WASHINGTON - If you want to get to the National Mall on Inauguration Day, you're probably better off not driving.
The hundreds of thousands of people spilling into the nation's capital Monday are encouraged to travel by rail, bus or bicycle. And no matter what they choose, those watching the inauguration activities will eventually end up on foot — and possibly walking several miles — if they want to catch a glimpse of President Barack Obama.
The region's transportation infrastructure is strained during peak driving hours on a normal day. During the morning rush hour, it can take an hour to traverse the 10-mile stretch of Interstate 395 between Springfield, Va., and the District of Columbia. Many Metro subway trains are standing room only.
However, with much smaller crowds expected than for Obama's historic first inauguration four years ago, getting in the car will still be an option.
Four years ago, most vehicle traffic into the city was halted. The five major bridges over the Potomac River were closed, except to mass transit vehicles. This year, most of the bridges will be open, although drivers will be diverted from closed roads surrounding the Mall — raising the prospect of gridlock for those who drive.
"Obviously, we don't want a lot of automobiles in the city," Mayor Vincent Gray said. "It'll be very hard to travel around the city on that day."
There is a potential enticement to drivers: free parking. Because Inauguration Day falls on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the city won't enforce street parking restrictions.
Still, as with past inaugurations, Metro will be the most popular transportation option and the one encouraged by local and federal officials. A record 1.1 million people rode Metro's rail service in 2009. This year, Metro is projecting subway ridership of 600,000 to 800,000 — roughly the same as on a regular business day. However, the riders won't be spread across the system's 94 stations as usual. Most will head to a handful of stations close to the Capitol and the National Mall.
The transportation challenges have Paul Darby preparing for a long day. Darby, 64, a volunteer on the parade route, plans to leave his home in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early hours of the morning and park at a friend's house in Alexandria before boarding the Metro, which opens at 4 a.m. — an hour earlier than usual.
"I expect it to take a while. If for any reason there starts to be concern that we won't be able to get into town easily, I'll stay with friends in Alexandria (and) come up the night before," Darby said. "We'll do whatever it takes, and be patient and courteous and kind to everybody because there will be a lot of stressed-out people."
In an effort to ease crowding at the stations around the Mall, Metro is encouraging riders not to change trains. For example, people riding the Blue Line from Virginia are being asked to get off at Arlington National Cemetery and walk across the Potomac River's Memorial Bridge to the Mall. Be forewarned that the distance from the Lincoln Memorial on the west end of the Mall to the Capitol is two miles.
The idea is to prevent people from "needlessly travelling through the core" of the city, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said, although there will be no penalty for ignoring that advice.
"Anyone going to the inauguration should plan to walk. This is an event that does require a lot of walking and a lot of standing, and that's just part of the day," Stessel said. "Wear comfortable shoes, dress very warmly and just think about what the day entails. Make sure you're up for it."
Also hoofing it will be people who ride into town on tour buses. About 2,500 buses are expected, and most will park at RFK Stadium. The city will provide shuttle buses, giving priority to elderly and disabled passengers, but some tour-bus riders will probably end up having to walk the 3 miles from the stadium to the Mall, said John Lisle, a spokesman for the district's Department of Transportation.
Four years ago, many tour buses dropped off passengers at Metro stations, but Metro won't allow that this time, Stessel said.
People travelling from Maryland can ride MARC commuter trains, which will offer a schedule tailored to the inaugural crowds. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at select stations on Inauguration Day. Commuter trains from Virginia won't be running, though. In 2009, the Virginia Railway Express was open at the request of the inaugural committee, said Mark Roeber, a VRE spokesman. The rail service received no such request this time and will follow its standard policy of closing when federal offices are closed.
Then there are bicycles, an increasingly popular option for Washington-area commuters. The city will run a massive bike parking lot a few blocks from the White House, and there will also be a station near the Mall with enough space for anyone who wants to drop off a bicycle from the region's popular bike-sharing service. Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said riding bikes to the event makes sense — and not just for district residents.
"I think folks even farther out are going to see biking as an attractive option if they want to avoid the crowds," Farthing said.
Even after the inauguration, some travellers may be inconvenienced. People flying out of Reagan National and Dulles International airports on Tuesday have been advised to arrive at least two hours before their scheduled flights because of anticipated crowding and long lines.
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