Last week I traveled to Washington, DC. I’ve only been to the city once since my wife and I lived there a number of years ago so I was pretty amped up about the opportunity to see what changes had occurred over the years. Anyway, I flew into Reagan National looking forward to (Ready? I kid you not, this is really important to me!) taking the Metro from the airport across the river into town. I’m sure this will sound very urban planner-ish, but my first impression of any larger American city is often colored by how many options exist for me as an air traveler to get from point A, the airport, to ideally, point B, the city’s center or downtown. And then, bonus points go to cities that allow me to accomplish this maneuver a) preferably by some form of mass transit, b) quickly, c) during most hours the airport is busy, and d) relatively inexpensively. The idea of getting to an airport and needing to drop major cash on a taxi or car service or schedule one of those pickup vans that drive you and fifteen other folks all over creation before you get to your destination is not my idea of the big time. No, give me a limited-stop bus or better yet, a train, any day. Based on my prior but quite musty experience – I was familiar with Metro but hadn’t used it in years – I had high hopes for DC.
Fortunately, with the exception of only a few minor glitches, I was not let down. Upon exiting the terminal gate, I quickly located the M-in-a-square signage I was looking for and started making my way through the terminal.
Yep, look at me, big city traveler, I got this! Oops! Where’s the train? Next thing I know I was outside the terminal, curbside, waiting for a shuttle. Booooooo. The Metro station was through an adjacent terminal that I probably could have walked to but the signage led me outside apparently to torture my body, which after a number of years in Colorado has adapted to an arid climate, with DC’s signature humidity. Fortunately, after I had lost only maybe a pound or two in that heat, a shuttle pulled up and I asked the driver, who thankfully was helpful, if he was going to the airport Metro station. “Yes.” “Great,” I thought. I’m back on track. I exit the shuttle and head into the terminal toward the Metro station, check the system map (Metro’s is a good one) to find my destination, and walk over to the ticket machine where I confront what seriously looks to my unfamiliar eyes like the cockpit of the jet I just got off. I am truly sorry I don’t have a photo of this machine to share with you – I think the sheer complexity of it all stunned me to inaction what with the words and on/off-peak prices and buttons and arrows and such – but, sheesh!, I had about two aborted attempts before I finally worked up enough courage to buy my ticket. Boooooo two, indeed! However, for five dollars I covered my round trip; almost full redemption for that ticket-by-NASA user-interface! I head up to the platform and yes!, signage that tells you how many minutes until your train arrives. Love it. Five minutes later, I’m aboard the train and heading toward the city.
From the airport it was six stops to the GWU-Foggy Bottom station which is the closest to Georgetown, my destination neighborhood. Upon exiting the station at about 1:30pm, I walk into what to me was simply a pedestrian heaven. I couldn’t believe how many people were out walking on the streets. Bustling. That’s the word. Jane Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet was unfolding right before my eyes. So much so that…I started walking in the wrong direction. My mistake, I asked a lady which way to Pennsylvania Avenue but if you know DC you know that avenues run on the diagonal and thus there were two correct answers; one would take me closer to Georgetown and the other not. But, wow, I didn’t realize how much I missed that vibe, that energy. Eventually, I realized my error and corrected course. Yes it was warm and humid but I was taking it all in and enjoying every minute of it; the people watching, trees, interesting storefront windows, Rock Creek, restaurants. Everything. But here was the best, and likely most geeky, part – I could not believe how long the pedestrian traffic signal cycles were. I mean, I walked up upon streets that were maybe eight paces for me to cross (say, twenty-four feet) and yet the signals started counting down from sixty-five seconds. Unbelievable. And how brilliantly pedestrian-oriented.
I don’t think there is one intersection in Denver where pedestrians are given sixty-five seconds to cross the street. By comparison, if the city timed Colfax Avenue, University or say Colorado Boulevard similarly to DC, I suppose a pedestrian would have about three minutes to cross those streets. Three minutes! Ludicrous, I know. Now, of course, people will say, “Well, Chris, we don’t have enough pedestrian demand in Denver to justify such lengthy pedestrian cycle times.” And my response would be, “And your point is? Maybe the lack of pedestrian-supporting infrastructure is part of the reason we don’t.”
Maybe its time to change that.