,000 during the same period four years ago.
With the federal workforce observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, the cordon that blocked traffic access to the swath of downtown that straddles the Mall didn’t cause the gridlock it would have on any other weekday, but it was a headache for some who ignored warnings against driving into town.
There were plenty of first-time Metro riders trying to navigate the mysteries of the nation’s second-busiest subway system. Despite repeated warnings from Metro about buying and loading SmarTrip cards in advance, people lined up 10 deep at Farecard machines in some stations. In New Carrollton, men in yarmulkes waited behind naval officers in dress uniforms, behind African American women in fur coats, behind families with small children.
A woman in a red knit cap was stymied by the SmarTrip card reader.
“Tap it on top,” a station manager told her. She waved her red-mittened hand over the reader. “Tap it, tap it, with the card,” the manager implored, until the woman realized she needed to wave the card over the reader, not just her hand.
“What do you think, you have special powers?”he asked, as they both laughed.
As people headed in to the inauguration from outlying stations, confusion over invitations that specified where people should get on the train resulted in a mob scene at the Federal Center SW station.
Transit officials said roughly 105,000 inaugural tickets had Federal Center printed on them.
After the ceremony, police and Metro workers only let about 10 people at a time into Federal Center to prevent riders from overwhelming the small station. The backup was exacerbated by signal problems that delayed trains.
Faulty escalators caused a jam of passengers trying to enter the L’Enfant Plaza station.
“This is stupid,” said Antonio Christian of San Leandro, Calif., looking at the mass of people on an Orange Line train to New Carrollton, where he had parked his car.
Despite slow-moving lines at the Judiciary Square station, folks were in relative good humor.
“People were in a really good mood,” said Saeeta Spriggs, 35, as she and Jacquelyn Claude, 35, savored their first inauguration.
The pair had traveled from Newport News, and despite the crush that greeted them as they headed back to a hotel in Rockville, they were sanguine.
“This is just part of the day,” Claude said.