Posts about Tourmobile
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.
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.
On August 28th, an estimated 400,000 people will attend the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. They will experience what thousands of visitors find every day: it's hard to get to the memorials.
The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian, 0.8 miles away. In a special guide for those heading to the dedication, Metro wisely suggests not using this one, which will be mobbed. It's entirely possible that overcrowding will force the Smithsonian stop to close periodically.
Instead, Metro recommends walking from Farragut West and North, L'Enfant Plaza, Federal Triangle, McPherson Square, or Arlington Cemetery. (They discourage using Foggy Bottom due to ongoing escalator repair.) An extra ten minutes of walking may be faster and will certainly be less aggravating than coping with the crowds transferring to the Orange and Blue lines.
Dr. Gridlock tried the walk from Arlington Cemetery, and found it an inspirational one, with the walk over Memorial Bridge giving great views of the Lincoln Memorial. The trickiest parts are around Memorial Circle, where unsafe crosswalks and the Park Police's response make pedestrian crossings difficult.
WMATA also strongly recommends purchasing fare cards prior to the trip. Quite commonly at major events, people waiting to purchase cards for the return trip cause backups at Metro stations.
What about biking? Certainly the crowds around the Memorial itself make biking an inconsiderate choice in close proximity to the ceremony, but bike parking and/or a bike valet a short distance away would allow people to bike to the event and reduce Metro congestion. Unfortunately, there appears to be no bike parking at the memorial at all.
According to Shane Farthing of Washington Area Bicyclist Association, "WABA always looks forward to providing bike valets that allow bicyclists to more easily access major events. In this case, unfortunately, we were not contacted by the organizers, and generally we do not seek to provide valets without the support of the event organizers."
That's not terribly surprising, as the MLK, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation website makes no mention of biking whatsoever. It appears as if biking was not even considered as an transportation option. In contrast, the a shuttle bus for drivers is provided from the parking lots at RFK stadium.
No bikes will be allowed on the Metrorail system on the 28th (even for reverse direction trips far from the memorial), due to the expected large crowds. Cyclists can still use the bike racks located on the front of Metrobuses, however.
In the end, despite all of the advice, people will surely stream from the Smithsonian Metro in droves. If past events are any guide, the shared endeavor of making the hike together will simply heighten the experience, as people from around the country share a common sense of excitement to commemorate the man who marched on Washington on that very day 48 years ago.
But when the newness fades, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial becomes just one of many, we will have a new crop of visitors who discover that many of the memorials just aren't that easy to get to.
A standard walk around the Mall traverses 3.5 miles, from the Smithsonian Metro, taking in all the memorials, and ending at the Foggy Bottom Metro. National attention is focused on the obesity epidemic, and we've all seen visitors having a hard time on the Mall. Large numbers of our fellow Americans are disabled for any number of reasons, elderly visitors may be past their prime walking years, and small children just aren't ready to walk that far yet. There is not, nor should there be, a physical fitness requirement to exploring our common cultural heritage.
But what are the other options?
One could drive, of course. Many of us do. But parking in the area is, at best, chancy, and it's typically only an option for locals who are comfortable with the very confusing road layout. I don't recommend it to visitors, nor is more parking in the area realistic or desirable.
Riding a bike is an increasingly popular option. It does little to help disabled and elderly visitors, but a 3-mile bike ride is far less daunting than a 3-mile hike.
Bike infrastructure on the Mall lags behind the rest of the city. Bike racks are few and far between, and events such as the upcoming dedication show that bike planning is not yet as fully integrated as it could be. Like so many things on the Mall, Congress has a responsibility to properly allocate funds for improvement, but a cultural shift in the Park Service's mentality would go far.
The Park Service should immediately drop their intellectually weak objections to Capital Bikeshare and recognize that participating in the program is a low-cost way to increase access to the Mall for visitors and locals alike.
There's no reason for the Park Service to be perceived as anti-bike. After all, they lead free bike tours of the Mall right now. This is an easy fix and is in keeping with much of the excellent programming the Park Service offers.
Better integrating taxi service, both traditional and pedicabs, would be another relatively low-cost way to improve access. Traditional taxi cabs are generally not at all difficult to hail, but designated taxi pick-up points, discreet signage and perhaps even a cell phone call-in guide on how to use a cab would better marry tired visitors with cab drivers looking to relieve them of their cash. Believe it or not, many of our exurban visitors find the cab system, or cabs in general, daunting.
And, of course, the Park Service has been needlessly antagonistic to pedicabs. In addition to the press reports, including the highly publicized tasing, I've personally witnessed between overwhelmed and aggressive police officers and confused and frustrated pedicab drivers.
Clear, understandable, and transparent regulations will give clarity to everyone, from visitors to drivers to Park Police officers. Most of the attention has focused on individual Park Police actions, but it seems that individual officers are operating with unclear directives from above, lack of consistent standards, and strained staffing issues.
Finally, the memorials lack anything approaching a true mass transit system, thanks to an exclusive Tourmobile contract which prohibited Circulator service for years. Fortunately, NPS director Jon Jarvis has made it clear that change is coming to transit on the Mall.
When you take your first stroll to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, whether for the dedication or just on any other day, take a minute to chat with a visitor from out of town. All Americans deserve better access to this new memorial, and we should encourage those visitors to call their elected representatives and demand it. We may just have a chance to dramatically improve everyone's ability to enjoy our nation's monuments.
Yesterday, President Obama and Mayor-Elect Gray met for lunch. According to Gray, Obama said he "wants to do more for the city."
How can he do more? Obviously there are a number of federal programs that give out funding, whether discretionary or formula, and Obama could push for DC in many areas of the federal budget. But the President is very concerned about the deficit, and Congress makes the final budget decisions. What could Obama do for DC that doesn't involve large spending programs?
President Obama already controls a lot of what goes on in DC. He heads the largest employer in the District. Agencies control a great number of buildings downtown. The National Park Service (NPS) controls most of the parkland in the District, from the Mall to individual neighborhood pocket parks.
The President controls, either directly or indirectly, half of the 12 seats on the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC): 3 direct Presidential appointees and 3 ex officio seats for the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior (handled by the Park Service), and General Services Administration (GSA). The Park Service also holds one of the seats on the Zoning Commission.
If these federal agencies, especially Interior and GSA, had strong guidance from the White House and coordinated closely to improve the vitality of DC on and around federal property, they could create some big change. All it really takes is the will to overcome bureucratic inertia.
Here are some specific steps Obama could take right now:
Appoint a high-level DC point person. The simplest item could be a very significant one. There is no one person in the White House in charge of working with the DC government. Obama should appoint such a person at a high enough level to give him or her the power to really coordinate the DC-related work of the cabinet departments and push them to make changes when necessary and when they fit with the President's vision.
Appoint a DC resident to NCPC. Of the 3 Presidential appointees, the law requires one to be from Maryland and one from Virginia. The third appointee is currently Herbert Ames, a real estate agent from South Carolina appointed by President Bush. His term ends next year. The President should pick someone who lives in DC and who truly cares about making the District a better place.
Restrain excessive fortress design at federal facilities. Many federal agencies seem to want their building to be a fortress, partly because everyone is particularly sensitive to security, and partly because it makes agencies feel like they are more important.
Fortunately, NCPC and GSA have been pushing for more federal buildings to engage the street, like the upcoming GSA headquarters modernization which will include ground-floor retail. Require all new or renovated federal facilities in urban areas to contain publicly-accessible retail or food spaces, and avoid a bunker mentality unless it really, truly is necessary.
Direct federal agencies to encourage multimodalism. The President already issued an executive order instructing agencies to try to reduce their carbon footprint. He could specifically push agencies to accommodate bike parking inside their buildings and to put Capital Bikeshare stations outside, for example.
Encouraging transit use is not as simple as encouraging bicycle use. The best thing would be for Congress to extend the increased ceiling for pretax transit benefits, keeping it on an equal footing with the parking benefit. That also means federal workers get a higher transit benefit, helping workers better afford to take transit. Unfortunately, this isn't something Obama can do on his own.
Make St. Elizabeth's a good neighbor. The biggest immediate opportunity for making federal design fit with a community will come at St. Elizabeth's, where DHS is consolidating operations. That will have a lot of security, but there are many ways DHS can also encourage employees to interact with the surrounding community, foster nearby restaurants that are also open to the public, and take transit, streetcar, bike or walk to the complex.
Direct NPS to allow the Circulator and Capital Bikeshare. NPS has exclusive concession contracts for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, including ones for the Tourmobile and for bike rentals. They have been interpreting these contracts to prohibit allowing transit services, including bike transit (Capital Bikeshare), on the Mall.
However, $1 transit service doesn't compete with a $23 tour bus, and a bike meant for under 30 minutes of use to get from one place to another doesn't compete with an all-day bike rental. The White House should instruct NPS to find a way to allow these services immediately.
Direct NPS to treat urban parks differently from rural parks. NPS manages its parks in dense urban areas with the same philosophies as a natural wilderness like Yosemite. People from Colorado primarily wrote the National Mall Plan. But keeping spaces wild is not as paramount of a concern for urban parkland, which needs to contribute to the health of residents.
For example, NPS recently denied permission for DDOT to build a wooden walkway across a part of Fort Totten Park to help people walk to the Metro station. NPS needs a separate division with separate management policies for urban parks, staffed by people with expertise running parks in cities and a passion for making parks good public spaces.
Give DC control over local neighborhood parks. NPS plays a valuable role in our nation (some of my fondest childhood memories are from Minute Man National Historical Park), but it makes no sense that they decide all policy, handle all law enforcement, and have to plow the sidewalks (which they don't do) around most small neighborhood square, circle, and triangle parks throughout the District.
The President could instruct the Park Service to work out a way to turn day to day maintenance and policy of the small parks over to DC while maintaining ownership of the land and NCPC review for permanent changes to the parks. For example, NPS could essentially work out a contract with DC where it outsources park management to DC for these parks.
NPS could pay DC what it spends on those parks, including policing, snow and more. DPR could take over those duties, and handle things like permits for events or retail concessions, but DC wouldn't be able to decide to develop the park into housing, for example.
Local BIDs may also want to contribute to park beautification or "adopt" parks, as they do in many other cities. NPS is currently fairly hostile to public-private partnerships. Turning over the parks' immediate control would make such arrangements possible.
Unify management of lands around the Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall keeps pointing out that nobody can really plan for the contiguous park space people generally call the Mall because control is fragmented between the Park Service, the Smithsonian, the Architect of the Capitol, the Secret Service, the National Gallery, the Commission on Fine Arts, NCPC, DDOT, DC DPR, the various memorial commissions, and more.
Create a board composed of federal, DC and citizen representatives to coordinate policy for the and work with NCPC, which could perhaps staff the commission.
And of course:
Publicly support voting rights. This was one of the primary asks from Gray at the lunch. Obama may have said he supports voting rights, but he has done little to make that a part of the national conversation, and most Americans still don't know that DC residents have no vote in Congress.
Obama should take public steps, whether symbolic like restoring the "Taxation without representation" plates to his limousine or meaningful like asking Congress for legislation, that will generate news cycles around DC voting rights. The Post also editorialized for the President to promise to veto Congressional measures that step on DC home rule.
It's great that President Obama wants to have a positive effect on DC. Fortunately, he is in a position to do so, easily and immediately. He can get started on the above initiatives right away.
There's no Circulator bus to the FDR Memorial. No bus to Hains Point. No Metrobus to the Jefferson Memorial or Lincoln Memorial, even though a variety of bus lines to Virginia pass right by them; the closest stops are at 14th and Independence or 22nd and Constitution, which aren't that close. On the Mall itself, east of the Washington Monument, many buses including a DC Circulator drive along Constitution and Independence, but none serve tourists on Jefferson and Madison Drives.
There is one bus that goes to all of these places: the Tourmobile. However, Tourmobile tickets cost $27 for adults and $13 for children. For some, it's worth it: riders get a running commentary on the importance and history of the memorials. But many people don't need the explanations. They just want to get to and from some great memorials, and don't want to have to drive. Plus, many of the memorials have scarce parking. However, the National Park Service has an exclusive contract with Tourmobile that prohibits other transit. They've continually renewed the contract since the Tourmobile began in 1969.
DC thinks there's a major need for "non-interpretive transit" on the Mall. They created a Mall loop on the Circulator, but can't run it on the interior drives where it would be most useful, and can't reach East and West Potomac Parks. The Park Service can't even put up signs pointing people to the Circulator. According to an official familiar with the creation of the Circulator, they actually offered to purchase the Tourmobile business so that they could take over the contract. That didn't work out.
At a July meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission, many expressed frustration with this system. "It seems strange that the park service would prohibit public, inexpensive transportation for visitors," said Harriet Tregoning. According to the Current (large PDF), NCPC Chairman John Cogbill complained of taking his elderly father to the Mall and having to choose between a difficult walk and a very expensive tour bus ride.
The contract expires this December, but the National Park Service doesn't plan to end or change the contract. From the Current article:
Lorenzetti said Tourmobile's current contract expires in December, but will "very likely be extended for another year. They're doing us a favor by extending," he said.Why doesn't NPS care to add transit options? To some extent, this sounds a lot like the MTA and iPhone application situation. An agency controls access to something that's useful to the public. They feel that it's better to limit that access and raise as much revenue as possible rather than maximizing the public benefit. The MTA could benefit more riders by releasing its schedules, and NPS could help parkgoers by allowing the transit. But they don't, whether because of a misguided focus on doing deals with companies instead of fostering innovation, or because of management pressure to earn as much revenue as possible.
He said the concession provides revenue for the Park Service, and that the government would have to pay the company a monetary settlement if it broke the contract. ...
Tregoning noted that the service meets modern transportation goals, "reducing traffic congestion, providing cheap and convenient access. If you did let this contract [with Tourmobile] lapse, we would work with you on routes for the Circulator," she told Lorenzetti.
"We have no plans to let the contract lapse," the Park Service official replied.
Another factor is Congress. In 2004, the House Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs of the Committee on Government Reform held a hearing called "How Can We Maximize Private Sector Investment in Transportation?" Then-DDOT Director Dan Tangherlini testified that DC wanted to provide service "to 92 percent of mall visitors who do not use current interpretive service, and the more than 70 percent of mall visitors
who would like low-cost, non-interpretive transit service." Tom Mack, Chairman of the Tourmobile, testified that this service would "destroy [his] business" because DC could use some federal funds to help operate transit service.
Doug Ose (R-CA), then-Chairman of the subcommittee, asked Tangherlini some pointed questions about a "squeeze-out effect," which Tangherlini disputed. He then said, "I am watching this and I will continue to watch this, and I will watch it until it is done or I am done, one or the other, whichever comes first." According to some observers, many, possibly including NPS, took this as a clear indication that he wanted NPS to maintain the exclusivity. Donald Manzullo (R-IL) of the Committee on Small Business held another hearing in 2001, entitled "Federal Government Competition with Small Business," which also featured Mr. Mack and sent similarly pointed signals on the issue. However, Congressman Ose
lost his seat in 2008 left Congress at the end of 2004 and failed in a bid to return in 2008, and Congressman Manzullo is no longer a committee chair. Now that Ose "is done," perhaps NPS can revisit the issue, if they are flexible enough to realize that allowing more choices for visitors is in the best interests of everyone.
Mr. Mack and some Congressmen phrased the situation as a government-funded service competing with private services, as if the Tourmobile were profiting in a world entirely free of government regulation. But NPS has given them a monopoly. No wonder they can make money: they can charge a bundle and nobody has a choice. Most private businesses don't need a government monopoly to thrive if they have a useful product. We don't prohibit all public bus service from Loudoun County in an attempt to give a single private company a lucrative contract. (We do limit competition in airport taxis, which is another mistake.)
Visitors to the Mall need to be able to get around easily, and deserve a choice of options. The Tourmobile is fine for those that want it. NPS should continue to contract with them for the interpretive service. But they need to drop their policy of giving one transportation provider exclusive access to their grounds. The Circulator, WMATA, or any other transit agency should also be able to transport people to and from our memorials, and NPS should include them equally on signs. Their mission is to enable "the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations" in the park system. Contracting to limit access to their parks doesn't belong on the Mall.
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