Those ubiquitous Tourmobiles in DC
July 29, 2011 6:28 AM   Subscribe

If you have spent anytime at all on the National Mall in Washington DC, you have no doubt seen the Tourmobile trolleys shuttling tourists around to the major attractions surrounding the National Mall. Some are now questioning the 40+ year old monopoly that the operator has held on tourist transportation on the Mall, especially in light of the National Park Service's refusal to open up bidding, or even allow more economical or environmentally friendly services to compete.
posted by COD (54 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, I'm taking the kids to DC in a few weeks. I was already planning to walk the Mall rather than ride around but I'm glad it will stickin' it to da man as well as saving money.
posted by DU at 6:35 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm glad it will stickin' it to da man as well as saving money.

I am pretty sure that "stickin' it to da man" (and possibly saving money) on the Mall may very well lead to a tasing. Be Careful out there.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:47 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Who would have guessed, a poorly operated service under a shaky government contract. THAT'S never happened before!
posted by tomswift at 6:48 AM on July 29, 2011

I hope so! I still can't believe they shut out Capital Bikeshare.
posted by troika at 6:49 AM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the fact that they prevented Capital Bikeshare stations on the mall with the rationale that a tourbus company didn't want the competition, is absurd beyond belief. But then, this is DC, so I do constantly find myself redefining what I have to consider "beyond belief."
posted by Inkoate at 6:53 AM on July 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm glad my wife and I aren't making trips to the mall anytime soon. If that bus seriously is the only form of public transport allowed on the Mall, I feel bad for people who don't have the kind of mobility that allows them to walk several city blocks without pain.

I am reading this correctly, right? It's basically the only way to get from one end of the mall to the other by public transport?
posted by Deathalicious at 6:55 AM on July 29, 2011

Wonder if the potential competitors also have unionized employees.
posted by smackfu at 6:55 AM on July 29, 2011

And if NPS vs DC disputes surprise you, you haven't been in Washington long.
posted by smackfu at 6:57 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

DC Park Police are busy not letting FC Barcelona kick around on the Mall. Because groups over 10 or 15 people aren't allowed. Except for, you know, every single day, when there's softball games, soccer games, frisbee games, football games, etc. going on. DC Park Police suck.
posted by inigo2 at 6:58 AM on July 29, 2011

The mystery here goes deeper than any of you can imagine. "We Await Silent Tourmobile's Empire" - that's all I'll say on this topic. WAKE UP SHEEPLE.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:59 AM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

DC Park Police are busy not letting FC Barcelona kick around on the Mall

Real Madrid bids €50 million for DC Park Police: I have worked out how to stop Barca's passing game, says the Special One.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:02 AM on July 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm glad it will stickin' it to da man as well as saving money.

If you really want to stick it to the man, take a pedicab. Their operations on and around the mall have been a large part of people becoming interested in Tourmobile's monopoly, especially after a pedicab driver was tasered by a Park Police officer.
posted by god hates math at 7:05 AM on July 29, 2011

It's not really true that this is the only way to get around the Mall. The roads that run between the museums and the Mall (Madison and Jefferson) may be Tourmobile only, but the roads behind the museums (Constitution and Independence) have city buses running regular routes. And those museum entrances usually have shorter lines, anyway.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:10 AM on July 29, 2011

How much are the pedicabs, though?
posted by DU at 7:11 AM on July 29, 2011

How much are the pedicabs, though?

The one time I asked? Expensive as hell.
posted by inigo2 at 7:16 AM on July 29, 2011

The National Park Service acts like it's an occupying army in Washington DC.

The park police are noted for their extreme brutality, and enforcement of nonexistent laws and regulations, drawing the ire of both the Mayor, our fake congressional representative, and the [actual] DC Chief of Police. They are literally accountable to no one.

It also doesn't help that the NPS's PR guy evidently got his training on the other side of the iron curtain. Seriously. The guy is like a combination between Charlie Sheen and the Iraqi Information Minister. Ask him a (reasonable, non-pointed) question about NPS policy in DC, and he tells you to fuck off.

The pedicab thing is a fairly recent development. I do still see a few of them around the mall from time to time, but they're starting to be scared away. When I bike around there, they'll usually pull me aside, and tell me which corners to avoid -- the Park Police also love writing tickets for cyclists for essentially made-up violations.

The NPS also manages an absurd amount of land in DC. I don't use the word "absurd" to indicate that they manage a lot of land (which they do), but rather that the distribution of land is completely insane. My neighbor lives on a sharp corner, and his front lawn (about 5x10 feet) is a National Park. No, seriously. Most land in DC that couldn't be divided up into usable parcels ended up in the hands of the NPS. These are often referred to as "pocket parks," and although there's something to be said for the city holding onto these parcels, it's weird that the NPS controls them.

Now, we might not be so upset if they actually made good use of some of these spaces, or maintained the parks. While some of the smaller NPS-managed parks in DC are quite nice and actively maintained (ie. Dupont Circle), the vast majority are completely unmaintained, and completely devoid of landscaping or even basic amenities (more on that in a second). Also, the jurisdictional tangle over where Park Police territory begins and MPD territory ends usually means that these parks are simply un-policed.

Worse still, NPS won't let DC (or Metro, our transit authority) install signage, bus stops, benches, garbage cans, or pretty much anything on or alongside these parks. This is most notably an issue, because the Park Service flat-out refuse to install Capital Bikeshare stations on the Mall, despite the obvious benefits that the system would bring to the area's heavy tourist population. Their arguments against Bikeshare seem to hinge on the Tourmobile concession as well as the itty-bitty bikeshare system operated under antoher NPS concession, neither of which seem to actually prohibit another bikesharing system, or prevent public buses from running on NPS roads and parks.

Oh, right. I didn't mention that part. DC isn't allowed to run public buses near the mall due to these same reasons). Although MrMoonPie is correct that some public buses do run behind the mall, the NPS has prohibited DC from installing signage or modifying maps to indicate the existence of these routes. The DC Circulator had to cancel its services around the mall, because they weren't getting enough riders, presumably because they were forced to take a circuitous route, and because nobody knew they existed.

The NPS also inexplicably controls and maintains a number of roads in DC that are planned and maintained completely independently from the roads controlled by the local DOT and USDOT. Not all of these roads actually pass through NPS parks (eg. Constitution Ave). Nobody's really quite sure if Rock Creek Parkway is supposed to be a highway, why the GW Parkway is a 50mph grade-separated road with no lights, but somehow has crosswalks, or why road construction basically just happens unannounced on NPS roads. It was amusing/terrifying to see the NPS close lanes on the Rock Creek Parkway, and then somehow dig up the actually-open lanes instead of the ones they just closed. The Park Service also remains painfully oblivious to the existence of public transportation in DC, despite the fact that we've got a pretty nice system here. Driving/parking is sold as the best way to get to the Zoo, despite the existence of two Metro stations within a 5-10 minute walk of the entrance. One of them is even named 'Zoo' (albeit the one that's further away; Metro has its fair share of weirdness too).

Inexplicably, despite the Park Police's trigger-happy attitude around the mall, traffic enforcement is extremely lax, especially on the Parkways. MPD and others are afraid to encroach and write tickets, because of "turf" issues. Rock Creek Park itself isn't all that well patrolled (ahem. Chandra Levy).

Rock Creek Park, it should be mentioned, is a wonderful strip of wilderness in the middle of DC. Unfortunately, it's annoyingly difficult to actually get to. There are few entrances, and the thing seems like it was designed to be driven through instead of hiked/biked through.

Now, the NPS's arguments against Bikeshare, public buses, etc. might make sense if they were doing a good job of maintaining the mall and their other properties, but they're not. Tour buses idle everywhere, and the NPS wants to make changes to allow even more, but not provide a place for them to park out-of-sight. The mall is littered with ugly structures that were obviously intended to be temporary, but have stuck around for 20+ years. Basic amenities like benches and footpaths are not maintained. Other larger infrastructure is left to rot until it needs to be replaced (ie. the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool). Food options are few, far between and shitty, while new ones are illegal thanks to the nature of the monopolistic refreshment concession. I still don't quite get why the street vendors around the mall are allowed to continue to exist, or why they still advertise the fact that they sell Kodak Film with huge yellow signs. There are no restrooms, although there is a de-facto permanent installation of porta potties lining the mall for the many events that take place there. Event organizers are left to fend for themselves, and do not necessarily have to make the loos available to all (this was most notably an issue during the Jon Stewart rally, when the Marine Corps Marathon which was scheduled to run the next day withdrew from their agreement to share the porta-johns, and then *padlocked* them. )

Oh, and speaking of events, they've told the Solar Decathlon that they can't host their event on the mall, and instead forced this eco-awareness event to another location miles outside of DC, in a transit-inaccessible location (ha!).

The mall as a whole remains a hideous sun-parched stretch of barren turf -- the NCPC has its own fair share of blame for planning things this way, but the NPS sure don't seem to care about keeping the grass alive. The NCPC is also a weird, ass-backwards organization that considers the current design of the mall to be sacred and historic, despite the fact that it was not included in the L'Enfant plan, and is at best a partial (and fairly recent) implementation of the McMillan Plan. 1960s-era efforts at urban renewal south of the Mall have actually altered its structure so significantly that it's hard to consider the current design to be historic. (But, god forbid DC attempt to install a streetcar, or implement other measures to get people out of their Historic cars and tourbuses near the mall).

So, yeah. We don't very much like the Park Service in these parts... The Tourmobile is frankly the least of our concerns. (Although their ancient, un-air-conditioned buses that belch diesel fumes everywhere, and cost $32/day to ride sure are amusing when you consider their sheer impracticality and apparent economic unviability.)
posted by schmod at 7:19 AM on July 29, 2011 [67 favorites]

DC v federal anything is no shock, but in my experience Bikeshare has a knack for fixing placement squabbles.

As for union, Circulator would be the best bet, it's partially owned by WMATA but run by another company. I can't check further though, I'm stuck in one of metro's fine tunnels at the moment.
posted by troika at 7:20 AM on July 29, 2011

Is this something I'd need to own a national mall to understand?
posted by gonna get a dog at 7:35 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

My main remembrance from my visit to DC a couple of years ago was how poorly the mall (and related parks) were maintained. Corrupt government contracts are just the start of DCs problems.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:36 AM on July 29, 2011

schmod, the Solar Decathlon will be held at West Potomac Park which is adjacent to the Mall (pdf map).
posted by peeedro at 7:44 AM on July 29, 2011

god forbid DC attempt to install a streetcar, or implement other measures to get people out of their Historic cars and tourbuses near the mall

Haha! But ugh.

The fact that the National Park Service runs highways in the D.C. area (such as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway) is really weird to me.
posted by grouse at 7:45 AM on July 29, 2011

Wow, schmod, thanks for that! I live in DC and I knew stuff was crazy but I didn't really have a grasp on how it worked. I still don't but at least I know why I don't understand (because it's messed up and they won't tell me). Dunning–Kruger FTW!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:00 AM on July 29, 2011

It's not really true that this is the only way to get around the Mall. The roads that run between the museums and the Mall (Madison and Jefferson) may be Tourmobile only, but the roads behind the museums (Constitution and Independence) have city buses running regular routes. And those museum entrances usually have shorter lines, anyway.

You actually expect tourists to use CITY BUSES? I mean, it's a perfectly reasonable thing to ask but most Americans who are rich enough to be tourists think Busses Are Not For People Like Us.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:02 AM on July 29, 2011

Oh c'mon, you have to admit that buses are terrible as a tourist, because their running schedules are erratic and they never announced stops. "Oh, that bus doesn't stop here on the weekends." "Oh, that stop was ages ago."
posted by smackfu at 8:21 AM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I bike through the mall on my daily commute - in constant fear of the tourmobiles. Being behind one of them feels like kissing an exhaust pipe.
posted by Vhanudux at 8:33 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

peeedro: "schmod, the Solar Decathlon will be held at West Potomac Park which is adjacent to the Mall (pdf map)."

Oh, right. My mistake. I was still livid from the original prospect of holding it at National Harbor. Completely forgot that that incident got resolved semi-amicably. Capital Bikeshare somehow managed to install some temporary outposts at West Potomac Park during the Cherry Blossom Festival (because they're awesome like that), so I'd hope that they'll be able to do the same for the Decathlon...

Apparently the NPS actually manages more miles of roadway in the US than USDOT does. One of those weird quirks. Might make sense for backcountry roads and scenic parkways...makes very little sense for an urban environment. It's so painfully obvious that the NPS is out of its element in DC, and makes it a tiny bit easier to forgive their horrendous mismanagement of DC's urban parks.

Places like the BW parkway are holdouts from the days when parkways were just that -- parks. Unfortunately, bad planning on the part of NPS turned many of these into actual highways, BW parkway included (although it must be said that it *is* landscaped more nicely than your average interstate. I'd say that the GW Parkway has managed to maintain most of its park-ey-ness, although I'd argue that the Rock Creek Parkway is a bit more controversial. There are other reasons for this too. DC's interstate network got planned, partially built, and then aborted in favor of Metrorail. Then even more bits of it were scrapped. This was a good thing, but left us with a few gaps in our road infrastructure. Rock Creek Parkway fills one of these gaps, but unfortunately does it at the expense of a very nice area of wilderness.

New Jersey had the same problem with the Garden State Parkway, which is not a national park, but turned from a scenic 1-2 lane road with scenic views, parks, and picnic areas throughout the state into a behemoth 20+lane road (that eventually narrows back down to 2 lanes, just to make the thing a complete clusterfuck). To rub salt in the wounds, they also closed the picnic areas, because they were too expensive (but a 15-lane bridge wasn't).

...and the problems that tourists have with buses are largely addressed by The Circulator (ie. DC's bus for white people). It has very clearly posted hours, a very simple network of routes, a good map, and it runs regularly enough that timetables aren't much of an issue (it's usually more frequent than Metrorail). They also do a remarkably good job of avoiding bunching and sticking to their timetables. They built a lot of flexibility into the Circulator's schedule (unlike Metrobus), and it really does show.
posted by schmod at 8:33 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Apparently the NPS actually manages more miles of roadway in the US than USDOT does.

Don't the states run the roads normally, even the interstate? Which roads does the DOT manage?
posted by smackfu at 8:53 AM on July 29, 2011

I don't even know where to start taking schmod's assertions apart but so many many things there are false or over stated.
To start with calling the Circulator "DC's bus for white people" is just ridiculously racist, which is totally not surprising coming from a Washingtonian, but is surprising from a Mefite. I suppose the little blue Connector buses are for white folk too, despite getting used by DC's working class to commute cheaply from parts of North West? It's not even solely a tourist bus, I used to use it to get to work in Georgetown cause Metro will never build a fucking stop there.
As to the issues with the Mall, the majority of what you've said is hyperbole. I lived in DC for the majority of my life and spent hours and hours on the Mall, both drunk and sober, and neither I nor anyone I knew ever had incident with the NPS. If you've had issue with the DC park rangers you might want to look closer to home.
Apparently the NPS actually manages more miles of roadway in the US than USDOT does.
Yeah, you should have found that little tid bit out before lambasting the NPS for not taking better care of the multitude of roads in DC they are tasked with caring for. Do you think the National Park Service has money just coming out of it's ears? You do realize that they're looking at a 101 million dollar budget cut, right? So we can bomb more dangerous desert areas? The NPS inherited Rock Creek and honestly, if you're having problems accessing it by anything but car then you must not know the city all that well. I didn't own a car when for the last 7 years I lived in DC and took full advantage of the park.
And leave it to a spoiled Washingtonian to complain that too much of the city is protected park land. Seriously? Have you spent time in any other major American city that isn't Seattle or San Francisco? DC has it's problems but too many parks and trees is certainly not one of them. If anything the "insane" amount of park land is one of DC's selling points.
But Washingtonians love to bitch, it's part o the reason I was so happy to leave. You've got an underfunded park service doing it's best to maintain some of the loveliest parts of what is, by and large, a beautiful city, all the while having DHS breathing down their necks because they're a potential target and you wanna fucking whine about the tourist not being able to find the buses that run just a block or two off the mall? No shit, dude, tourists from the midwest, the ones that treat DC as Founding Father DisneyLand, those cats don;t use buses. But the buses are there and as serviceable as the bus system in most cities. Sure, Seattle has a better bus system, but they can't get a subway built. Meanwhile DC has the Metro which is consistently rated the most reliable and cleanest subway in the country.
And that Zoo sit is just disingenuous. The "zoo" station is a good 15 minute hike, uphill, from the actual National Zoo (which is a fucking terrible zoo, if you wanna complain about something), so if you're older or have kids it's really a chore. The Cleveland Park is slightly closer but not labeled as a zoo stop. You can blame that on the wealthy in Woodly Park, for the same reason their stop is labeled "Adams Morgan" despite Columbia Heights being equidistant to 18th Street. God forbid the crowd from Herndon have to see some black and Hispanic folks of the way to the fucking Reef.
Like the majority of DC's problems, the Mall issue is a lot more complex then it seems on it's face but, since DC is primarily a transient town it's always easier for residents to bitch and moan while they do their time before moving to NY or back to Pennsyltucky than actually work to affect change.
posted by mikoroshi at 9:31 AM on July 29, 2011

I was going to say that that Zoo stops is a far walk... but to be honest, the Zoo itself is all walking, on a slope. If you can't walk to it, you won't enjoy it once you get there.
posted by smackfu at 9:43 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

schmod's comment pretty much nailed it, while most of the other DC law enforcement agencies have some oversight the Park Police are essentially unaccountable. I'd like to add that one of the reasons that "the mall as a whole remains a hideous sun-parched stretch of barren turf" was the Solar Decathalon- as much as I loved having it on the mall, in the past few years it had gotten much larger and was causing more and more damage to the turf. Having it in Washington Harbor would have been an embarrassment.

On preview: Calling the Circulator "the bus for white people" is a fairly accurate generalization, not a hard and fast rule. and overall I haven't had many issues with the NPS police, but there have been a handful- last year I was biking on the Mall and was stopped at the light at 14th and Madison next to a Park police officer. He starts yelling at me for "running the red light" because my bike was at the front end of the crosswalk, and then threatened to write me tickets for biking without a helmet and having an unregistered bicycle (neither of which are offenses). I didn't try to correct him as he was pretty agitated and I wanted to defuse the situation, not prove to him that I knew the law. That incident lowered my opinion of them quite a bit.
posted by Challahtronix at 9:51 AM on July 29, 2011

Mikoroshi, a lot of what you're saying is true, but one of the goals of the Circulator was explicitly to "re-brand" bus service in the District. What did they need to "re-brand" from? Hmm.

(also, do a poll of your less-enlightened DC friends, and guaranteed that someone will report that they'll take the circulator but avoid Metrobus like the plague? Why? "Sketchy people".)
posted by downing street memo at 9:53 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, read @FixWMATA and @unsuckdcmetro. An ASTOUNDING number of the complaints they RT are thinly-veiled whines about having to ride the bus with "those people".
posted by downing street memo at 9:58 AM on July 29, 2011

God forbid the crowd from Herndon have to see some black and Hispanic folks of the way to the fucking Reef.

Plenty of black and Hispanic folk work at the Reef, I know this because I used to work there. Dial it back some.
posted by peeedro at 10:03 AM on July 29, 2011

Plenty of black and Hispanic folk work at the Reef, I know this because I used to work there.

Um. Dur? And they probably live in the city as well, but that's aside from my point, I was speaking to the clientele, not the employees, which I'm sure you knew.
posted by mikoroshi at 10:12 AM on July 29, 2011

Thanks for the ad hominem, mikoroshi. I needed that this morning.

You know...after reading through that rant, I can't really find what problems you had with my comment.
  1. For somebody who hates people who complain.....oh never mind.  
  2. Yes. The racial distribution of the Circulator's ridership is skewed in the opposite direction of that of Metrobus, and with the elimination of the mall route, it would be hard to label it as a tourist service. It's no secret that the Circulator was meant to ease certain commuters in Northwest DC into the idea of using the bus as a viable transit option. They've been pretty successful in these affluent and mostly-white areas, and I think that these successes could be replicated to the tourist population. And, for what it's worth, I'm a white guy living in a ~80% black neighborhood in Northeast, and take metrobus almost every day. Most of the people who ride my route are black, poor, and very friendly. I apologize for unintentionally race-baiting, can we please stop this derail now?  
  3. "DC can't have nice roads because the park service budget got cut." If you can't see the problem with this statement, I think you're missing the point entirely.   I also don't think that a lack of funds has ever really been the issue. By and large, when the NPS wants to complete a project in DC, the federal government appropriates the money for it. Ongoing maintenance and a coherent plan for the future, on the other hand, are virtually nonexistent. (Yes, there is a plan, but it is mainly a self-congratulatory pat on the back that says that the mall should remain basically unchanged, and that NPS should continue to do what it's been doing all along, complete with awful 1960s-esque planning paradigms. Yes, I've read the whole thing.)  
  4. Ditto for the pocket parks. Open space is grand. However, when the park service retains ownership of National Parks the size of my bathroom, does nothing to maintain them, and then refuses to let the city make improvements on its own dime, then yeah. It's a big fucking problem.  
  5. The Map of Rock Creek Park should speak for itself in terms of access. Actually, it doesn't, because it only highlights major roads, and only includes footpaths as an afterthought, which should tell you something right away. Many of the roads into the park don't even have sidewalks (you can't tell which from the map). It's not a walled fortress, and there are access points, but there are many places right next to the park that literally require you to walk for miles before you actually come to an entry point. Maybe this is a planning issue, and maybe it's DC's fault. However, the front that the Park Service puts up makes it impossible for even the mayor to get a word in. Failing to solicit public/local opinion is one thing. Failing to interface with local planning agencies is another. Not returning the mayor's phone calls should have been the last straw. There are many people who are arguing that DC should simply install bikeshare stations on the pocket parks, and let the NPS sue us if they don't like it.
posted by schmod at 10:21 AM on July 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Map of Rock Creek Park should speak for itself in terms of access.

Hey, at least it includes Metro stations! Of course, since the NPS didn't see fit to include the station names, it is not very useful for planning a trip there by Metro.
posted by grouse at 10:33 AM on July 29, 2011

Tourmobile drivers make $18/hour. The unique fleet of buses generated revenue for local machine shops and mechanics. The NPS makes 1.8 million per year. It sounds like the business does an effective job of spreading wealth between a large number of business from tourists visiting DC. I suppose Metro could suck the money up into their corruption, or some
other rich guy could figure out a way to make more money, but meh. I like bike share, but I'd rather not have it on the Mall. My ride is crazy enough with the pedestrian tourists.
posted by humanfont at 10:48 AM on July 29, 2011

Actually, the NPS's profit was $1.6 million spread over 4 years. So, like $400,000 a year, or twenty cents per ($32) Tourmobile ride.

Not exactly chump change, but also not exactly a huge moneymaker for the NPS, or a huge drain on the tourmobile's revenues. Smells like corruption, given that I find it virtually impossible to believe that no other firm would be able to provide a better service at a lower price to the consumer and a higher concession fee back to the NPS.

Nothing about the Tourmobile concession passes the sniff test, and frankly, the entire concession system seems very inapproprite (if not borderline illegal) in a busy urban environment. Sure, it makes sense to offer exclusivity and guarantees to vendors in remote parks. However, why not just charge rent or tolls here in DC for vendors that want to establish themselves in or near the parks? The worst part of this all is that (from the article in the OP) it's starting to look like the concession might not actually guarantee the Tourmobile exclusivity on the mall, which means that the NPS is once again inventing its own rules, and playing bully to the citizens and visitors of DC for no reason.

To compare to that $18/hour bus driver salary, consider that Metrobus drivers make $24/hour on average. Pay for Circulator drivers starts much lower ($14/hour), but somehow have a reputation for being safer, and having better customer service, which suggests that the Circulator has an effective performance-based promotion scheme in place. (I love Metro, but they've got some labor-related cost control issues)

Sorry. I'll try to stop posting to this thread. Even though it's not my original home, I really do love and care about DC, which is why I'm riled up about this. To quote the tagline of one of my favorite local blogs, Washington's great, but it really could be greater.
posted by schmod at 11:39 AM on July 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Thanks schmod. I stand corrected.
posted by humanfont at 11:41 AM on July 29, 2011

I'll try to stop posting to this thread.

Personally, I've found your contributions to this thread fascinating and would love to see more.
posted by grouse at 12:10 PM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

blue_beetle: "My main remembrance from my visit to DC a couple of years ago was how poorly the mall (and related parks) were maintained. Corrupt government contracts are just the start of DCs problems."

This isn't a DC problem because DC isn't allowed to fix it. It is a Federal problem. Congress loves to treat DC as their own little fiefdom, doing things like banning District funding for abortion despite no Federal funds being used (the District's tax money has to run through the Treasury, so despite the money being locally raised and allocated, Congress gets veto power).

The Federal government costs DC a shitload of money and doesn't contribute all that much monetarily. But, man, when it comes to telling DC what to do, Congress is all over that.
posted by QIbHom at 12:23 PM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Federal government costs DC a shitload of money and doesn't contribute all that much monetarily.

That's not exactly fair; they're far and away the region's largest employer, and government indirectly employs even more people. There's a reason our unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country.

DC gets a raw deal from Congress, I agree, and home rule should be strengthened. But things aren't all that bad here.
posted by downing street memo at 1:03 PM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes. Congressional meddling is a problem, and DC's lack of voting representation in the legislature should be a national embarrassment.

HOWEVER, I'm not entirely convinced that these are necessarily the biggest source of Washington's problems.

A large part of the problem lies with the fact that Washington is managed and planned by a myriad of competing bodies and jurisdictions, none of which are accountable to every person in the metropolitan area.

Most pertinent to this thread, the Park Service is complementary to DC's own department of Parks & Recreation, and the NPS continues to manage many parks in the DC region that have no national significance. There's also the awkward issue of the Fort Circle parks, which were allocated to the park service in the early 20th-century, and never really developed into the concept for which they were envisioned. Even most Washingtonians have no idea that there's a national park encircling the whole city, because it's completely undeveloped and unused. Shouldn't DC get that land back so that it can be developed into a system of local parks? What about Dupont Circle? Why is that a national park?

When things get sticky with the park service, local citizens have no recourse or democratic action that can challenge NPS decisions, short of a full-scale riot. (We actually did have a full-scale riot when USDOT wanted to demolish half the city to build a network of freeways). I'm not quite sure I could classify the park service's mistakes as congressional meddling, but it rather seems like the Federal agencies that manage DC act as feudal entities that disregard the opinions and needs of local residents, and even local politicians. The mayor doesn't have veto power over NPS decisions in his city, and that's a huge problem.

Speaking of duplication, let's talk about the police. Washington DC has over two dozen police departments. Not police stations. Departments. One of those is directly accountable to the mayor and citizens of DC. Usually, this isn't a problem (Park Police excepted), but it's incredibly inefficient, and creates jurisdictional confusion (ie. who monitors traffic on the roads connecting to the Rock Creek Parkway?). Washington has more police per capita than any other city in the US, and that number doesn't include most of the federal police forces. I don't have a great answer to this problem, but the current state of affairs is absurd.

Of course, those per-capita numbers are skewed by the fact that DC's commuter population is almost equal to its resident population. Should commuters get a say in local affairs? I'd tend to say "Probably," but also that they should probably pay some sort of taxes in exchange for using our city (they don't). Congressional meddling has prevented any sort of bridge toll or commuter tax from being enacted.

Washington, DC lies at the awkward confluence of Virginia, Maryland, and the Federal Government (not to mention being an entity in and of itself). How do you comprehensively plan for a region composed of four separate political entities revolving around a small central hub, which is an entity in and of itself? This makes region-wide planning very difficult and a perpetual tug-of-war between the jurisdictions.

Border cities have it tough, but DC really gets screwed here, because it lies between two borders, and has its own government, which often gets subjugated by a third entity (the federal government).

For starters, you get a race-to-the-bottom effect with local taxes and social services, and to also be perceived as having the lowest taxes so that they can lure in new residents and businesses (Virginia claims this all the time, but the actual tax burden for a middle-class VA resident is often much higher than the equivalent person in DC). There's constant pressure to be the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in the region. Similarly, there's a drive to eliminate social services so that the "undesirables" are pushed out into a neighboring jurisdiction. Virginia used to literally buy one-way bus tickets to send homeless people over the 14th Street Bridge into DC, where we would have to deal with them.

Also, because Virginia and Maryland want new residents, that often means sprawl. Although Arlington County must be lauded for some truly fantastic urbanization efforts along the Orange and Yellow lines of Metro, almost every planning-related decision made on a region-wide level must include concessions that enable more sprawl into the exurbs. The Silver Line to Dulles is the most recent and egregious example of this, especially since the project won't add any more capacity to Metro in DC's urban core, rejected every design decision that could have enabled good urban infill along its route, and still somehow managed to cost an arm and a leg.

Planning decisions (particularly those related to transportation) in Virginia, Maryland, and DC all have an impact on the other regions. Why should only one region get a say, and not the others? Widening I-66 to funnel more car traffic into DC would be horrible for DC, although DC would have no way to override that decision if Virginia decided to do that. Similarly, why should DC have to pay to add more capacity to its portion of Metro because Virginia decided to build a ridiculously long elevated railroad out to the exurbs?

Metro itself an interesting case, because it's simultaneously accountable to everyone and nobody. Whenever Metro has a problem or needs additional funding, all 3 jurisdictions (and possibly the federal government) must agree. Whenever something bad happens, nobody is willing to take responsibility, lots of fingers get pointed, and nothing gets fixed. Each jurisdiction gets to appoint board members, although the process by which this occurs can be unfair, chaotic, and occasionally results in board members who do not act in good faith. Virginia's gotten into a particularly nasty habit of appointing members to Metro's board who don't even live in the DC area, while DC has swapped board members out 2 times so far this year. All 3 jurisdictions have been guilty of appointing Metro board members who do not actually use transit. Again, I don't have a real solution here, but Metro's structure as a regional body composed of 3 jurisdictions and the federal government makes accountability and fair planning incredibly difficult to implement in practice.

In addition to all this, DC's got other weird pseudo agencies to contend with. The Architect of the Capitol also manages a few parks and roads, and has its own police force for the area surrounding the capitol. Amtrak also does its own thing, and managed to block a DC transit project that would have taken away some employee parking from Amtrak at Union Station. The National Capitol Planning Commission is another mostly-unaccountable pseudo-agency that has the power to meddle in DC's affairs, and override decisions made by the DC government and the Park Service if it sees fit.

Although the NCPC and Metro were designed as regional bodies to enable cross-jurisdictional planning and coordination (hypothetically solving many of the problems I've outlined in this comment), the structure of their governance has often resulted in decisions and policies that directly contradict this goal.

So, yes. While congressional intervention is responsible for many of DC's problems, I don't think it's necessarily correct to pin the region's issues on that particular aspect of DC's unique political status. There's a whole lot more going on than that.
posted by schmod at 3:19 PM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

most Americans who are rich enough to be tourists think Busses Are Not For People Like Us

And yet said tourists seem to have no problem when the bus is called a Coach.
posted by Rash at 4:34 PM on July 29, 2011

Excellent posts, schmod. It doesn't help the situation that citizen groups like the Committee of 100 pull nonsense like opposing streetcar wires underneath the elevated Whitehurst Freeway.
posted by djb at 4:36 PM on July 29, 2011

Remember how I cited Dupont Circle as one of DC's "city parks" that the NPS actually seems to manage fairly well?

Turns out, there are quite a few people who disagree with that assessment.

Oh, and I didn't mention the C100, because I frankly don't think that they deserve any credibility as a group. The sooner that we stop treating them like they're an official/elected body, the better. They're a group of "concerned citizens" who successfully fought the expansion of freeways into DC in the 1960s, and although this was a laudable goal, they did it because they're one of those groups that votes "No" on every single issue, regardless of merit. No matter what the issue, the C100 votes to preserve the status quo. I cannot stand the fact that local journalists and politicians feel the need to solicit opinions from the group on every single issue.

If you're looking for a more nuanced and reasonable political advocacy group that focuses on planning, check out the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

posted by schmod at 8:40 AM on August 1, 2011

schmod writes "Ditto for the pocket parks. Open space is grand. However, when the park service retains ownership of National Parks the size of my bathroom, does nothing to maintain them, and then refuses to let the city make improvements on its own dime, then yeah. It's a big fucking problem.   "

The average bathroom is between 64 and 100 square feet. Are there actually a significant number of parks smaller than that where maintenance is a problem?
posted by Mitheral at 9:52 AM on August 1, 2011

It's bigger than my bathroom, but I bet lots of folks have more space than this. This one's OK looking because the area residents keep it that way, and this one looks like it might be on the way to an adverse possession claim. Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head in my neighborhood, and there are hundreds more. OK, so "the size of my bathroom" might have been hyperbole, but it's a real problem--can you imagine sorting through the jurisdictional issues at this intersection?
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:15 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

can you imagine sorting through the jurisdictional issues at this intersection?

posted by schmod at 8:04 PM on August 3, 2011

Those spaces all appear to be at least a car length per side or maybe two depending on whether the sidewalk is part of the park or not. Even at a modest 15' car length a square would be ~600 square feet (IE: small house size). A triangle encompassing a third of that is still 200 square feet. I imagine there are people with bathrooms that size but it isn't close to the norm.
posted by Mitheral at 8:22 PM on August 3, 2011

You people are actually arguing whether a park is more the size of a bathroom or a small apartment. I think you are losing the big picture.
posted by smackfu at 5:49 AM on August 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

The home of the 'father of black history' is owned by the NPS. It currently sits vacant and neglected.

Park Police harass motorist for stopping at crosswalk. Coincidentally, the motorist blogs, and the guy he stopped for is a journalist. Neither are amused.

This week, DC finalized a formal set of pedicab regulations. All in all, they're a rational set of guidelines that will improve safety for cyclists, drivers, and passengers, whilst clarifying the legal status of these vehicles. The NPS PR flack responded claiming that the NPS will not abide by these regulations, and then added an incredibly bizarre addendum/threat that "someone could get killed."

Somebody get this guy a job with Dan Snyder.
posted by schmod at 7:23 AM on August 10, 2011

Some better news: The Park Service will renovate a pocket park in Dupont Circle
posted by schmod at 10:51 AM on August 15, 2011

More good news: The Tourmobile's days are numbered. The CityPaper managed to raise enough of a ruckus this time around that it caught the attention of Park Service director John Jarvis, who offered this breath of sanity:
Jarvis also says the decades-long connection between his agency and the Tourmobile — those familiar blue trams that look like they came straight from Universal Studios Hollywood in 1978 — is about to come to an end. "I think that period of history is just about over," Jarvis told Samuelsohn. "A lot of other alternatives are available. Clearly the public needs transportation. But Tourmobile was pretty much the only game in town for a long time and now there's a lot of different kinds of other circulations. … There's got to be a lot of other options."
posted by schmod at 8:36 AM on August 17, 2011

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