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What’s slugging?

28 Nov

I first heard the term “slugging” when I was taking a commuter survey for work. One of the choices of transportation—along with car, Metro, walk and bike—was slugging. I had no idea what it was so I asked my all-knowing coworker. Slugging, it turns out, is when drivers pick up other commuters at designated “slug lines” so that they can take advantage of HOV (High Occupancy Vehicles) lanes, including I-66,  during rush hour.

After learning about this casual carpooling, my first thought was, “People actually do this? Like on a twice-a-day basis?” Well, turns out they do. And the website is really well organized—there are signs that you can print out to put on your car window saying where you’re going. There’s even a lost and found! Slugging occurs in other parts of the country, but it’s biggest in the DC and Northern Virginia area.

What I find particularly great about slugging is that there’s strictly followed etiquette. If you’re the slug, for example, you cannot initiate conversation. If the driver wants to talk than that’s one thing, otherwise you just ignore each other except for saying “thank you” at the end of the trip. And no money is exchanged since both parties benefit from the arrangement.

While there is no cell in my body that has any interest in commuting this way, I certainly appreciate the creativity and cooperation behind it!

The Wilson Bridge: A History

17 Nov

If you happen to be stuck in traffic on the Wilson Bridge, you might feel sorry for yourself, but trust me: You have no idea how much worse life could be for you.

The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge opened in 1961. (Interestingly, Woodrow Wilson’s widow Edith was supposed to be the guest of honor at the dedication ceremony, but she died that morning.) It connects Alexandria, VA to Oxon Hill, MD, carrying both Interstate 495 and Interstate 95. Only it wasn’t supposed to include 95 (long story), just 495, and so by 1999 it was carrying 200,000 vehicles a day even though it was designed to handle a max of 75,000. Eventually the highways on either side of the bridge widened from six lanes to eight, but the bridge obviously couldn’t expand, and so it created a terrible bottleneck.

Oh, and did I mention Wilson is a DRAW bridge? It would open for boats about 260 times a year, backing up traffic something awful. In fact, my first memory of the Wilson Bridge is as a child in my mom’s car, watching the bridge go up.

There are a couple famous Wilson Bridge incidents that most long-time residents will probably recall. The first was in 1987 during a snowstorm; traffic was so bad that many commuters ran out of gas and spent the night stuck on the bridge in their cars. The second was when a man jumped off the bridge, but only after a seven-hour standoff with police during rush hour (the man survived the jump).

Thankfully, in 1999 construction began on replacing the bridge with two side-by-side draw bridges (one for outer loop and one for inner loop). The new bridges are also much higher, reducing the number of times they have to open for boats to about 60 a year. The first cars drove over the bridge in 2006 and most of the project was completed in 2009, with a few odds and ends scheduled to be completed by 2013. My most favoritest part of this whole story is that there was a “Toughest Bridge Commute Contest.” Commuters wrote in to tell their harrowing Wilson Bridge tales and the winner got to blow the old bridge up.

What the gripe: DC traffic

9 Nov

If you ask someone in DC how far someplace is, they’re not going to give you mileage, they’re going to give you two times: one with traffic and one without. And if you’re driving somewhere, you should generally give yourself an extra half an hour to get there, particularly if you need to park. Even if it’s a Sunday afternoon or 2 am in the morning, give yourself half an hour. And that still might not be enough.

DC always ranks in the top four cities with the worst traffic. It seems like there’s always something causing gridlock: rush hour, construction, an accident, vacation traffic, weather, etc. And don’t get a DC area resident started on local drivers. They love to talk about how bad they are. (“Why can’t these people drive in the rain? It’s just rain!”) And you’ll hear complaints that either Maryland or Virginia drivers are the worst (The Express asked this question in a poll; Maryland won the honor).  What personally irks me the most is when I hear tourists complaining. (“I could never live like this!”)

With an ever-increasing population, DC’s traffic woes aren’t going to end anytime soon, so I suggest getting some books on tape.

DC airports 101

9 Nov

Dulles mobile lounges are known for their space age look. © Ad Meskens

One great thing about living in DC is that we have three area airports, which gives you more chances for cheaper flights, but you should know the pros and cons of each airport before booking.

Reagan National Airport (which everyone refers to as simply “National”) is in Arlington and the closest of the three to downtown DC. It was built in response to Congressmen complaining that they needed an airport closer to DC. National is the only airport that is accessible by Metro—National Airport stop on the Blue and Yellow lines. Though this airport is generally preferred over Dulles because it’s smaller, there are few flights to the west coast and none internationally (with the exception of flights to Canada and the Bahamas), so flying from National isn’t always an option.

Dulles International Airport is perhaps best known for its “mobile lounges” which transport passengers to concourses and directly to planes. These are being largely phased out, however, thanks to the AeroTrain people mover, which opened this year and transports travelers much faster. Make sure to arrive at Dulles with plenty of time to spare—security lines can be out of control (though they’re working on improvements). While there’s no Metro stop near the airport, which is located in Dulles, Virginia, there is a shuttle from West Falls Church Metro on the Orange Line. It costs $10 one way and $18 round trip and takes about 20-30 minutes. If you’re driving, take the Dulles Airport Access Road from 495, which makes getting to the airport much easier.

Booking a flight from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) always sounds like a fine idea, but once you have to actually get to and from the airport, it’s another story.  BWI is much closer to Baltimore than Washington; it takes about an hour to get there from DC and longer if you’re coming from Virginia (If you live in Maryland, on the other hand, it might be the closest airport to you). Metro offers a BWI bus service that runs about every 40 minutes from the Greenbelt station on the Green Line.

Insider’s Tip: When you’re looking for flights online, enter airport code “WAS”, which searches all three airports at the same time.

What the gripe: Tourons

27 Oct

I hope despite the fact that this photo is blurry, you can see that this family--which I saw at the Natural History Museum--is wearing matching outfits.

People in DC love to complain about tourists (as Joel Housman wonderfully illustrates on How to use Metro and How to use an escalator). The District seems to be the number one destination for “family’s first vacation.” I don’t know why you’d take a bunch of babies and toddlers to museums and monuments, but a lot of people do. And tourists don’t think twice about traveling during rush hour or standing in a big group in the middle of the sidewalk. The worst times of year are summer, spring break and during the Cherry Blossom Festival. You’ll want to stay away from museums during these times of year–at least on the weekends. Fall is a popular time for European visitors, but you usually won’t even notice them because, amazingly, they often blend in better than tourists from the States.

Tip: If you’re heading to the Metro and you see a huge mass of people wearing matching T-shirts also heading to the Metro … run. Seriously, run to get ahead of them, otherwise you’re going to be stuck behind them on the escalator, at the turnstiles and on the platform. And if you’re low on patience, avoid the Smithsonian and National Archives Metro stations at all cost.

E-Z Pass 101

23 Oct

If you’ve already lived somewhere in the northeast, then E-Z Pass is nothing new to you. If, however, you haven’t, then chances are you don’t know how awesome it is.

E-Z Pass is an automatic, electronic toll collection system that works on the majority of toll roads in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia. If you’re a DC resident, you’ll need to register through Maryland.

There are two types of E-Z pass, one is a “transponder” that you mount on the inside of your windshield (it’s about the size of a floppy disk and about an inch thick), and the other is  a smaller version that mounts on your license plate.

Just picture it: You and your friends are on a road trip to New York and you come up to a backup at a toll stop. So you merge to the left lane—E-Z Pass only—and voila! You’re through in a flash (Just don’t go through too fast, or you’ll get a warning letter, like my mom did).

To get an E-Z pass, you have to set up an account and pre-pay a minimum amount (depending on your state) from which the tolls will be deducted from. If you have a low balance, certain tolls will flash a yellow light that says “balance low.” I’d recommend using the automatic replenishment option that’s offered so that you’ll automatically get charged when your balance is low. Otherwise, you’ll get a ticket when you go through.

There have been instances of people breaking into cars to steal E-Z passes, so I have velcro on the inside of my windshield that I stick the transponder to when I’m using it, and then I hide it in my car. But there’s also been instances of people getting in accidents while looking for their transponders, so make sure it’s within easy reach.

If you are planning on living in the area for awhile and if you drive a car, it’s just plain silly not to get an E-Z pass.

Capital Bikeshare

18 Oct

In 2008, Clear Channel brought a public bike share program to DC: SmartBike. It was a cool idea, but it didn’t take long to realize that the program itself pretty much sucked. First off, there weren’t many bikes or bike stations. Second, they had no plans of expanding. Third, the bikes started looking pretty sad and tired looking. And last but not least, you had to pay for a yearly membership (thus excluding tourists and the occasional rider).

But hope has arrived! This past September, DC launched Capital Bikeshare. With 1,100 bikes and 100 docking stations throughout the city and Northern Virginia, it’s the largest bike share program in the U.S. And you can pay for a day, a month or a year. In the past month and a half, I’ve already seen more people using the new bikes than I ever saw using the SmartBikes.

Keep in mind, you have to bring your own helmet. And the two bike share programs aren’t combined, so don’t think you can rent a bike from one program and return it to a docking station for the other. I’m not sure what the city plans on doing with the old program, but I suspect it will completely disappear soon.

Below is a promo video that explains how to get a bike. Happy peddling!

Metro song

18 Sep

About a year ago comedian Remy released a rap about living in Arlington that got over a million YouTube hits. Now he’s summed up the Metro:


16 Sep

I had a very traumatic experience on the toll road I-66 (not to be confused with the famous Route 66). Did you know that there are roads that are carpool only at certain times of day? No, I didn’t say carpool lanes, I said entire roads. Well, it’s not a horrifying myth, it’s a reality. While there are signs, if you don’t know what to look for they’re easy to miss.

So there I am, an intern at a non-profit, driving to work for the first time. I usually took the metro but that particular day I was driving a sea turtle expert visiting from India from my office to a private middle school in the city (you know, the usual) so that she could give a presentation on conservation. So I innocently follow the directions on my GPS and … what’s this? A cop is pulling me over as I am attempting to pull onto the road! So yeah, cost me $85 and I was none too happy. Actually, my dad ended up paying the fine because I was resolved to fight it and he didn’t want me to. But still, it was annoying.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. You can’t use 66 during morning rush hour if you’re heading into the city, and you can’t use it during evening rush hour going out of the city. Unless you find a friend, or sea turtle expert, and then you can drive on it at your leisure.

Don’t be an escalefter

12 Sep

The surest way to reveal yourself as a DC newbie is to stand on the left side of a Metro escalator. Left is for people who want to walk up or down the escalator. If you want to stand, do it on the right. Otherwise, there is a very high probability–depending on the length of the escalator and time of day–that you will be yelled at (something to the affect of “Stand on the right!”).

People who are in a hurry walk up the left side of the escalator and don’t take kindly to being forced to stop. It’s a common mistake that tourists make, but residents should know better.