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How It Worked, Part 3: Closing Roads Last Tuesday

One of the most important and controversial parts of the Inauguration Day Transportation plan was the closing of streets and highways in and around Washington.

key bridge (2).jpg Police blocked inbound Key Bridge on Tuesday morning. (Thomson)

It was a bold move: Faced with the task of moving an enormous number of people, planners chose to shut out the most popular instrument of travel, the private car. In the process, they promoted a shift to much less popular forms of travel: transit, walking and biking.

I can raise several questions about that plan:
* Did it underutilize our road network when we needed every transportation asset we could muster?
* Did it require both the enforcers of the plan and the spectators to follow instructions that were far too complex?

But there's no getting around the bottom line: It worked. Hundreds of thousands of people heading for one place at approximately one time were able to reach their destination and get back home again.

Please keep in mind that I'm not evaluating the Inauguration planning overall. The shutout of the ticketholders before the swearing-in ceremony was a travesty. But I think of that as a security issue, not a transportation issue.

In the transportation planning, government officials had to deal with a challenge they knew would be big -- but not how big. Plus, they had to get it right on one day. Most transportation plans are developed for the long run. If something doesn't work right the first day, engineers and enforcers have months to fix it.

So Inauguration Day involved some outside the box planning and a great deal of regional cooperation. If the goal was to avoid paralyzing central Washington, it could only be achieved by a plan with widespread impact. Creating a barrier for cars at the Potomac would have protected Washington's streets, but it would have brought Northern Virginia to a standstill. And the effects would have spilled across the river onto Maryland's roads as drivers out behind the crush flowed across the Wilson and Legion bridges.

The roads plan evolved right up to the days before the inauguration, meaning that the participants -- the street-level enforcers and the oncoming spectators -- had to have the latest information about an unfamiliar situation. That didn't always happen.

Dan Tangherlini, the D.C. city administrator who had a lot to do with developing and executing the plan, said officials and the public had to deal with some surprises. They didn't expect the Third Street Tunnel, reserved for pedestrians, to be so crowded. And they couldn't control the backups at the security checkpoints.

But "I think everyone tried really hard to get it right," he said.

And from what I saw all day Tuesday, I'd have to agree.

By Robert Thomson  |  January 26, 2009; 9:17 AM ET
Categories:  Inauguration  
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Next: Online Discussion This Afternoon

Comments

I commend the WMATA for their tremendous planning and for providing a wonderfully trained staff. I got on the Green line at Branch Ave around 5 a.m. Tuesday and the friendly staff and volunteers kept the crowds moving and relaxed. I am proud to have been amongst the most patient and kind crowds in the world. Thank you to all who made this trip so memorable.

Posted by: Cali711 | January 26, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

One more thing. The text and email alert systems worked wonderfully (until the cell phone lines became too jammed). The updates kept me well informed. I understood that I had to enter the general public standing area on the Mall from the south. I knew that stations might close unexpectedly and that I needed to have a plan B, C and D. I knew that after the ceremony I had to find a warm place to sit (thank you, Smithsonian Castle) until the stations re-opened after the parade. It was quite an effort to stay informed but if you had the right tools (such as a smart phone), it was possible and an effective way to know what was going on. The Washington Post did an outstanding job of keeping the public informed. Kudos!

Posted by: Cali711 | January 26, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Closing 66, 395, and the GW parkway inside the beltway going towards DC was onerous and unnecessary. It just prevented people who didn't want to go to DC but live inside the beltway from going anywhere easily. I could have gone lots of places during the day, but I couldn't have come home using any route I was familiar with.

Posted by: hesaid | January 26, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Planners asked everyone to chip in and make a plan for the day, even if you weren't planning on going to the event.

Sorry, but saying that you stayed home because you couldn't get home on a route you were familiar with isn't going to make anyone feel sorry for ya. There was almost no traffic on the roads that day. Anyone could have come and gone as they pleased with no problem had they taken just a few minutes to look at a map.

Posted by: thetan | January 26, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for recognizing the positives of the day. It really was impressive how well it all worked.

I also agree how helpful the text alerts were. I had them coming from both the washington post and the PIC, and they were were EXTREMELY helpful.

Posted by: NatsNut | January 26, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

This could fall under the Pedestrian or Street Closure section, but the Third Street Tunnel was a godsend.

Without it folks arriving at Union Station or other points north would have had to pass through Pennsylvania Ave on the way to and from the Mall or make major detours.

I only heard about it on the MARC train down from Baltimore but it made things much easier for us.

I'm still amazed they let all of us walk right under the gathered masses above (although there were a lot of police in the tunnel). Great job to all the folks that made the decision to close the streets to cars and then implemented it effectively.

Posted by: patrick21 | January 27, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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