Politics & Government

Getting around D.C. during inauguration requires planning

A Red Line train sits in the station at Metro Center in Washington, D.C.
A Red Line train sits in the station at Metro Center in Washington, D.C. Chuck Myers / MCT

WASHINGTON — All roads will lead to Washington on Inauguration Day, but many of them will be closed.

With packed trains, buses and planes, how will as many as 2 million people who are hoping to witness history crowd into a city whose subway system usually accommodates 718,000 a day?

The answer: very carefully. And mostly on foot.

"Doesn't it sound like an adventure?" said Dan Tangherlini, the Washington city administrator and deputy mayor, who's handling transportation planning for the event. "History is not convenient."

It's difficult to determine exactly how many people will be in town for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration, and planners have backed away from the initial estimates of 4 million, saying that they now expect no more than 2 million.

The National Park Service no longer keeps track of such numbers, but the largest crowd ever in the city is widely thought to be that for the 1965 inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson. That drew an estimated 1.2 million people, and it was before Washington had a subway system.

No matter the numbers, though, throngs of people will be trying to get to and from the same place, all at the same time. Most streets will be closed to cars south of K Street Northwest in downtown Washington, from the White House to the Capitol. Taxis will be allowed to travel over the bridges that are closed to private cars, but they won't be able to enter the secure areas that are closed to all traffic in downtown Washington. People who live or work in the capital city also must get around, with the same restrictions faced by those attending the inaugural events.

"It's safe to say this is going to be a monumental challenge for the region and our transportation resources," said Steven Taubenkibel, a spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Bill Line of the National Park Service has this advice: Wear comfortable footwear and prepare to spend the day hoofing it.

"From a strictly practical standpoint, people should be well-prepared to walk," Line said. "And you should be prepared to stand for long periods."

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has 240,000 tickets to the swearing-in ceremony. The committee estimates that another 1 million or more people are planning to watch the inauguration on giant television screens on the National Mall between 4th Street Northwest, near the Capitol, and the Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the mall. Hundreds of thousands more are expected to attend the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest to the White House.

About 1,600 tour buses already are registered for special parking areas. Tangherlini expects thousands more, and urges people who are arriving by private coaches to make sure that their bus drivers have registered with the city for designated parking places. Many who do so will get spots near RFK Stadium; from there travelers will have free shuttle service for the three-mile drive to the mall.

Taubenkibel suggests that people who are staying or live within a two-mile radius of the events plan to walk if they're attending the inauguration or the parade. They also might want to consider taking a Metrobus, since many streets will be closed and driving or parking simply won't be an option, although most suburban Metro stations will have $4 parking available.

City buses will have access to closed-off streets. The buses will be treated as VIPs, Tangherlini said, "like the president's limo."

The transit agency has established special bus routes and lanes to bring people to and take them from the city for the events. To plan bus trips, check the Metro Web site.

On Inauguration Day, the subway lines will operate with rush-hour frequency from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m., and will stay open for two extra hours, until 2 a.m. Wednesday. However, it's clear that the subway system won't be able to accommodate everyone, Taubenkibel said. Even operating at its peak, the Metro will be able to carry only 120,000 people an hour systemwide. From the system's opening at 4 a.m. until noon on Inauguration Day, that's only 960,000 people.

At its peak, the most passengers that the Metro system has ever handled in one day is 854,638 last July, when commuters jammed the system on an especially hot day.

The Metro system does have experience with big events, such as after Nationals baseball games, the annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration on the mall and the crowds that throng the Tidal Basin when cherry blossoms are in bloom each spring. However, even then, people have to wait in line outside Metro stations to get on trains once the events conclude.

"People need to be prepared to be standing for hours on end," Taubenkibel said. "People should expect consecutive hours of extremely crowded trains, packed liked sardines, standing shoulder to shoulder, nose to nose and ear to ear with someone you've never met before."

He warns first-timers not to worry about transferring to other Metro lines on Inauguration Day; it will be too complicated because of the crowds. Instead, he suggests, get off at the closest stop to your destination and walk the rest of the way.

On the bright side, people who are looking for souvenirs of their travel experiences can buy Barack Obama commemorative Metro SmarTrip cards on the agency's Web site. Purchasing a SmarTrip card in advance, which can be preloaded with money to pay for Metro and bus fares, will save time.

Although bicycles will be banned from the Metro and in the areas around the parade grounds and swearing-in ceremony, people will able to ride their bikes fairly close to the events. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association will have "bike valet" stations to the north and south of the festivities for riders to leave their bicycles, and it encourages potential riders to RSVP on its Web site.

While people may stream in steadily in the hours leading up to the 11:30 a.m. inaugural ceremony and the parade after the swearing-in, organizers anticipate the most severe bottleneck conditions after the events. Taubenkibel suggests pacing departures. People ought to find places to have lunch and consider remaining in downtown Washington to visit museums or monuments before embarking on their return journeys, he said.

Since the crowd is likely to be unified and probably will have what Tangherlini described as a "pilgrimage-like quality," planners don't anticipate the types of problems with crowd control the city that has with protests, for example. He urges people to manage their expectations. If they do — and are willing to be on their feet all day — he's certain that they'll have fun.

"It's Washington, it's beautiful, it's your capital, it's an amazing event," Tangherlini said. "It's one of the most important events we have as a democracy. It's a historic election, so I think there's a lot of people who want to come and a lot of reasons that a lot of people are going to come."


The District of Columbia's 2009 Presidential Inauguration Web site

Getting around Washington on inauguration day

Information on Washington's Metro subway and bus systems

More information on the inauguration

Thinking of riding your bike to the inauguration?


McClatchy inauguration coverage

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