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Posts about Tour Buses


DDOT could put tour bus parking on Southeast Freeway

DC is having trouble finding a place for tour buses to park, but DDOT might have an answer: part of the Southeast Freeway east of the 11th Street Bridge, near 14th and L Streets, SE.

Photo by afagen on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has started a study to replace that last segment of the Southeast Freeway, which connects the 11th Street Bridge to Barney Circle, and redesign the circle itself.

The roadway was originally part of a larger project to build a new bridge over the Anacostia from Barney Circle to DC-295. It was canceled in 1996. Instead, as part of the 11th Street Bridge project, DC built new ramps between the bridge and the freeway east of the Anacostia River.

What should DDOT do with the extra land? At last Thursday evening's meeting at Payne Elementary School, DDOT showed one potential use of land on diagrams at the break-out tables: a new tour bus parking facility.

Bus depot options. Click for PDF. Images from DDOT.

I was only able to get photos of two of the bus options. In the third one, the bus depot would be at grade, and the Southeast Boulevard would be placed in a tunnel beneath it. We've asked DDOT for the PDF files of all three proposals. Update: DDOT has sent along all 3 PDFs.

This was only the scoping meeting to start an environmental analysis, so these are just concept ideas, which the consultants will develop into formal alternatives as the study proceeds.

DC has had ongoing struggles with warehousing tour buses while they're waiting for groups to explore the sights downtown. Many tour buses once parked in the parking garage behind Union Station, but got kicked out to make room for intercity buses.

DC proposed using the Crummell School in Ivy City, but advocates have sued the city over that plan, arguing that it violates promises to create a community facility there and concentrating more polluting uses in a neighborhood already suffering from poor public health.

Councilmembers Vincent Orange and Jack Evans proposed legislation to move those buses to a vacant lot near Buzzard Point. A bus depot on the old Southeast Freeway land could be the executive branch's solution to the same problem.

The bus parking discussion was only part of last Thursday's meeting. We'll have more about the boulevard itself and the need for comprehensive planning for this area later this week.


Ivy City deserves some environmental justice

The DC neighborhood of Ivy City is small, poor and wedged between three major transportation arteries. The community feels worlds away from the leafy, charmed streets of many DC neighborhoods.

Photo from the Greening report.

Residents of Ivy City believe that the economic success of recent decades has passed them by, and in a way it has, quite literally: Those who drive in and out of the District on New York Avenue NE zoom past the neighborhood. All that car and truck traffic leaves pollution in its wake, contributing to serious health issues for many of Ivy City's residents.

In the latest insult, the District has proposed parking tour buses in the neighborhood. The buses do need a place to park, as the alternative is for them to circle around for hours. But must the buses—and their exhaust fumes—be sent to Ivy City?

The imperative not to concentrate things with negative public health effects, such as power plants or major highways, in poor neighborhoods is known as "environmental justice."

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.


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.


Life as a DC tour guide, part 1: Impossible schedules

Tourism, and the consequent presence of tourists, is a way of life in Washington, DC. But what does the perennial tourist swarm look like from the other side: the tour guide's point of view?

Photo by dctourism on Flickr.

One of the most persistent complaints, both from DC residents and visitors, are about tour buses and the accompanying congestion. A recent letter by Senator Webb (D-VA) criticized congestion caused in part by the buses, as well as the accompanied decrease in the quality of our visitors' experience.

The discussion on Greater Greater Washington revealed how the nuts and bolts of my daily experience as a tour guide, the little tricks and travails I take for granted, are not well known. Therefore, let's examine how the student tour of Washington works.

I don't do this to excuse the rough spots of my industry, but rather to explain where we are today. No one would like to see improvements in the system more than I, but we need to understand the landscape, if you will, before examining proposals for systematic improvement.

The lion's share of my business is the student group. Most often these are eighth graders, studying American History and tying it in with a trip to DC. It's easy to be cynical about them (and oh do they provide fodder for that!), but by and large these kids are enthusiastic to be here, interested in what they're seeing, and ready to learn things and have a good time. Don't worry, we beat that out of 'em.

Depending on how far they're coming from, and how much they can pay, the group will either fly in to a local airport or be driven in on a bus, er, excuse me, a "motor coach." Except for local schools coming on day trips, next to no groups use their own school buses. The coach is driven by a professional driver, with a Commercial Drivers License (CDL), and most of them know their way around DC and are well versed on the patchwork of rules and regulations in Washington.

While a handful of drivers are licensed guides, and a small number of groups get by without a guide, most groups hire a licensed DC guide to show them around town. The guide will either be a "step on," meeting the group in the morning and leaving at night, or an "over the road," staying with the group at the hotel for the duration of the stay.

While a guide is expected to provide commentary on the things we see in DC (I don't shut up for four days), the real utility of our work is dealing with the logistics of getting up to 55 kids, teachers, and chaperones into and out of DC attractions. Can you take bottled water into the Capitol? (No.) Can you take pictures at the Archives? (Not any more.) Where's the bathroom at the Holocaust Memorial Museum? (Downstairs.)

It's a thousand and one questions like this that keep me hopping. Visitors are impressed with the knowledge I display, but I imagine many readers here could match me on that. It's the little things that if I do my job properly a tour group will never notice that's the hard part of my job.

Back to our group. They have arrived in DC. I've jumped on board. They're pumped, I'm ready to show them the sights, what's next? This is where we hit up the most important tool we have: the itinerary. The itinerary is the spine of a tour. It provides structure and support yet allowing flexibility to allow free movement. Well, a good one is. Sadly, many (most?) of my itineraries are lacking in the flexibility department.

Tours aren't quite commodities, but companies have a hard time differentiating themselves. The buses and guides are largely independent contractors, so we're available for hire to anyone that wants us. While I do develop a relationship with a few companies, there isn't enough permanence to allow a company to use me (because I am awesome) and other good guides to differentiate themselves from other companies. And hey, everyone says they hire the best guides in their sales pitches.

Nor can they really break themselves out in the hotels and restaurants. How much a group is willing to spend is far more of a determining factor than which company they hire. And let's face it, there's only so many places to eat for a group in DC. I've eaten at Hard Rock, Buca di Beppo, and Pizzeria Uno more times than I can count (or want to). So what's left?

To make themselves different, tour companies promise groups the world. In your time in DC, you will see the Capitol, the White House, Arlington Cemetery, and all the Memorials. In the morning. Flipping through my itineraries from this season I found a few of these gems:

  • 11:00 lunch at Reagan Building, 12:15 Capitol appointment.
  • Or: 2:30 Capitol appointment, 5:00 dinner, 8:00 Sheer Madness at the Kennedy Center, return to the hotel (in Alexandria) before dinner.
  • And my personal favorite: 9:00 Holocaust Memorial Museum, 10: Visit the Smithsonian (guess what time the Holocaust opens).
Nothing brightens up a tour guides day than to compare notes and find you have the least realistic itinerary.

But tour companies aren't just the only complicit ones here. The customer often judges the quality of their visit with how much they can see in their time here. I'm certainly not going to tell them they're wrong; everyone places value as they see fit. Sometimes, especially in the last few years, you have groups trying to save money by reducing a four day trip to three or such. And sadly, all to often, you find the "these kids will never come back to DC" reasoning from well-meaning teachers of underprivileged kids.

But whoever is at fault, and I'm not interested in laying blame, the end result is more often than not a packed itinerary that leaves little time to relax. It's not unusual to be at breakfast at 7 am and be returning to the hotel at 10:30 pm. We keep these kids hopping and wear them out. We also have no room for delay. This means while I sympathize with my fellow residents, I'm on a mission.

I will push my visitors like a driver on a runaway stagecoach to get them in line at, say, the Archives, trampling women and small children to get there. I will overwhelm the food courts of DC with my herd because I only have thirty minutes for lunch. And yes, I will do things with a bus that will leave commuters fuming in rage for miles back.

But let me confess my bus sins in another post...

Cross-posted at DC Like a Local.


Webb frustrated by congestion, tour buses on the Mall

For a letter that at first blush sounds like it's saying "the Mall should be more of a high-speed freeway for my chauffeured SUV to the Capitol," Senator Jim Webb's letter to Mayor Fenty and the National Park Service is actually quite reasonable.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Webb is frustrated that illegally-parked tour buses on the Mall create traffic congestion, and writes, "While it is clearly in our mutual interest to promote local tourism and an appreciation for the National Capital Region, the severe traffic congestion associated with these sites must be significantly reduced."

Fortunately, Webb comes up with fairly sensible proposals: greater enforcement of parking regulations, designated bus parking areas, and even increased use of Metro to get to and from the Mall.

Mike DeBonis points out that DC very much would like to designate a tour bus parking area, but didn't get a federal grant to set one up in the Mount Vernon Triangle area. DeBonis also suggests that perhaps if the Park Service allowed a Circulator bus, more tourists could ride it, and cites our "typically exhaustive" coverage of this issue. (Thanks!)

It's good that a federal lawmaker is taking an interest in this issue because the decisions about the Mall are almost entirely made by the National Park Service and very little by the DC government.

The disappointing element of Webb's letter is that it's clear he's primarily thinking about the experience of those who drive through the Mall. The Mall provides a beautiful drive along Independence Avenue, but that same area is horrible for pedestrians. Walking from the Washington Monument to the Tidal Basin gives the distinct impression that you're an unwelcome guest in a freeway median.

NPS responds to the pressures from Congress, which sets its budget, and many members of Congress are driven through the Mall to work. Their influence also contributes to NPS's focus on making its parkways, like the GW Parkway, "safer" for drivers by straightening and widening curves, which ironically only makes drivers go faster and creates a new need to straighten more curves for "safety."

I often choose to drive through the Mall and GW Parkway when going between DC and Virginia because its roads are often less crowded than other roads, and have fewer lights. But I strongly avoid going to the Mall on foot. This isn't how our parks should be.

All in all, however, Webb should be commended for suggesting entirely reasonable solutions to a congestion issue: better enforcement of existing laws, and alternatives including transit.

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.


Boxing Day links: bikes, buses and blogs

Ticket dismissed: One of the bicyclists ticketed for riding the wrong way on New Hampshire Avenue by U Street, Sam DuPont, successfully appealed his citation. DuPont argued that "going the wrong way on NH was the only safe way to navigate that part of the city, and that DDOT has recognized this fact in their plans to install contraflow bike lanes on that very block."

Map by the Washington Post.

No idling, please: DC will reserve all on-street parking, except parking directly in front of residences, for tour buses on Inauguration Day in three zones: north of the White House, from 11th to 21st between K and P; NoMa northwest of Union Station; and all of Near Southwest, Near Southeast, and the adjacent Anacostia Riverfront east to RFK's parking lots (via DCist). Lance makes the good point that if all these buses (illegally) idle for hours, it'll dump a lot of pollution into our air. Let's hope DDOT and MPD are ready to enforce the no idling laws.

Around the blogs: And Now, Anacostia wants the original library design back; Silver Spring, Singular posts some old postcards of Silver Spring; Imagine, DC imagines Wheaton.

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