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Public Spaces

Park Service might allow real transit on the Mall

The National Park Service has opened the door to allowing real transit in addition to, or instead of, the guided "interpretive visitor transportation" currently operated by the Tourmobile, but it's not yet clear whether they will walk through that door.

Photo by krossbow.

The Park Service has had an exclusive contract with the Tourmobile for decades to provide services on the Mall. While the Tourmobile is great for those visitors who want guided "hop-on, hop-off" tours, many people simply want a bus or other public conveyance to transport them the fairly long distances from one end of the Mall to the other, or from the Mall to nearby restaurants and hotels.

The Tourmobile costs $27 per adult, while the Circulator costs $1. However, the National Park Service says their contract prohibits them from allowing Circulator buses on internal Mall roads that the Tourmobile uses, and also from even making mention of the Circulator on their signs. In the past, DC tried to implement a comprehensive Circulator on the Mall, but hostile members of Congress pushed NPS to just retain the Tourmobile exclusivity. DC even offered to buy the Tourmobile to end the impasse.

In its 2006 Visitor Transportation Study, NPS considered six options for transportation on the Mall:

  1. Keep the current tour routes, which extend from Union Station to Arlington Cemetery and around the Tidal Basin.
  2. Keep the current routes, extend the Arlington Cemetery service to the Marine Corps Memorial, and add a route going to the museums and memorials on Pennsylvania Avenue and around Gallery Place and Judiciary Square. The service could feature spoken tours or could serve both interpretive and transportation needs by providing interpretation through brochures, individual seat plug-in audio, MP3 players, or the like.
  3. Expand the current spoken tour service with new routes around the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Gallery Place/Judiciary Square.
  4. Provide a more extensive service similar to that in Alternative 2, but also serving the White House, Farragut and McPherson Squares, and Washington Circle with possible extensions to the Kennedy Center and Georgetown/the C&O Canal.
  5. Replace the tour service entirely with Circulator routes on the Mall and Tidal Basin but not to Arlington, and providing no interpretation.
According to a recently-released Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI), NPS has chosen Option 2 as its "preferred alternative." While at first it seems frustrating that they didn't choose the Circulators, Option 2 seems to allow for real transit as long as the buses have brochures and signs with phone numbers to call for recorded audio, or something like that.

Map of potential Mall transit routes in Alternative 2. Image from NPS.

At the NCPC meeting recently to discuss the National Mall Plan, NPS announced that they've been talking with DC about Circulator service. According to sources familiar with the meeting, they've made a lot of progress and NPS may finally be ready to end its contract with Tourmobile.

Tom Mack, the original owner of the Tourmobile has died, and therefore won't keep going to Congress to lobby against any non-interpretive transit, as he did in the past. His family doesn't want to stay in the Mall tour business. But the badly-written original contract requires NPS to buy out the Tourmobile's vehicles, which means it'll cost NPS to stop continuing the contract.

According to Mall advocate Judy Scott Feldman of Save Our Mall, the Downtown BID (which helped pioneer the Circulator) proposed a Circulator service that could also double as an interpretive service, but NPS rejected the idea at the time. Perhaps the time has now come.

Ending the bizarre Tourmobile monopoly would be a huge step forward, but NPS does still seem to be thinking of the Mall as requiring one single concessionaire. That could be the Circulator, or it could be a different private company. But having an exclusive with one company makes little sense.

Really, the Mall needs two kinds of transportation: tour services and regular buses. They aren't mutually exclusive since they serve different populations. NPS should simply allow local transit buses on the Mall. In addition, they could solicit proposals for interpretive transit.

Maybe the Circulator can propose it with brochures or even in-seat audio on new buses. Or maybe a private company could do it in parallel with the Circulator. They could go together, but don't need to. Feldman also criticized the closed-door nature of this decision. Why should providing transit be a secret negotiation and decision?

Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, told me that in addition to working out bus transportation around the Mall, DC would like to work with NPS on bike sharing and management of tourbuses. DC and Arlington plan a large, joint bike sharing system, and the Mall would be a perfect place for many bike stations. These would both facilitate moving around the Mall and also traveling between the Mall and surrounding neighborhoods, restaurants, and Metro stations in DC and Arlington.

The Mall plan also gives little attention to the many tour buses that drive to the Mall. Many of them idle for long periods of time, emitting substantial pollution. They also form a virtual wall 20 feet high, Tregoning pointed out, and while NPS and NCPC would never consider building a 20-foot wall between the Washington Monument and a nearby road, the buses in effect create just such a wall.

According to Tregoning, one TIGER grant proposal DC submitted which didn't get funding involved letting buses park at 5th and I, where a failed project will instead be a temporary parking lot, in exchange for putting transponders on the buses so DC can collect data on their movements and design a better system for managing and parking the buses long-term.

The FONSI also has two additional nuggets. NPS may start allowing Segways on certain designated routes, the sidewalks on roadways crossing the Mall, and on part of Ohio Drive and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Finally, NPS may add meters to some of its parking, "to support transit operations, encourage greater use of transit services and be consistent with regional transportation practices." As Michael Perkins noted in testimony before the DC Council, that might also make it easier to park on the Mall.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


Add a comment »

This is good news, I think?

Perhaps NPS should look into more modern ways of delivering interpretation. Having an informed, well-spoken guide is probably best, but a digital system might also help. The image of thousands of tourists wandering around with earbuds isn't that appealing, but there's a range of options.

Hell, with a relatively small amount of money they could just record audio files, put them up on the internet or in a music store, and then install numbered markers. Before you come to DC, you just download the MP3s or the app, and then listen to the interpretation.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 17, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

NPS wouldn't need so much interpretation if they just put up signs.

by Tim on Mar 17, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

How would signs help? Interpretive signs?

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 17, 2010 3:47 pm • linkreport

>> "According to Tregoning, one TIGER grant proposal DC submitted which didn't get funding involved letting buses park at 5th and I, where a failed project will instead be a temporary parking lot, in exchange for putting transponders on the buses so DC can collect data on their movements and design a better system for managing and parking the buses long-term."

The last thing I expected to read in this article about the mall was something about a parcel in my neighborhood. That's rather ridiculous that the city would attempt to use TIGER funds to put tour bus parking next to residences when RFK Stadium has an ocean of unused parking.

by FourthandEye on Mar 17, 2010 3:54 pm • linkreport

Buses aren't 20 feet tall, most are less than 15 since bridges aren't super-high.

by Allan on Mar 17, 2010 4:23 pm • linkreport


I'd venture to say some of the Duck Tour vehicles are close to 20 feet with that yellow awning they have. Plus, the statistic cites a "virtual wall," which (I can only suppose) means that effect is that it takes away 20 feet of visual clearance (i.e., how far up can you see when you're looking on the other side of the bus). Though, I don't know how this is calculated since the clearance would be practically nothing if you see the bus from far away, and would be near infinite if you were standing right beside it. On top of that, a 20-foot wall would have the same impact on "visual clearance," but would be greater than 20 feet (just like a bus is greater than its own height) and so isn't a good comparison. (Assuming of course that we're understanding this "virtual wall" term correctly).

Now I don't know if any of that made sense.

by SDJ on Mar 17, 2010 4:50 pm • linkreport

The tallest buses, like the ones Megabus uses, are only 13 feet tall (4 meters).

But that is somewhat beside the point, since they still feel really big and imposing.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 17, 2010 5:32 pm • linkreport

Performance parking the Mall (at least some of it) is a brilliant idea. Anybody who has played kickball knows what I'm talking about.

For replacing the Tourmobile, here's my plan!

by Gavin on Mar 17, 2010 5:53 pm • linkreport

Does the Circulator or any bus really have a need to travel on the inner roads of the Mall; most of the Museums are on either Constitution or Independence Avenues just place a stop near the entrances what is the problem its not like there anything on the area between them although I could see the routes going through the mall mid point around 7th street.

by kk on Mar 17, 2010 9:41 pm • linkreport

Interesting to see that the options include service possibly along the closed portions of PA Ave & E St

by tedrick on Mar 17, 2010 10:40 pm • linkreport

This seems like too small a circuit to open up to 'any and all'. Yes, it would be ideal if any and all buses could run that circuit to drop off and then pick up passengers. Common sense (and experience) tell us that there'll be at least one bus coming through which decides to stop in the middle of traffic ... and wait.

Whatever gets done there, there has to be someone in control to ensure that the transit service runs smoothly for all. And I don't know if allowing any and all bus carriers to operate there will permit that to occur.

by Lance on Mar 18, 2010 1:11 am • linkreport

Why the Tourmobile monopoly in the first place? The open top London tour buses use the same roads Metro and Circulator buses use. Large numbers of tour buses share the road with excellent public transit in Rome, New York, London, and many other cities. The tourmobile monopoly mostly punishes those of us who live here.

by Dan Gamber on Mar 18, 2010 10:14 am • linkreport

I can't imagine that the "internal" mall roads the tourmobile buses use make them that much more accessible for tourists. Better signage is a good point, but how can anyone miss those open top tour buses all over the place as an alternative.

by Amanda Architect on Mar 18, 2010 10:28 am • linkreport

Tourmobile had the monopoly because Tom Mack was able to get Congress to give it to him.

Anyway, whatever happened with the idea of putting an in-fill Metro stop on the Yellow line at the Jefferson?

by Shipsa01 on Mar 18, 2010 1:49 pm • linkreport

This morning I rode metro with one of the Tourmobile guides. She confirmed every negative prejudice you can have about someone working in a monopolistic (=communistic) company. Old. Nervous. Timid. Holding on to her two bags for dear life (it really wasn't that busy). In uniform. And wearing more flair than even the most enthusiastic Chotchkie's employee. Old flair though.

There is so much wrong with this situation, it's not even funny. Ironic, it is. People who wish to visit the National Mall, home of the very monuments symbolizing the freedom everything that America stands for, are forced into a government-initiated and backed monopoly, while citizens have no way of correcting this situation. The only other capital that I can think of where such a thing can happen is Pyongyang. But at least the Tours there are done by the government itself.

[Ever read this story? Fascinating. guy just hopped on the train from Vienna to Pyongyang and got in.]

by Jasper on Mar 18, 2010 1:52 pm • linkreport

This was a terrific article, David. Thanks for all the good information and explanation.

by Peter Harnik on Mar 18, 2010 10:19 pm • linkreport

Shipsa01: Where did you hear this idea? Conceptually interesting but it seems the engineering would be difficult to the point of impracticality or unaffordable. I'm unclear where one would fit in a station between the bridge and L'Enfant Plaza.

by Distantantennas on Mar 21, 2010 9:22 pm • linkreport

It's mentioned in the NCPC Framing the Mall plan.

Why do you think it would be difficult?

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 21, 2010 9:42 pm • linkreport

Buses are not 20 feet high!
Try 11'6 maybe.
Get the cars off the mall, and leave the buses alone, which would relieve congestion.

by Paul on Aug 30, 2010 2:04 pm • linkreport

Why not let DC Ducks circulate on the mall, or those double deckers? They're already all over DC. Also, they need some kind of interpretive transpo around the museums that is disability friendly - walking, seeing, hearing.

by MallRat on Oct 30, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

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