Leaving New York by Amtrak proved to be a smooth and painless experience, unlike riding on the Maple Leaf. For starters, there was a swanky lounge for ticketed Amtrak passengers in Moynihan station where you could drink coffee and twiddle your thumbs. I thought about updating to the Acela high speed train while waiting but decided that the extra $200 USD was probably not worth the approximately 50 minutes of time saved. Also, fun fact, Acela brings in around 25% of Amtrak’s revenue, which is pretty wild.
Instead, I travelled to DC on the Northeast Regional (which brings in slightly more than 25% of Amtrak’s revenue). It was a train that ran so well and efficiently that it is not really interesting to talk about. People got on and off quickly, and it was clean and on schedule. Two thumbs up.
On my arrival in DC, I marvelled at the beauty of the main station hall, which my photograph does a poor job of capturing. I also listened to The Magnetic Fields’s song “Washington DC”. It is a banger (disclaimer: My baby does not wait for me in DC).
Biking in DC
Before arriving, I noticed that DC had a bike share program, Capital Bikeshare. This is run by Lyft for some reason. I thought it would be cool to try biking around DC if I could do it without dying. Also the hostel I was staying at was a 35 minute walk from the White House. That’s not too far, but it adds up to an extra hour of walking a day on top of all the wandering around monuments and museums.
Finally, that 35 minutes feels like a massive underestimate. It took me 30 minutes to cycle back the first time I tried. This is because the lights in DC take forever. The warning countdown alone is 45s-1min, which seem insanely long. I think it’s a safety feature for large tourist groups, but it has backfired. Pedestrians and cyclists often give up waiting and go on the red. Because of this, drivers can’t go fast in most of the city without splatting someone. So I guess they just don’t? In addition, there’s a lot of one way streets, so you can cross on a red without too much fear of death, but every time I saw someone do so, I tensed up.
Just to make it more interesting, the traffic lights are confusing as heck. Sometimes you cross on the pedestrian light, sometimes it’s a separate signal for the bike, and sometimes you just guess. So you go slow and treat intersections with extreme caution.
The bike infrastructure is a combination of good and confusing. There is a good two lane path on 15th St that goes down past the White House. Another one on 17th St jumps back and forth between protected lanes and traffic calmed sections of the street. I neglected to get pictures of the later, but it’s a little uncomfortable on the first trip because it takes a minute to determine if you’re sharing the road with that F150 or it’s just parked by the bike lane. After a few tries though, it felt pretty safe. Lots of people were biking or taking scooters, cars seemed to be used to bikes sharing the road, and the bike share stations near me were emptied of bikes in the morning.
In short, DC is simultaneously an amazing and a terrible city for cycling. I didn’t get splatted, at least, but I think that might qualify as a minor miracle.
The Layout of the Capitol Is Wrong
Look, the structure of the US government is built on a balance of powers idea with a pleasant symmetry to it. Three separate but equal branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. And the capitol is set up right for it. Look at this picture I snapped while leaving
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport:
There’s the Washington Monument in the centre (something something unity and America and stuff), the White House to the left, the Capitol building towards the top, and reflecting pool towards the bottom. This was a perfect opportunity to match the layout of the US government, so at the bottom of the reflecting pool should be where the US Supreme Court is, because each branch gets a wing of the green Tetris piece. But that’s not the case. The Supreme Court is jammed above the Capitol building, and the Lincoln Memorial gets put in its place. A terrible waste of symmetry.
There’s too Much Stuff!
I made vague plans to see attractions in Washington that were outside of the usual tourist list, but that all fell apart. I managed to walk around the main sights (White House, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Capitol building) and squeeze in three Smithsonians (Air and Space, American History, and Natural History) and the Botanic Garden. After that, I was basically flattened. You’d probably need a full week to properly absorb the place.
It’s hard not be a little moved by all the monuments, even if you’re not American. They reminded me of the Churchill quote that “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else”. It’s very much the best of the country on display: the shining museums free to all, the monuments to freedom paid for with blood, and the ideals that have never quite been fully achieved. The FDR and MLK memorials really hit those unfinished symphony bits home.
I could probably talk about the ice cream truck monopoly that seems to be operating on the mall, or how DC seems to be built to punish Americans by making them walk everywhere, or the nifty neighbourhood around 18th St NW, but then this blog post would never get completed. That’s all for now.
Oh, also I discovered that there’s a bird called a Grackle which is a mean (but appropriate) name for the avian.