Read an Excerpt
The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C.
By Joe Surkiewicz
John Wiley & Sons ISBN: 0-7645-7557-0
Chapter One Getting around Washington
Driving Your Car: A Really Bad Idea
Traffic Hot Spots
Here's some bad news for anyone considering driving to our nation's capital: Washington is legendary for its traffic congestion. Let's start with the Capital Beltway (I-495 and I-95), which encircles the city through the Virginia and Maryland suburbs: It's guaranteed to be logjammed on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and again from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Unremitting suburban growth and geography confound the best efforts of traffic engineers to alleviate the congestion.
Inside the Beltway, the situation only gets worse. The few bridges that connect Washington and Virginia across the Potomac River are rush-hour bottlenecks. Interstates 66 and 395 in Virginia have restricted carpool lanes inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening. Inside the District, Rock Creek Parkway becomes one-way during rush hour, and major thoroughfares such as Connecticut Avenue switch the direction of center lanes to match the predominant flow of traffic at different times of day. Downtown, the city's traffic circles can trap unwary motorists and reduce drivers to tears or profanity. Pierre L'Enfant's eighteenth-century grand plan of streets and avenues that intersect in traffic circles is a nightmare for twenty-first-century motorists.
First-time drivers to Washington should mapout their routes in advance, avoid arriving and departing during rush hour, and then leave the car parked throughout their stay. Lunch-hour traffic can be equally ferocious, and don't think that weekends are immune from traffic snarls: Washington's popularity as a tourist mecca slows Beltway traffic to a crawl on Saturdays and Sundays in warm weather. If there's any good news about driving in Washington, it's this: After evening rush hour subsides, getting around town by car is pretty easy.
If you ignore our advice about driving in Washington (we repeat: don't) and battle your way downtown by car, you'll find yourself stuck in one of those good news/bad news scenarios. The good news: There are plenty of places to park. The bad news: Virtually all the spaces are in parking garages that charge an arm and a leg. Figure on $12 a day or $5 an hour, minimum.
Think you can beat the system by finding street parking? Go ahead and try, but bring a lot of quarters-and plenty of patience. Most metered parking is restricted to two hours-not a long time if you're intent on exploring a museum or attending a business meeting. And D.C. cops are quick to issue tickets for expired meters. Also, a lot of legal spaces turn illegal during afternoon rush hour.
In popular residential neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Adams- Morgan, parking gets even worse at night. Unless you've got a residential parking permit-not likely if you're from out of town-street parking is limited to from two to three hours, depending on the neighborhood. The parking permits are prominently displayed in the cars of area residents.
If you're tempted to park illegally, be warned: D.C. police are grimly efficient at whisking away cars parked in rush-hour zones, and the fines are hefty. If your car is towed, call the D.C. Department of Public Works at (202) 727-1010; if you're not sure if it was towed, call (202) 727-5000. Incredibly, there's free parking along the Mall beginning at 10 a.m. weekdays; the limit is three hours. Needless to say, competition for the spaces is fierce.
Riding the Metro: A Really Good Idea
A Clean, Safe Alternative
It should be clear by now that visitors who would prefer to spend their time doing something productive rather than sit in traffic jams shouldn't drive in or around Washington. Thanks to the Metro, visitors can park their cars and forget them-just remember you need a Metro farecard and cash to exit the parking lots. Five color-coded subway lines connect downtown Washington to the outer reaches of the city and beyond to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It's a clean, safe, and efficient system that saves visitors time, money, and shoe leather as it whisks them around town. Visitors to Washington should use the Metro as their primary mode of transportation.
The trains are well maintained and quiet, with carpeting, cushioned seats, and air conditioning. The stations are modern, well lighted, and usually spotless, and they are uniformly constructed with high, arching ceilings paneled with sound-absorbing, lozenge-shaped concrete panels. The wide-open look of the stations has been criticized as sterile and monotonous, but the design may explain why the Metro has maintained a crime-free reputation: There's no place for bad guys to hide. In addition, the entire system is monitored by closed-circuit TV cameras, and each car is equipped with passenger-to-operator intercoms, as are rail platforms and elevators. And cars and stations are nearly graffiti free.
The Metro (nobody calls it Metrorail, its real name) transports more than half a million passengers a day along 103 miles of track and through 83 stations. Currently, one line extension and three new stations are under construction (with two of them opening in late 2004). It's a world-class engineering marvel.
Trains operate so frequently that carrying a schedule is unnecessary. During peak hours (weekdays 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.), trains enter the stations every three to six minutes. During off-peak hours, the interval increases to an average of 12 minutes; it can go to 20 minutes on weekends. To maintain the intervals throughout the year, the Metro adds and deletes trains to compensate for holidays and peak tourist season. Hours of operation are 5:30 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, and 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. on weekends and holidays.
How to Ride the Metro
Finding the Stations
Many (but, unfortunately, not all) street signs in Washington indicate the direction and number of blocks to the nearest Metro station. Station entrances are identified by brown columns or pylons with an "M" on all four sides and a combination of colored stripes in red, yellow, orange, green, or blue that indicate the line or lines serving that station. Since most stations are underground, users usually descend on escalators to the mezzanine or ticketing part of the station. At above-ground and elevated stations outside of downtown Washington, the mezzanine is most often on the ground level. At the kiosk located there, pick up a system map with quick directions on how to use the Metro.
Purchasing a Farecard
Next comes the tricky part: You must determine your destination and your fare ahead of time because the ticketing system is automated. Walk up to the backlit, color-coded map located in each mezzanine and find the station nearest your ultimate destination. Then look on the bottom of the map, where an alphabetized list of stations reveals both the fare (peak and off-peak) and the estimated travel time to each. Peak fares, usually more expensive, are in effect from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Unless you're traveling from a suburban station to downtown, or from one suburb to another, one-way fare is typically $1.35 (non-rush hour). A final note: Before you walk away from the map, make a mental note of the last station of the train that you plan to board, even though you're probably not traveling that far. The name of your train's final destination is the name of the train, thus the key to locating the right platform-the one whose trains are going in the right direction. (See photographs starting on page 120.)
Farecard Vending Machines
Those big vending machines lining the walls of the mezzanine don't dispense sodas. Instead, they swallow your money and issue farecards with magnetic stripes that get you in and-this is crucial-out of Metro stations. Once you get your card, hang onto it.
Buying a farecard works like this: Walk up to the farecard vending machine and look for the numeral "1" on the left side at eye level. (We'll call this Step 1.) This is where you insert bills and/or coins. If your destination is, say, a $1.35 fare, and you're making a round-trip, insert $2.70 into the machine. As the money slides in, look at the middle of the machine for the numeral "2" (Step 2), where a digital readout registers the amount you've shoved into the contraption.
Machines that accept paper money invariably screw up, and these machines are no exception. They often spit back bills they don't like, so try smoothing wrinkled bills before inserting them and choose new, unfrayed greenbacks over bills that are worn. Inserting coins is nearly foolproof, but not very practical if you're riding the Metro a lot.
Our advice is to cut down on using these infernal machines as much as possible by plugging in $5, $10, or even $20 at once, which means you're buying a ticket that can last several days or longer. The computerized turnstiles print the remaining value on the farecard after each use, which lets you know when it's time to buy a new one. A major drawback, of course, is the possibility of losing the farecard while it's still worth a few bucks. If you value your time at all, take the risk. Below the digital readout at Step 2 are white "plus" and "minus" buttons that let you adjust the readout to the exact fare you wish to purchase. For example, if your round-trip fare is $2.70 and you inserted a $5 bill, toggle the readout from $5 down to $2.70 by repeatedly pushing the "minus" button. (If you overshoot, push the "plus" button to increase the value.) Then look to the right side of the machine and the numeral "3" (Step 3), and press the button that reads "Press for Farecard." If all goes well (and, in all fairness, it usually does), out pops your farecard and your change-in this case, $2.30 in change; the machines don't dispense bills. (We told you to buy a $6.50 farecard.)
The farther out you get from downtown, the fewer farecard machines line the walls of the mezzanines-which usually isn't a problem at these less busy stations. For balky machines that won't take your money, or for any problem at all, help is only a few steps away at the kiosk located at each station near the faregate. Inside is a breathing human being who will help. Don't be shy.
One last warning: If the farecard machine accepts $20 bills, keep in mind that the maximum amount of change the machine can spit out is $4.95-which means you're stuck buying a farecard with a minimum value of $15.05.
Talking Fare Machines
Metro has installed talking express farecard vending machines at 46 mezzanines in the system's busiest stations; look for the name Passes/Farecards across the top. An optional audio button lets you hear a voice guide you through the steps to purchase farecards, which removes much of the confusion and is a real boon to visually impaired riders.
The machines let you buy up to $200 worth of farecards with a top denomination of $45. You can also purchase the $6.50 one-day pass, valid for unlimited rides after 9:30 a.m. weekdays and all day on weekends and holidays (a very good deal that we recommend most visitors take advantage of ). Currently, you can charge your farecard purchases to VISA, Discover, and MasterCard. Note: Most users will want to press button two, for a single farecard, to begin the card purchase process.
Entering the Station
With your farecard firmly in hand, you are now authorized to enter the Metro station. Hold the card in your right hand with the brown magnetic stripe facing up and on the right. Walk up to one of the waist-high faregates with the green light and white arrow near the kiosk (not the faregates that read "Do Not Enter"-they are for passengers exiting the station) and insert your card into the slot, where it is slurped into the bowels of the Metro. As the gate opens, walk through and grab your card as it is regurgitated from the slot at the top of the gate. All this happens in less than a second. Place the farecard in a safe place; if you lose it, you must pay the maximum fare when you exit.
Finding the Train Platform
Once you're past the faregate, look for signs with arrows and the name of your intended line's end station that point toward the platform where your train will arrive. At an underground station, you will descend on an escalator or stairs to the train platform; at an above-ground station, you will ascend to the platform. You can reconfirm that you're on the correct side of the platform by reading the list of stations printed on the pylon located there and finding your destination. If your destination is listed, you're on the right track; departing trains go in one direction only. Stand in the red-tiled area to wait for the next train.
Boarding the Train
As a train approaches a station, lights embedded in the floor along the granite edge of the platform begin flashing. As the train comes out of the tunnel, look for a sign over the front windshield that states the train's destination and line (blue, red, green, orange, or yellow). The destination, but not the color, is also shown on the side of the train. Double-check to make sure the approaching train is the one you want.
If it's the right train, approach the doors, but stand clear to let departing passengers exit the train. Then move smartly; the train stops for only a few seconds, then chimes will indicate that the doors are about to close. If you're rushing to catch a train and hear the chimes, don't attempt to board. Unlike elevator doors, the train doors won't pop open if you lean on them-and they exert a lot of pressure. Wait for the next train.
Inside, take a seat or, if you're a first-time Metro user, study the system map located near the doors. The trains all have real operators who announce the next station over a PA system and give information for transferring to other lines (sometimes you can even hear them over the din). It's better to study the map and read the signs mounted on the cavernous station walls at each stop.
Exiting the Station
As the train enters your station, move toward the doors. When you step off the train, look for stairs or escalators on the platform and walk toward them. Some stations have two or more exits, but the signs on the walls of the stations aren't always clear about where each exit goes. If you know which exit you want (for example, at the Smithsonian station most tourists want the Mall exit, not Independence Avenue), look for that sign and follow the arrow.
At the top of the escalator or stairs, walk toward the mezzanine area, get your farecard ready, and repeat the same procedure you used to enter the Metro system (card in right hand, magnetic stripe up and on the right, insert in slot). If you bought exact fare, you won't get your card back, but the gate will open and a little sign will flash "Exact Fare." You're on your way. If your farecard still has money left on it, it pops up as the gate opens and the sign flashes "Take Farecard." Do same; exit station.
If your farecard doesn't have enough value to cover your trip, the gate won't open and the card will pop back out. You need to take it to an "Exitfare" machine somewhere just behind you. (Invariably ten people are lined up behind you when this happens, creating the equivalent of a minor Beltway backup.) The reddish-colored Exitfare machines look like their brothers, the farecard machines. Insert your card and immediately the digital readout displays the exact amount of moolah it needs so you can exit the station. (Don't make my mistake: The machine asked for 40 cents and I stuck a $5 bill into it. I got $4.60 in change back.) Plug in the coins; the farecard reappears; grab it; insert same into the faregate, which swallows it and sets you free.
Changing from One Line to Another
Sooner or later-probably sooner-you will need to transfer from one Metro line to another. Metro Center is the Big Enchilada of the transfer stations, where the red, orange, and blue lines converge in downtown Washington. Other transfer stations tourists are likely to hit are Gallery Place-Chinatown (red, yellow, and green); L'Enfant Plaza (yellow, blue, orange, green); Rosslyn (orange and blue); and Pentagon (yellow and blue).
To transfer, you don't use your farecard. Simply exit your train, take the escalator to the correct platform, and reboard. Try to listen to the PA system as your train enters the station: The driver recites where the different lines are located in the approaching station (for example, "Transfer to the red line on the lower level"). If you can't hear the driver's instructions, look for the color-coded pylons with arrows that point toward the platforms, and look for the one with your destination listed on it.
The Gallery Place-Chinatown station is especially complicated. Frequently, you're routed down and up escalators to reach your platform. Keep your eyes up for signs overhead that state reassuring messages such as "Red Line-Wheaton Straight Ahead."
Excerpted from The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C. by Joe Surkiewicz Excerpted by permission.
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