This year, I had the privilege of speaking at Railvolution in Washington DC. I was selected to a panel that included David Alpert & Matt Johnson of Greater Greater Washington and was moderated by Jeff Wood better known on the web & in blogging circles as, The Overhead Wire. For me, it was an honor to be sitting at the same table as these folks considering that they have all been at it longer than me and are generally who I have looked up to when it came to forming my blogging voice.
I was only able to attend the conference the day that I was speaking. The rest of my stay was spent playing tourist in our nation’s Capitol and as such, gave me a great perspective on DC itself. Now, I went in knowing that DC has great urban form but I don’t generally associate DC with great urban form when I play the word association game. I have been trained over the years to fear the Beltway traffic and indeed, looking at a map one can easily spot the standard American flavor suburban sprawl.
However, I was not really prepared for what I witnessed in person. My family and I stayed in Alexandria, VA which is SW and across the Potomac from DC. It has a couple of Metro stations which we took advantage of, as well as it’s own bus system and a free trolley on King Street, it’s tourist boulevard. We spent a couple nights exploring Alexandria since it was easy for us to walk around and very accessible to us since we stayed there.
While I would consider Alexandria a burb of DC, it still presented a FANTASTIC built urban form. For you locals, this must be where Jim Brainard went when he decided how he wanted to transform Carmel because the similarities to the Arts District along Main Street in Carmel and Alexandria are striking.
We also travelled into DC on the Metro a couple of days. The Metro itself is quite simple to use. We bought daily fare cards which when I look at the price, seemed pricey; it was $9 for a single day card. In contrast to that, we spent $22 each for an entire 7 day pass on Trimet in Portland when we visited last year. However, I was intent on experiencing the Metro and it did not disappoint! A smooth, swift and convenient ride was provided and we never waited more than 10 minutes on a train even during off peak time. It was nice to NOT be checking a schedule and instead be nervous that the train was going to show up before I had a chance to double check which direction we were suppose to be headed. Additionally, I want to take a moment to recognize the type of people using the metro. There were handicapped people. Dishevelled looking folks. People talking to themselves. There were young kids with their parents. Teenagers. Hipsters. Military folks. Government workers. People in business suits & skirts. Yes, ALL MINGLING ON THE SAME TRAIN AND RUBBING ELBOWS WITH EACH OTHER; a concept I point out simply because this seems like a foreign concept to most Indy residents, suburban and inner city, who vocally oppose transit spending here in Indy. (ie: “white lighting down from the suburbs” or “hoodlums walking around Fishers“)
For my part, none of this bothered me at all. Maybe I am naive or conditioned to it now that I have studied and experience so much public transit in the past few years but I would be remiss to not point out the melting pot occurring on the trains and buses.
Once we got to DC, the built form there was fantastic. Sure, the area around the White House is mostly park land and it was unfortunate to see that the Reflecting Pool was all dug up (something I still need to check up on and see what they are doing). However, we visited the George Washington University area. This place was crawling with people and home to a vast outlay of dense buildings with ground level retail. We went into Whole Foods to get some eats and had to wait in a que line to get to the register. Overhead, there was a digital readout announcing when it was your turn.
We visited Union Station where it is still used as *gasp* a real train station. There were many folks coming and going on regional as well as Acelea trains. The rest of the place resembled closely an urban shopping mall with many places to dine as well as retail shops. I ventured outside and saw the new DC bike hub which works much like our local hub. They have mechanics on staff to work on bikes as well as a parking facility and some lockers inside of it. It was very tastefully built and well used when we visited.
We visited the Smithsonian Zoo which was unique in that we simply walked in. No attendants taking tickets. Parking itself was QUITE limited and even on the Zoo website they encourage usage of public transit to get there; a suggestion it appeared a lot of people had taken.
We drove down H Street where a streetcar project is being planned. Tracks were embedded into the street ahead of actual service which to me, looks like prudent planning on the part of local planners. I cannot wait to see this project in action!
In conclusion, we did not have nearly enough time to see and experience DC while we were there. It would be nice to have another week to see monuments and experience the vast array of urban spaces. But the time I spent there left me wanting much more of it and renewed my sense of vigor when approaching our local transit initiatives.