The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Tim Krepp

Tim Krepp is an author and tour guide, living and specializing in Washington, DC, but working throughout the east coast. A resident of the more fashionable east side of Capitol Hill, Tim has lived in Washington, DC since graduating from George Washington University a few decades ago.  

Public Spaces

Go ahead, wade in the memorial

Wading in the World War II memorial is emphatically not allowed. Solemnity is the officially preferred emotion. But the memorial's buoyant design inherently invokes liveliness, and strict rules violate the spirit of the war against fascism.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Every summer when Washington heats up, tourists find a respite from the heat at the World War II memorial. Thousands dip their feet in, and a few inevitably wade towards the middle.

Until a National Park Service ranger chastises them for disrespecting the memorial, and makes them return to dry land. Or until local media scolds them back to shore.

The rangers and media are well-intentioned, but treating the World War II memorial with a solemnity not reflected in the design does little to inspire respect.

The memorial doesn't have a solemn design

Truthfully, the World War II memorial doesn't function well as a somber space. Its lively fast-moving fountains and bright, sun-filled plaza bring it to life.

Kirk Savage puts it well in his book, Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape:

The World War II Memorial is decidedly not a psychological space, not a space for reflection and reckoning. The roar of the fountains, and the inscriptions trumpet their messages of determination and rectitude...This is a space not for internal reckoning but for acclimation, pure and simple.
The central fountain doesn't inspire quiet reflection. It's an active, bustling space, full of people enjoying their day every bit as much as they contemplate America's role in World War II.

By intent or happenstance, the design inspires people to move about, to fill what would otherwise be stark emptiness with their activity.

Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

Years ago when I was in the Navy, my captain had a saying: "Every sign is a failure of leadership." For example, if you need a sign saying "no smoking," it's because you didn't properly train your sailors not to smoke in that space.

That axiom doesn't always hold outside the closed ecosystem of a ship, but I think it pertains here. If we need a sign saying "no wading," it's because the design has failed to discourage wading.

If you need several such signs, and rangers need to constantly enforce it, I'd say that far from discouraging wading, the memorial's design implicitly encourages it.

Contrast the WWII memorial with the one for Vietnam

Contrast it with the Vietnam Veterans memorial, where most visitors are naturally somber, and the effect of design becomes clear.

I'm a tour guide. When visiting the memorials with my student groups, I take a moment to warn them about appropriate behavior. But at the Vietnam memorial, my efforts are generally superfluous.

The memorial's very design imposes it's own mores. Few of my students know more than the most cursory details of the Vietnam War, but when they descend into the memorial, with its merciless rise of row after row of names, it makes an impression on even the most jaded eighth grader.

The space inspires a natural quiet reflection.

The World War II Memorial very much does not. Rather, it celebrates life. And that is OK.

Enforced solemnity violates the spirit of the war

To me, the natural enthusiasm and activity imbued within the World War II memorial evokes the spirit of relief and jubilation of the end of the war.

A hard fought war, to defeat what may have been the most concentrated evil political system ever to be seen on this planet, ended with tremendous sacrifice and loss, but with victory.

It is right that we honor the sacrifices of the World War II generation with the somber Freedom Wall, and its 4048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans killed in the war. But just as that wall is only part of the memorial, so should that emotion be only part of our interaction with it.

No one scolded the people celebrating VJ Day in Times Square at the end of the war. We need not scold tourists today. There's room for unbridled enthusiasm, for joy, for relief at the end of deep pain, just as there is a place for solemnity.

I can't claim to speak for the myriad of reasons why millions of individual Americans fought this war. After all, I don't appreciate others characterizing my military service to suit their own ends. But ultimately World War II was about freedom, so let's celebrate that, in all the chaotic and uncontrollable ways it might manifest itself.


Shocking rhetoric from John Townsend and AAA

This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.

Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.

Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.

Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.

The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.

When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."

"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."
We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.

In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.


How do you choose a school?

Schools are important. That's what everyone says, at least. But while much of the public discourse revolves around big picture school reform issues, parents just need to find a good school for their child.

Photo by Sint Smeding on Flickr.

Every parent in the country has school choice to a certain extent, but for the overwhelming majority of them it involves an expensive decision to move to a better school district. Washington residents can avail themselves of that option, and many do, but the bar is radically lower in the District thanks to both charter schools and the DCPS out-of-boundary lottery.

There's been quite a bit of discussion recently about charters vs. DCPS, but that has little to do with the main decision for most parents: picking a school for their child. Most parents don't send their kids to "a charter" or "DCPS"; they pick a specific school. There are any number of advocates saying what they think schools should be, parents have to deal with what schools are today.

With this brave new world of school choice, how should a parent choose a school? There is a wealth of data out there, like the DCPS school profiles and DC Public Charter School Board resources. The problem, of course, is that numbers often don't reflect how "good" a school is. So what should a parent look for?

Here are a few data points that I, and many of my fellow parents, have found useful. It is in no way comprehensive. It is geared to DC public and charter schools, so there is no weighting for cost (if you are considering private schools) or time (if you are thinking of homeschooling).

Nor does it include geographical proximity, as I assume that's a given (and it should be) in evaluating school choices. Finally, there is an inevitable bias towards elementary schools here, as that's where my, and the majority of my compatriots', experience lies.

Here are 7 tips that can help screen school choices.

Wait lists: This may be the very worst single number metric to use to choose a school, except for all the others. After all, you're not looking for the best overall school, you're looking for the school that is the best fit for your child. This is doubly true if you have a special needs child, but you certainly don't need me to tell you that. But, in the big picture, if there's demand for school A and not for school B, that's a sign that school A is worth investigating more deeply.

Morning drop off: Schools are at their most open when children are being dropped off. Is the principal out and engaging with parents and students? Does he or she know their names? Is the process orderly? (It won't be, by the way, but can you find order in the chaos?)

Are the kids eager to go to school? Are they greeting their friends and are parents stopping to chat with each other? A school is a community, not a building. Take this time to chat with teachers, parents, and the principal, if you can do so without getting in their way.

Reach out to them: Drop the principal a note. She's a busy person, but if she doesn't respond personally to you within a day as a prospective parent, she probably won't to an attending parent, either. Your child will almost certainly have an issue or problem of some sort in the many years he attends the school. Do you get a response? Not agreement with your position, necessarily, but an honest engagement with you?

The principal may hand you off to a current parent to answer some of your questions. This isn't a bad thing, but it's another data point for you to evaluate. How smoothly was it done, and do you feel that you are still being engaged or is the buck being passed? Good delegation skills are important, and this is a chance to see if the principal is ducking you or using a strong parent community as the asset it is.

Parents: The other parents will be your allies and often your friends for the next few years. Are the PTA meetings well-attended? In general, I place little stock in the utility of meetings per se, but they are a good indicator of how many people care enough to show up. Talk to friends and friends of friends whose kids attend the school. Find the cheerleaders, and find the complainers. All schools have both, and they both have quite a bit to share.

Library: Frankly, this didn't even occur to me, until a friend of mine, a former DCPS librarian pointed it out. He noted, quite correctly, that the library is a microcosm of the school. Does a librarian greet you, or is the library locked up and only accessible at certain hours? Does the school provide a library budget (some don't)?

Are the books new, or old and worn out? That's a good indicator of how involved the school and/or parents are with the library. In these days of test scores, libraries, and especially school librarians, can easily be regarded as "fat" to be cut, to pay for focused reading instructors for student test takers. Is that the school's priority?

Curriculum: Many parents care deeply about curriculum, and have priorities on this topic before kids even go to school. If that's you, you probably already have a list of questions written already. If it's not you, don't feel left out. But know what you are getting into.

Some schools have strong parental involvement in developing curriculum, some already have it scripted out, and most fall into a spectrum somewhere in the middle. When you talk to the principal and teachers, note if they are engaging in a conversation with you about it, or if they are just telling you what the curriculum is. There are pros and cons about both approaches, but know before you go what you're getting into.

Finally, don't bother: As I noted, wait lists are often a metric of a good school, as is an energetic, noisy parent community. So, nearly by definition, you're not going to get your child into all the schools you're interested in.

Apply to as many as the DCPS lottery will allow, throw in the charters you have your eye on, and walk away. Just walk away. Many a parent has been driven mad by this process. Don't join them.

If your child gets into multiple excellent schools, then start winnowing them down. But you're going to want to keep that to yourself, as other parents are going to view you like a deer that walked in front of the Donner party.

You know what didn't make the cut? Test scores. Because I don't care. As a parent, I don't have to, and I don't want to. The teacher has my child for 8 hours a day, if they can't tell me how she's doing without relying on a yearly standardized test, we've got bigger issues. Relying on test scores to choose a school is like picking a spouse based on taking someone's pulse on a first date.

These are but a few data points I use and recommend to choose a school. Do you have others? Middle schools are coming up for my child, and I'm looking for tips.

Public Spaces

Visitors will walk far to MLK, as they do to most memorials

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.

Photo by jpatrickmadden on Instagram.

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.


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.


Are tour guide licenses unconstitutional?

Washington, DC is one of a handful of cities that requires tour guide licenses. As a guide in DC, I'm required to fill out some forms, pay some fees, and sit down for a written test.

Photo by joelogon on Flickr.

Thanks to some recent reforms within the District's Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), this a relatively painless process. I did it in DC and New York, and am none the worse for wear.

But this process is under attack. Today, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian think tank, is suing DC on behalf of two Segs in the City tour guides, alleging that the process is unconstitutional.

The crux of their argument:

"The government cannot be in the business of deciding who may speak and who may not," said Robert McNamara, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm with a history of defending free speech and the rights of entrepreneurs.  "The Constitution protects your right to communicate for a living, whether you are a journalist, a musician or a tour guide."

This is similar to a lawsuit filed in Philadelphia by the Institute of Justice. In that case, it was to stop a proposal to start up a licensing regime, here it's to get rid of a longstanding one.

Now, I'm as fierce an advocate of our First Amendment rights as the next guy, but I'm having a hard time seeing how my Constitutional rights are being stepped on. Certainly, I had to take and pass a written test, but once that level of knowledge is demonstrated, I'm under no compunction to say anything. If I want to tell you that Robert E. Lee is in the back of Lincoln's head, or that Dan Brown was right about an eternal flame in the Capitol, or heaven forbid, Tomb Guards are doomed to life of sobriety, no government bureaucrat can stop me. I might not get hired again, but that's no business of the state's.

Which is not to say I'm disappointed in this lawsuit. Sure, the Constitutional underpinnings are shaky, but why have a test in the first place? It was poorly written (although DCRA is in process of updating it), and poorly represents the body of knowledge commonly used in a DC tour. Taking a written test simply shows you can memorize a certain amount of knowledge.

I know many people, while not being licensed guides, could step out on the street today and talk intelligently about this city. Conversely, I sadly know quite a number of fully licensed guides who fall for any ridiculous chain mail passed around. The license, in my opinion, is no great indicator of DC knowledge.

Nor is the license program enforced. I've never had someone ask to see it, nor have I even heard of someone doing so. Generally, a certain number of tours are around the monuments whose guides are unlicensed. Now, I will say most tour operators will ask to see your license before hiring you, but if there is zero enforcement, why bother getting one?

So, it looks like the beginnings of a fun debate. Let's get a bag of popcorn and watch the games ensue!


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.

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