Greater Greater Washington

Tourmobile dies, but exclusivity was the real villain

The Tourmobile is ending service October 31, Lydia DePillis reports. Some City Paper commenters are shouting hallelujah, but this isn't really cause for celebration and certainly doesn't mean the end of NPS problems.


Photo by jng03 on Flickr.

It's not like the goal of people calling for reform was to kill the Tourmobile. It wasn't that the Tourmobile was a bad service, per se. I never used it, so I can't say whether it gave a good tour or a poor one, but there wasn't anything wrong with a $32 interpretive tour if some people wanted one.

Rather, the problem was the Tourmobile's exclusive contract which prohibits other kinds of transportation. NPS's model was to sign one concession contract for a type of service. For many years, that meant that the Circulator couldn't run on the Mall and NPS wouldn't even put up signs pointing to its stops.

The Tourmobile's former owner, Tom Mack, did his share of lobbying against the Circulator, which gave residents plenty to hate about the service, but it was NPS which kept renewing the contract year after year (possibly illegally).

The Park Service could go one of several ways at this point. They could sign a new exclusive contract with a different provider, even the Circulator. That would serve most Mall transportation needs much better. But it might not meet the needs of those who want a tour.

And what if another kind of transportation arises? For example, NPS officials explained their harassment of pedicabs as necessary to protect the exclusive contract. They're now devising new pedicab rules, but if a future new transportation service wants to run on the Mall, would NPS simply say that's not possible because the only transportation can now be Circulator buses and pedicabs, nothing else?

NPS should instead take a different tack, where future concession contracts give an operator the right to provide a service but still allow NPS to allow other services of a similar type, but which serve different market segments, just as a $1 bus and a $32 tour serve different market segments.

The same should go for food vending, bicycling and more. NPS rejected a proposed farmers' market in Rawlins Park, on E Street west of the White House, saying it conflicted with the vending contracts for hot dogs over on the Mall. We've gotten conflicting reports from NPS and spokesperson Bill Line (who continues to not reply to any emails) about reasons for rejecting Capital Bikeshare, but one is that their all-day bike rental contract interferes.

Fresh produce for office workers does not conflict with snacks for tourists, and all-day recreational bike rental isn't the same as point-to-point bike sharing. The concession policies should generally recognize that a large and diverse area like the Mall, not to mention the small neighborhood parks, could benefit from more than one kind of transportation, more than one type of food, and so on.

Update: Lydia points out an important nuance, that as far as we can tell, NPS's contract wasn't actually exclusive, or at least wasn't as exclusive as they claim. They probably could have allowed Circulator (except Mack got a few Congressional Republicans to shoot warning glances at NPS across a hearing table), and the farmers' market, and pedicabs, and Capital Bikeshare.

Guest Services, the food and bicycle master concessionaire, told Joey Katzen that NPS hadn't even talked to them about whether they'd object to CaBi. In other words, this exclusivity thing seems to be as much an excuse as a real problem. Or, if there is an actual law making Circulator, CaBi, farmers' markets, etc. impermissible, NPS was never willing to explain it.

Bottom line: What's dying is the Tourmobile, but what really needs to die is NPS's argument that the transportation concession must be exclusive, whether or not it ever really had to.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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I still still little to nothing in the Tourmobile contract that would prohibit transit. Interpretative transit, but not transit.

by charlie on Sep 6, 2011 9:48 am • linkreport

What's the deal with those double-decker buses you see around town? Do they offer interpretative tours?

by Juanita de Talmas on Sep 6, 2011 9:53 am • linkreport

Any word on why Tourmobile is dying? Afraid of competition?

by Jasper on Sep 6, 2011 10:16 am • linkreport

Wow, they can never please you guys. The extreme idealist mentality that most of the posters on this blog seem to have is a little disturbing. Realism and compromise are virtually absent from *most* posts on this site. Even if DC was the urban utopia that you guys so relentlessly seek with non-hybrid cars abolished, everyone riding bikes, speeders and pedestrian crosswalk violators going to jail for life, parkland covering 90% of the city, the NPS shut down, etc. you guys still probably wouldn't be happy.

by Really? on Sep 6, 2011 10:44 am • linkreport

@Jasper - My take is that the death of Tourmobile represents, more than anything else, the success of improvements in the perception of (and the reality of) public safety in DC. Whereas fifteen years ago many, many visitors to Washington from outside the region perceived DC as an unsafe, crime-ridden wasteland and thus flocked to Tourmobile as a secure and generic way to navigate to principal tour sites, today even my most paranoid relatives from the heartland believe that they can get around by foot, Circulator, and Metro without being shot or mugged. And so the premium pricing, constrained service model provided by Tourmobile is much less attractive.

I've also noticed that one of Tourmobile's big draws, the fact that its vehicles are permitted to tour through Arlington Cemetery -- which, given the distances and hills is a huge feature in the heat of summer, seems to figure less in the plans of people coming to DC. That is, fewer friends and relatives list Arlington Cemetery as one of their "must-do" places. I'm not sure why (repeat visitors see it as a "do it once" attraction, people want to avoid thinking about ongoing wars, a fading of President Kennedy in importance in people's memories, the WWII memorial as a draw for people thinking about war dead?). I suspect that's hurt Tourmobile as well.

And it does seem that the aggressiveness of competition has increased, forcing Tourmobile to do more discount offers, coupons, etc.

My $.02, although I have been wondering for a while about Tourmobile's continued viability.

by Arl Anon on Sep 6, 2011 10:48 am • linkreport

BTW, that is the coldest firing letter I have ever seen.

... a plant is closing ...
... at this location ...
... thank you for your service ...

It does not actually say that the employees who get this letter are fired. Weasels.

by Jasper on Sep 6, 2011 10:49 am • linkreport

@Really? REALLY? What have you been reading?

I agree with DA. There's no reason for Tourmobile to die, they just need not be the exclusive bus provider. Perhaps Tourmobile knew, that without exclusivity, they could not remain profitable.

Non-exlusive contracts are probably the best choice, given consumers, both residents and tourists alike, options, rather than being tied to a single service.

by cmc on Sep 6, 2011 10:51 am • linkreport

@ Arl Anon: Sure. I was just wondering if they'd given another reason than that their "plant is closing".

by Jasper on Sep 6, 2011 10:51 am • linkreport

@Jasper; Tourmobile is closing because NPS did not renew their contract. The letter is intended for unemployment income.

by charlie on Sep 6, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

@Jasper: I have a feeling competition has something to do with it.

I used to work for a tour company here in town, and that's made me aware of the pluses and minuses of the various day tours on offer. And honestly, Tourmobile has always struck me as the least competitive of the major ones. It does offer live narration, yes, but I think its relatively small area of coverage has hampered it a great deal. Consider: the only difference between it and the other tours around the Mall is that the other tours are forced to drop people off on the outside of the Mall, rather than on the inside. And the two big ones of which I am thinking both offer greater coverage of the city, which is appealing to a lot of people.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Sep 6, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

@cmc: That's pretty much what I'm trying to say, too. Tourmobile is closing because it's not made itself viable; if the gates are opened to competition it won't survive.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Sep 6, 2011 10:56 am • linkreport

@ Jasper and others:

The Tourmobile is shutting down because NPS has decided not to renew their contract, which expires December 31st. Since they obviously do most of their business during the spring, summer, and fall, they have decided to cease operations October 31st. No reason for them to keep operating in November and December, if they're going to lose money.

The letter may be cold, but it is a legal requirement. I believe there's a federal plant closing law that was enacted in the early 1980's that requires employers to provide a minimum advance written notice and other information. It can also be used when applying at DOES for unemployment compensation.

I'm sad for Tourmobile employees, but I am hopeful this will lead to better transit options around the mall and tourist core. Paying $96 for a family of four to take a bus from Smithsonian American History to Air and Space is simply not reasonable. Or from American HIstory to Air and Space to the Lincoln Memorial. But four bucks - or even six - would work like a charm.

David is right. We need more buses and more transit options for those who visit and use the Mall and nearby attractions.

by Mike S. on Sep 6, 2011 11:09 am • linkreport

The greatest irony would be if Capital Bikeshare bought the old tourmobiles and used them to rebalance bikes. If not, I want one - fully loaded of course.

by David C on Sep 6, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

What will happen to the Tourmobile facility in Potomac Park? Address is given as 1000 Ohio Dr SW, but I think it's on Buckeye Dr? http://g.co/maps/49j3

by Michael on Sep 6, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport

@ Jasper

The letter is a federal requirement of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which was passed by Congress in 1988 by a veto proof majority. President Reagan didn't sign it, but it became law and took effect in 1989. The purpose of the law was to give workers and factory towns a little bit of advance notice before a plant closing.

The law requires businesses with more than 100 full-time employees to provide 60 days warning before closing (with a few expections), and to provide information on such things as bumping rights, a company contact, etc;

Think of it as something like reading about-to-be-let-go employees their Miranda rights. There's a standard way of doing it, and most folks use the standard way. That's what they did here.

by Mike S. on Sep 6, 2011 11:49 am • linkreport

The value of Tourmobile was that it was a combination of tour and transit - you could get on and off at will, and hear a little tour guide spiel en route. My parents used to have our family visitors take Tour Mobile rather than taking them ourselves - it went everywhere they wanted to go with out the confines of a formal tour. Also, it was a great way to cover the great distances on the Mall regardless of the summer heat. (And I don't think physical safety was ever really an issue, just the safety of a predictable service.) Obviously it was never functional for the user who just wanted to go a few blocks, but it is too bad that it will end. Even if the Ciculator is allowed to provide service, it won't be quite the same.

by ZZinDC on Sep 6, 2011 12:04 pm • linkreport

@ZZinDC:

That was the value when it started. But other companies have stepped in to provide the same service - the chief difference is that Tourmobile is allowed to stop at certain stops which the others have not been granted.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Sep 6, 2011 12:55 pm • linkreport

I do feel bad for the Tourmobile employees who will be out of a job, and hope that they will recover from this setback quickly.

However, I must say that it appears as if Tourmobile (management) did this to itself. Basically, it completely relied on an exclusive contract to remain viable. Not good business sense at all because you can lose the contract at any time (as we just witnessed). Why DIDN'T Tourmobile use its early profits to expand to the rest of the city (like those double-decker buses)? Build a mini DC-tourism empire?

Instead of embracing the capitalist spirit, they took the easy (and kind of shady) way out--get a (government-issued) monopoly, charge outrageous prices, intimidate anyone or anything who poses a threat (pedicabs, bikeshare, public transit). They didn't even really advertise much, and were practically hidden from sight in Union Station!

Worse? They couldn't stay quiet about this "business plan". If they (via NPS) had just quietly allowed bikeshare and pedicabs which I really believe posed no huge threat to Tourmobile (10% of potential Tourmobile riders....Circulator would have been much more serious of a threat, indeed), the City Paper article may have never happened. But fighting against an increasingly popular service (bikeshare) and having your government goons tase your competition...Bad Plan.

by Catherine on Sep 6, 2011 1:00 pm • linkreport

What will become of access to Arlington National Cemetery? It's run by the Department of the Army, not the NPS. Unlike Tourmobile's route in DC, the roads within the cemetery are closed to private vehicles, including double-decker tour buses, pedicabs, and private cyclists. The cemetery is large and hilly, and many visitors have difficulty exploring the terrain on foot.

I actually like the cute little trams driving through our touristy areas; it's like a touch of Disneyland. For folks who just want easy access between tourist sights, a tram is a good solution. The problem was their pricing was prohibitively expensive ($32!) for many people. And as the post points out, the bigger problem is NPS's management, using the Tourmobile contract as an excuse to forbid other ventures, and even as an excuse for park police to behave like assholes and attack pedicab drivers with tasers.

So, we need a little reform of Tourmobile, and a LOT of reform at NPS HQ.

by Michael on Sep 6, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

@Michael:

To some extent, I have a feeling that this will become a case of "if you build it, they will come". Someone will step in to fill the void, if there are enough people who want the service.

As for the NPS...well, let me just say that when I was still with the tour company I saw enough of their decisions that I was really rather curious as to the rationale behind them. And leave it at that, for the nonce. :-)

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Sep 6, 2011 3:51 pm • linkreport

I remember giving tours at a facility in D.C. and having Tourmbile guides show up asking for tours for visiting family members and friends, something we'd gladly do as they provided us with discounts for visitors as reciprocity t a colleague "in the business." Tourmobile uides used to tell their own family members that Tourmobile trips were the best way to see and learn about parts of D.C. that most visitors want to see. And they were right. Their guides were smart, informative, friendly and customer/visitor oriented, considerably more interesting and knowledgeable than others.

Something the Tourmbile guides taught me: Take the entire trip first, not getting off. That way you can decide where you actually want to get off and visit, not just getting off at the first place, then hopping back on, getting off at the second place, and then running out of time before you reached where you actually would have liked to visit.

I like Tourmobile and I'll miss it.

by Dun Garees on Sep 8, 2011 10:47 pm • linkreport

As a former employee of Tourmobile (guide, driver, supervisor) in the late 1980s, I might be able to provide some insight.

For many years Tourmobile was the only major tour operation in town. In the mid-80s, Old Town Trolley and Gray Line started or increased their operations in the city. Gray Line's claim to fame was their cushy, climate-controlled buses. But they gave fixed tours which began at a specific time and only allowed specific amounts of time at specific stops. If you wanted to linger at one stop, but didn't care about another, you were out of luck.

Old Town Trolley and Tourmobile had the same "get on, get off" system which allowed you to board and reboard as often as you wanted throughout the length of your ticket. The key differences were: Tourmobile focused almost all of its resources on The Mall and Arlington Cemetery with some side trips available to see The Kennedy Center, the Frederick Douglass home in SE and Mount Vernon. OTT was different in that it picked up at many downtown hotels, included Embassy Row and the National Cathedral. But, because of the contract with the NPS, OTT was not allowed on the Mall itself (Madison Drive and Jefferson Drive), nor were they allowed in Arlington, nor near the major memorials. Since 9/11, many spots once reserved for Tourmobiles have been eliminated like the drive in front of the Lincoln Memorial which we used to call TourmoTerritory.

Both tours had their pluses and minuses. Both were safe, secure and had competent and entertaining guides. For the most part, there was both a driver and narrator on Tourmobiles, and a driver who did double duty on the OTT. I think both companies experimented with taped tours at different times. Speaking with a bias towards a "live" guide, I thought the taped tours, while factually probably more accurate, were terribly dull and lacked the personality of having a real guide. But I prided myself, as many others did, on making guests' experiences fun and entertaining as well as educational.

My recommendation to family, friends, or anyone else really, was to take Tourmobile if you were first-time visitor or if your time was limited. If you were a second- or third-timer, and wanted to see some lesser-visited, but still outstanding sites in our city (like the Nat Cath), then OTT was the way to go. If you were comfortable on your own, then Metro was a terrific option, but not during rush hour and not if you weren't pretty comfortable reading a map and so on.

I think Tourmobile's time has definitely come and gone in its current model (which hasn't changed in its entire existence from what I can tell). There are too many competitors available, tourists are better informed when they arrive here than ever before, there are more interesting things than ever in DC (what tour company wouldn't include the Newseum or Spy Museum on a tour today?). The exclusive contract to operate in certain areas was the only thing Tourmobile could really argue. Once you lose that, there's not much else to sell without dramatic reform of your company. That's something that Tourmobile obviously didn't see as profitable or feasible.

by Butch Kinerney on Sep 9, 2011 1:39 pm • linkreport

As I heard it, and this is word-of-mouth, the Mack children were not interested in running it anymore and that the Lydia DePillis story was just a coincidence. Nor was it NPS's decision.

by David C on Sep 9, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

@David C

There have definitely been stories floating around the past few years that the current owners were trying to sell the business and were getting tired of running it.

That said, given the recent news about NPS/Bikeshare, it seems like there are changing attitudes on the NPS side.

by MLD on Sep 9, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

Tourmobile is closing because the Lawyer in charge of the trust has decided to close the company. When Mr. Mack (deceased owner) died, he left the company in a trust. The trustee has decided that the company is no longer profitable, and will not invest in the company for upgrades in equiptment. The contract with the Park Service was set to expire on Dec 31st. The reason why the letter to employees was worded the way it was is because it was a requirement between the union and the company. I have worked for TourMobile for the past 5 years (Part-time), and will be with them until they close.

by Jeff on Sep 27, 2011 4:31 pm • linkreport

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