Tuesday, February 10, 2009

DC Survival Guide - Getting Around

Welcome to Two DC, and if you're reading this, I should probably welcome you to DC too! I hope you enjoy both. While much of this blog will track our most recent experiences in Washington, I think I'll start by summarizing some of the things that I've learned in my brief time here. Like all cities, our nation's capital has unique quirks that you can only learn with time. Here's a cheat sheet on getting around L'Enfant's maze...
  • Know your history. Pierre Charles L'Enfant was a French-born American architect that is either credited or blamed for DC's layout. In short, the nation's capitol was a 10 mile by 10 mile diamond made of land from Maryland and Virginia. This made for 4 quadrants, NW, NE, SE, SW, with the Capitol Building in the center (at least in theory... it is really at 4th and L St., NW). As the city grew, however, all the action was happening on the Maryland side of the Potomac and in 1846, the Virginia side was given back. Streets were originally laid out in a grid with numbered streets running North-South and lettered streets running East-West. Streets named after State run diagonally and meet at traffic circles.

  • Walk. DC is a wonderful mix of neighborhoods that blend the modern with the historical. While we can all find and enjoy the major monuments, it is often the little known things you stumble across that makes DC special. Plus, L'Enfant's grid makes for easy navigation on foot.

  • Avoid Driving. As easy as it is to get around by foot, it is just as hard to get around by car. Traffic, potholes, one-way streets, traffic circles, taxis, buses, lost tourists, construction, road closures for dignitaries, and poor signage (either non-existent or voluminous) are prevalent. Keep in mind that I grew up in LA and am used to famously bad driving conditions. Even with GPS and two years of local knowledge, it is still challenging to get around at times. Also, be aware that all police cars drive with their lights on. You're not getting pulled over unless they use their siren. Finally, everyone honks. You probably didn't do anything wrong, it just happens. Don't get pissed, just go with it.

  • Cross at your own risk. Beware of intersections and crosswalks. That goes for pedestrians, bikers, drivers, and anyone else. Throw the rules out the window. Jay walking is the norm but don't expect anyone to stop for you.

  • I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike! Some people bike to work. They must be far braver than me or have a death wish (see the bullet above). For those of you who do not fall into either of those categories, there are still plenty of options for you. Among our favorites are the Capitol Crescent and the Mount Vernon trails. Both are scenic, have tree cover for those hot days, and allow you to break up the day with lunch in downtown Bethesda or George Washington's estate, respectively. I'd also recommend taking advantage of Rock Creek Park, which is closed to motor traffic on the weekends. When planning your trip, check out the DC Department of Transportation's bike map and other information which can be found here. Finally, I should mention that there are many bike rental companies in the city including a self-serve one called SmartBike.

  • Metro. Relatively reliable, clean, and comfortable, there are few places that are not Metro accessible. As an extra bonus, many employers reimburse or subsidise Metro fare. But the hidden gem of commuting on Metro is the free copy of the Washington Post's Express which is a Cliff's Notes version of the full paper that can be read cover to cover in a half hour. It should be noted that many of the restaurants and activities that we've tried during our time in DC have come from my daily reading of the Express. But one warning when taking Metro: There are a couple of etiquette cardinal sins that must be avoided if you want to survive the masses. Metro commuters have little tolerance for people who ignore the unwritten rules so learn them and teach your visitors. First, when on an escalator, stand on the right and walk on the left. Second, when boarding, stand on the sides of the door to allow riders to exit before you rush on. Follow these rules and you'll be ok.

  • Planes. DC has 3 airports. DCA (Reagan or National), IAD (Dulles), BWI (Baltimore). DCA is Metro accessible but the smallest which means fewer options. You can get to IAD via Metro bus or by various buses and shuttles from certain Metro stops (I prefer the Washington Flyer from West Falls Church). If you plan on driving, taking a cab, or using a service like SuperShuttle, keep in mind that IAD and BWI are both about 45 minutes from downtown DC. Most people expect BWI to be further.

  • Trains (and buses). From DC you can access many great American cities through trains and buses. In addition to being relatively cheap, they also are relatively quick (4 hrs. to NY) and convenient. For example, we took Bolt Bus to New York over Labor Day weekend for $36 round trip for the both of us. Bolt Bus (and several of its competitors) offer direct service in new buses with power outlets and Wi-Fi. You avoid the security lines and cost of flying as well as the stress and parking costs associated with driving.

  • and Automobiles. If you don't want to own one, I'd suggest looking into car sharing programs like ZipCar. They are everywhere in town and a great resource for that quick run to the grocery store or Target.

1 comment:

Budak said...

Good start! Looking forward to more from the mysterious "B" and "J" characters.