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Life as a tour guide: Why can't tour groups take the Metro?

Tour groups to DC arrive in an endless stream of big honking tour buses. People frequently ask, "Why can't these kids just walk and use the Metro?"


Photo by clydeorama on Flickr.

It's a fair question. After all, I'm willing to bet just about every reader out there has been a tourist in a new city and managed to poke around without the benefit of a motor coach. We have an extensive mass transit system that manages to shuttle thousands of other tourists. What makes eighth graders so special, so lazy, so pampered, they can't hoof it a few blocks?

There's a few reasons why this wouldn't work out. From my perspective as a tour guide, the main drawback is that I need a place to use as a "base" when touring. When I travel by myself or with my family I try to find a hotel as close as possible to where we are planning to visit, ideally within walking distance.

This allows me to stop back during the day, stash things I don't need, and so on. This just isn't possible in DC. There are several hotels in downtown DC, but tour groups can't afford them and I suspect these hotels don't want them.

At best we may stay at the Savoy Suites on Wisconsin Avenue or in Crystal City. While theoretically we could swing by, the logistics of getting 45 eighth graders off the bus, up the elevator, and back down preclude me from doing it on my tight schedule. And keep in mind, we're usually not anywhere this close. Most of my groups are still staying out in places like Woodbridge or Laurel.

Instaed, the bus ends up being these kids home away from home. When you leave the hotel at 7:30 in the morning and get back at 9:30 at night you need someplace to stash your bags, leave a rain jacket, leave your souvenirs, grab a bottle of water, and so on.

Additionally, teachers and chaperones have quite a bit of stuff to lug about. Many schools require teachers to have on hand medical consent forms, permission slips, contact information and other paperwork for students. The "drug bag", filled with the students' medications is often now a roll on suitcase. And many groups elect to bring bottled water with them.

This is a must-have for a youth trip to Washington. I half-jokingly challenge my groups to see if they can make it through the trip without someone throwing up. I've had groups decorate the National Cathedral, just about every room on the public tour of the Capitol, the White House, and perhaps most memorably, the elevator of the Washington Monument. These kids are away from home, with all the stress that can entail, eating unadulterated crap, staying up until three in the morning, and not getting anywhere enough fluids. Sounds silly, but staying properly hydrated is a major issue for me.

Take Arlington National Cemetery, for example. We get them off the bus at the Visitor's Center, where all the exterior water fountains (assuming they are not turned off) are barely usable with a sad, warm trickle of water. Heading inside, students end up bypassing the scant interior water fountains because there just isn't any time wait in line for them. Nor is bottled water available for purchase at the Visitor's Center (although there is at the Women in Military Service Memorial).

Then we start our two mile trek through the Cemetery, with a grand finale at the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Water fountains are available, but limited and often not working. Experienced groups plan ahead and have bottled water for their students, ideally one for the walk and one to replenish afterwards.

I don't mean to just pick on Arlington, which clearly has bigger management problems right now than fixing their water fountains. Visiting the Memorials, the Capitol, even the Smithsonians, require a lot of walking with limited bathroom and water facilities. The National Mall is a virtual desert. Having a place to regroup, get hydrated, pick up or drop off a rain jacket, and so on isn't really a luxury when you are responsible for forty to fifty children.

Nor can we expect them to carry it themselves. Sadly, student visitors will have more first hand experience with police and security officers than any other occupation in their time in Washington, DC. These guys have a demanding job to do, screening thousands of people a day, with the very real threat of personal violence to themselves. Patience is at a minimum, and being in the customer service business, it's my job to make sure my clients get through without incurring the ire of a stressed security guard.

I do this by emphasizing "leave on the bus" as often as possible. Visits to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Capitol, the Archives and even lunch stops such as Ronald Reagan Building and Old Post Office are planned so that I drop off and pick up as close as possible.

I can get a prepped and ready busload of students through security in under five minutes by leaving bags on the bus. Search every bag, and it can take up to fifteen minutes. Multiply that by 5-7 checkpoints I have to get through on a tour, and this starts to add up to real time lost.

Not to mention the items you can't bring in with you grows every year. The White House does not let groups bring cameras in. The Holocaust Memorial Museum makes my kids throw away gum and candy bars. Most ridiculously, the Capitol Visitor's Center will not allow empty water bottles in. Cases can be made for each of these, but taken in aggregate it means I need a place for my students to leave stuff and pick it up. The hotel is out, it's got to be the bus.

But all of this is my problem. It's not why you should care. Go down to Garfield Circle, at the southwest base of Capitol Hill one morning in the spring, and watch buses disgorge students in waves reminiscent of Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front. Now picture these same hundreds of kids getting on at Capitol South, trying to figure out fare gates, purchasing metro cards, standing on the left right, and generally getting in your way.

I do take a group on the Metro, every so often. I encourage this. Once per trip. Most of these kids have never taken mass transit, and things my six year old is an experienced pro at befuddle them. When I have this opportunity to show the Metro off, I purchase tickets ahead of time, I hold a "class" on using it before we step foot underground, and we even do a dry run. I have the kids repeat after me "stand on the left right, walk on the right left" in unison before we get on. I make sure to do it on off peak times and use less crowded entrances and platforms where possible.

Even still, it takes forever. Sure, it's a great experience for the kids and I'm glad to show them part of the "real" Washington, but it takes way too long to get fifty inexperienced metro users around town for it to be an acceptable substitute for bus transportation.

Try this on for size. There are, give or take, 45 coach parking spots at Arlington National Cemetery. Quite often in the spring, they're all full by 9:00 in the morning. Do you really want to share the Blue Line with the over 2,000 students that will spilling out of there mid-morning and heading over to the Mall? Sure, it's a drop in the bucket compared to Metro's daily ridership numbers, but you guys really don't seem to enjoy the 45 or so I bring on by themselves.

No, there's got to be better ways we can handle the bus problem, but just sending them all on the Metro won't work for me or you.

Cross-posted at DC Like a Local.

Among his many non-paying gigs, Tim Krepp is a a tour guide, conducting tours mainly in DC and New York. He also runs his own blog, DC Like a Local, which attempts to make some sense of the DC trip for our wayward visitors, and as a Capitol Hill resident contributes regularly to The Hill is Home. All of these are mere distractions to his main job as a stay at home dad. 

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No brainer. As soon as I read the headline, my first thought was the picture of hundreds of people of all ages and capabilities descending en mass into a Metro station, trying to figure out the fare card system, trying to figure out which platform to be on, etc. Transit disaster.

by ksu499 on Oct 22, 2010 9:47 am • linkreport

Great post and perspective!

by Fritz on Oct 22, 2010 9:47 am • linkreport

"I have the kids repeat after me 'stand on the left, walk on the right' in unison before we get on."

So does this mean we have you to blame for all those tourists standing on the left?

All kidding aside, good article. I've never been one to think that tour buses are a great scourge on our city but it's refreshing to see this city from a more tourist perspective.

by Steven Yates on Oct 22, 2010 9:59 am • linkreport

I endorse the construction of a massive "bus only" parking garage to be built under the Mall with a specific tunnel/ramp from 395.

Let the tourists congregate there.

by Michael on Oct 22, 2010 10:03 am • linkreport

Ha! I get it right in person, I swear!

Or do I?

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 10:03 am • linkreport

I don't know. My mother ran trips of 8th graders to DC for a decade (a recent decade) and never had them get on tour buses. They were city kids, and knew how to ride trains and buses, but they were still 30-40 twelve-year-olds. She managed by requiring that all students buy Smartrip cards and carefully consider what they wanted to bring for the day. She always worried that an entire day would be lost to a traffic jam if she brought down a charter bus, and the cost of the trip dropped considerably when she used Amtrak tickets to get into the city.

by Clare on Oct 22, 2010 10:07 am • linkreport

I'm with Clare. There is a great education in just learning how to pack what you need, and be flexible in your clothes and plans to account for the weather.

by SJE on Oct 22, 2010 10:34 am • linkreport

I always enjoy your posts.

It's good to remember that there was a first transit ride for all of us & that we all had to learn to be good travelers/tourists.

Thanks for continuing to teach young people & giving them that first experience.

by mch on Oct 22, 2010 10:48 am • linkreport

I don't think there are that many people asking the question that is the premise of this article.

by Snowpeas on Oct 22, 2010 10:48 am • linkreport

Did I read correctly that the White House tour fordids cameras? What happened to Hope and Change? I don't get it.

by M.V. Jantzen on Oct 22, 2010 11:12 am • linkreport

When I was in school we took school trips and sometime road public transportation. Granted we still used a bus but it was more like the bus dropped you off here in the morning and picked you up 4 or 5 huors later somewhere else.

At the same time we never used tour guides, so eveyone was broken up into groups of 10 or so, so you never had 60 people trying to get on at once.

People don't need that much stuff. A raincoat isn't ahrd to carry. Put the camera in the pocket. Its not hard to carry a water bottle. (though I have toured DC without one, buy water whenyou need it). Nothing else is needed

by nathaniel on Oct 22, 2010 11:27 am • linkreport

I used to be part of an organization that led out of town groups and while they had to provide their own transportation. Sometimes they would ask why they couldn't just use the metro and after explaining to the chaperones the things they would have to do to get their kids on a bus and then to the metro they realized they were better off that way. We did have an exercise where they took a bus and it usually took a good 10-15 minute speech to answer their questions about taking the bus.

by Canaan on Oct 22, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport

I think you're probably right on this, but i am glad you take them once a trip, during off-peak rush so they get to experience mass transit. I remember my 8th grade trip to DC and we definitely did not get to do this!

And although it's nowhere near the point of the article, for the love, what does it take to get our water fountains working? I mean it. I'm a runner and I try to plan my routes so that I hit a water fountain every few miles but at this point they are almost reliably not working (with the exception of the WWII of fountains). I mean, in the summer it seems like with tourists it's worth it. There need to be more on the mall and in east and west potomac part but I'd be happy to just have the few that exist in good working order!

by Katie on Oct 22, 2010 11:58 am • linkreport

I should stress that it's not impossible for a school group to use the Metro. As Clare said above, many groups do it. With adequate preparation and a thoughtful itinerary, it's doable.

But there's a big difference in city kids and suburban kids in their ability to use the Metro. Not only do I have to really work with them on how to do it, I have to walk the chaperones through it as well. Many of them have never used mass transit.

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 11:59 am • linkreport

Yup, M.V. Jantzen, you did. The White House does not allow cameras on the tour. That means, I have to leave all cameras on the bus. It also means I have to come back later in the tour, drop off on H ST north of Lafayette Park, so that the kids can snap their White House pic. Bad enough I tie up traffic there when there's no White House tour; but I really hate doing it when we've already been there that day.

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 12:02 pm • linkreport

Katie, Agreed on both points! Especially the water fountains. They're a disaster on the Mall and Arlington Cemetery.

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

People frequently ask, "Why can't these kids just walk and use the Metro? It's a fair question."

People ask this? Really? And even if they do, is it a fair question?

Don't get me wrong, I found this to be a very interesting read. It just seems to me that it's really pretty obvious why large tour groups (especially groups of kids) don't just hop on public transportation to get around town, so I was surprised that the article was presented as a response to what seems to me to be a dumb question.

But, I'm guessing the folks who might ask this question are people who drive a lot around town (of which I am not one). So I could see whence the frustration and sympathize, but still don't think it would be tough to get to the answer.

Nice read though, it is interesting to get a different angle on the city!

by GDopplerXT on Oct 22, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

Great post! Tour buses are a form of mass transit, too, and I heartily endorse them. It would be nice, though, if Congress could give up one of its many massive parking lots (which never quite seem to fill up) and turn it into the tour bus lot for Capitol tours. You guys need the space a lot more than the average Legislative Assistant does.

by tom veil on Oct 22, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

Not allowing cameras makes sense some places, like the White House. It's not necessarily a security thing, camera flash is like bleach. Ever wonder about those blank pieces of paper in the National Archives? Once, they were our founding documents, now, thanks to amateur photographers, they're blank.

by Steve S on Oct 22, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

GDopplerXT, indeed, and let me give you a little background here.

I've felt for some time that there's just got to be a better way of getting school groups around town. No terribly simple answers present themselves, and I'm hoping to use this series to try to publicly explore both the problem and some options to alleviate it.

What I've found when I've informally chatted with people is that this question comes up a surprisingly large amount of times. My initial response was much like yours, but as it seems to pop up so often, I thought I should examine it.

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 12:13 pm • linkreport

I don't think tour buses are unreasonable. The "when I was in school" references aren't really valid anymore. For whatever reason, many kids are now on medication and even more have allergies, medical conditions, and special care needs that require constant monitoring and supervision by qualified individuals. Gone are the days when a school could trust a parent to just go off for the day with 10 or so kids and meet up again as a group for dinner.

Having said that, improvements are certainly needed to help tour operators out. The lack of bathrooms, concessions and bus parking in and around the ceremonial core is one problem. Perhaps an underground garage at the Mall is an answer, but then who would pay for it? I don't think Congress is interested in paying for additional tourist facilities in Washington; they seem to shrug at the plight of our National Mall just as it is. Private groups like the Trust for the National Mall are simply trying to find the money needed to help pay for the backlog in deferred NPS maintenance; no additional facilities are planned.

So that leaves the question: if tour operators and groups want additional facilities, should they not be the one to pay for them? If the NPS can maneuver around the inane Guest Services International contract, I can see private companies willing to come in to make significant investments in the Mall, from parking facilities to restrooms, but for a fee. Maybe TimK could answer: would better facilities be worth the increased cost? I imagine such fees would be nominal when divided per head but given how cost-adverse the industry is, I wonder if it's even an option the industry has been willing to endorse or even discuss.

by Adam L on Oct 22, 2010 12:14 pm • linkreport

@tom viel: Great idea! Never really thought of it, but that would be wonderful. Now, how to make that happen...

@Steve S: True, and that's why the Archives (sensibly) doesn't allow photography of any sort anymore. However, you can still bring the camera in, which is all I'm asking for. Otherwise, I have to stash it somewhere outside. And I don't think they're too keen on bags of electronics left near the White House.

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 12:16 pm • linkreport

Not going to argue with the main points of the article, because I get it, but will add only this...

Which came first - the 40-50 student tour group? or the 50-some seat bus to hold them?

Seems to me smaller tour groups not sized to optimally fill tour buses would be able to both make better use of mass transit and see and do more during their touring, since just the herding of a big group slows you down considerably...

by Kelly on Oct 22, 2010 12:22 pm • linkreport

I too am sitting here wondering who in their right mind would argue that the tour groups should take the metro. I don't have a problem with tour buses -- I'd rather see tourists herded in groups than let loose on their own. I would argue though, that tour groups need to be better spaced out. Last night I happened to be at the Lincoln Memorial taking some shots of the moon over the Reflecting Pool. I was absolutely floored at the number of tour buses filled with 8th Graders. One right after another, non-stop, for the 2 hours I was there. Between the hundreds of screaming kids, the roaring bus engines, the iPhone flashes, my patience ran out pretty quickly. Do so many have arrive at once? And why are kids touring the Mall at night?

by OX4 on Oct 22, 2010 12:26 pm • linkreport

@Adam L, Good point. I think I break it into two categories. One, basic maintenance, keeping restrooms and water fountains working, lawns green, etc. is and should be a Federal responsibility. The Mall is a shared resource of the American people and should be maintained by all of them (we all know how well that's working out, btw). So my school kids, even though they are paying for a bus, guide, etc. are visiting their cultural heritage too.

Which isn't to say that tour companies don't share in the responsibility of responsible stewardship. We (guides, companies, etc.) should parter with the Park Service and other stakeholders to ensure policies that make sense and then carry them out. And a giant bus parking lot would not be something that every American has a right to expect. A substantial portion of it (assuming it was legally, financially, and structurally possible) should come from users fees. The industry is very competitive and fragmented, but I think usable parking walking distance from the Mall would be something most operators would see the utility of.

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 12:26 pm • linkreport

@Kelly, It's kind of a chicken and egg argument. I don't really know the answer.

I have worked with smaller groups with no bus, and it was great. But that was in New York where we were able to stay in Times Square, the group wanted to walk and take mass transit, and New York has the density to make it work. It's not impossible here, but the group would really have to want it.

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 12:29 pm • linkreport

@OX4 er, yeah, sorry about that. We hit the Memorials heavy from 6:30-8:30 because chaperones don't want to get back to the hotel early, nothing else is open, and it's a good time to squeeze them in on full itineraries. But yeah, it does suck for actual humans trying to see the Lincoln Memorial at dusk.

I used to like to take them down to the Awakening at Haines Point and let them run around to their hearts content. These folks are kids, and a place for a little undirected but supervised play time would be great. The Navy Yard works well for that, but it closes at 5.

by TimK on Oct 22, 2010 12:34 pm • linkreport

TimK -- no worries. It was actually kind of inspiring for me. I heard a kid running past me, yelling back at his buddies, "C'mon, this is a once in a lifetime chance!" Made me realize I probably take my walking distance to the Mall for granted.

by OX4 on Oct 22, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

When I was in high school, I did a summer program at CUA. Occasionally we would take group trips on Metro.

The biggest issue was keeping everyone together. Say you've got 25 kids making their way into the station and a train pulls up. The impulse is for the kids in the station to get on the train, even if some people in the group are still making their way through the fare gates, but the chaperon wants everyone to go on the same train.

Similarly, say a crowded train pulls up. The chaperon has to make the decision of whether to try to squeeze everyone in that car or whether to wait for the next train.

Losing a kid on Metro isn't like losing a kid into a crowd on the mall. On the mall, you know they're around somewhere. If a kid steps onto a train and takes off... well, good luck trying to get them back.

by Rob on Oct 22, 2010 1:09 pm • linkreport

Today's student routinely lug a backpack around. So carrying a jacket, camera, and bottle of water is a no brainer. Other than the White House it is easy to be away from the hotel for the day. British student groups often say at the Harrington (11th and E NW) and have no motor coach.

by Tour guide on Oct 22, 2010 5:15 pm • linkreport

? I've seen teen tour groups take the metro. A couple of times when I've had business at the Rayburn building, I rush to get to the Metro gates before them when I see the throng congregating in front of the Capitol South escalator. Ditto Union Station.

Granted, they're not tour groups of 100, more like 30, but some guides do take them on the Metro.

by lou on Oct 22, 2010 5:56 pm • linkreport

A huge bus full of people already seems like a pretty damn efficient way to get people to downtown areas.

by RD on Oct 22, 2010 7:03 pm • linkreport

I can't think of a time that I've had an issue with a tour bus. They're generally very good drivers and pull over where they are supposed to. Now Metro bus drivers ... it's a whole different story (though in fairness to them, they need to operate in places where there isn't the luxury of 'space', and little traffic, like the Mall ... and their passengers aren't at ease an on vacation ) ...

by Lance on Oct 22, 2010 7:54 pm • linkreport

As a former tour director, I never really wondered about how to make moving the groups easier. It is what it is - in season, there are so many groups here at once that you just have to shrug your shoulders and deal. You try to keep the pickups and drop offs to a minimum. Fortunately, this town does make that fairly easy since things are close enough to make walking relatively easy.
I think I rode Metro once - in from Rockville or something like that on a weekend morning. Otherwise, I wouldn't consider it for all the reasons discussed here. Unless the tour leader insisted and then I would consider it the same as visiting a museum - it is a destination in and of itself and not a mode of transportation. From the perspective of other Metro users and WMATA itself, I doubt that having tourists visit the system as if it is a tourist attraction itself is really an appealing thing or what they want to see. (At least in groups of 30+.)
"Gone are the days when a school could trust a parent to just go off for the day with 10 or so kids and meet up again as a group for dinner." Please. Why make such a blanket statement? I had exactly this scenario take place more than once, including Inauguration Day. It was fine with me since it was essentially down time, although of course I had to stay available to help out....
And the reason that tour groups tend to fill up the bus is because otherwise the price per kid is higher. The bus costs the same whether five people are on it or thirty five. So the company I worked for would even combine groups from different states if neither one was big enough to fill up the bus. Other overhead prices also don't vary. So few groups could afford to insist on an exclusive tour even if they were only 15-20 in size.

by Josh S on Oct 25, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

Not to take issue with the main thrust of your post (though I think that if there's to be any improvement in NPS services for tour groups, those tour groups are going to have to demand them, they're certainly not going to listen to DC residents) I thought this was a bit odd:

Visiting the Memorials, the Capitol, even the Smithsonians, require a lot of walking with limited bathroom and water facilities. The National Mall is a virtual desert.

Are you serious? Yes, I can see where it might be difficult out by the Lincoln or the Jefferson Memorials, but there are bathrooms, water, and food concessions in every single building lining the Mall proper. My daughter's preschool classes (comprised of 2.5-3.5 year olds) regularly made the trip down to the Mall for events via Metro. It just seems sad that the bulk of middle-school and high-school students haven't got the basic life skills to do the same.

You make a good argument for the NPS to actually do their job and provide decent services to the more far-flung areas of the Mall, though.

by oboe on Oct 25, 2010 11:09 am • linkreport

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