WAS-NYP-WAS: commuting from D.C. to NYC and back

New York is my most frequent travel destination, and my most frequent mode of transportation to there is Amtrak train 2100, the 6 a.m. (lately, 5:55 a.m.) Acela Express.

This train keeps showing up on my calendar despite my fondness for sleeping in past 4:40 a.m. because it works to get me to morning meetings in Manhattan. And because the next few Acela departures get ridiculously expensive unless you book weeks or maybe months in advance.

early-morning-acela(Don’t even talk to me about flying. Transit-starvedtraffic-choked LaGuardia is not an airport I need to see again, I’d get much less work done on the way, and I would save little to no time when I can usually walk from Penn Station to whatever event has me in NYC for the day.)

So I keep getting up in the middle of the night–Thursday being the latest example–and finding myself marveling at the sight of stars from my front porch before heading out.

If I’m taking Metro, I need to catch the first inbound train of the day and not run into any delays of more than a few minutes. Thursday, with Metro’s struggles on my mind, I summoned an Uber and enjoyed the rare spectacle of a 14th Street Bridge free of traffic.

Union Station is not too crowded at 5:40 in the morning, and seeing all the people in suits greet each other on the train reminds me that it could be worse: I could be doing this as often as them. Noticing MARC trains bringing commuters into Union Station that early gives me the same reaction.

Thursday, the sun didn’t rise until we crossed the Susquehanna River. That’s not bad compared to taking this train in the winter, when I’ve had to wait until somewhere in Delaware.

trenton-makes-the-world-takesWith the sun up, seeing familiar scenery like the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign over the Delaware River helps the miles go by. So does the right Northeast Corridor-specific soundtrack, which always includes Bob Mould’s “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” and Suzanne Vega’s “Ironbound (Fancy Poultry).”

After years of seeing decades-old infrastructure unchanged, the past couple of years have allowed me to watch the progress of a long-overdue upgrade: replacing 1930s-vintage overhead wires north of Trenton. At Penn Station, meanwhile, I’m waiting on another project: the new concourse and entrances on 8th Avenue, which have to be less grim than Penn’s current setup.

After a day of NYC events, the trip home usually takes place on train 2173, the 8-ish Acela. Again, ticket prices often dictate that scheduling–the earlier Acela departures cost too much.

The upside of this train: If you’ve burned Amtrak points for first-class upgrade coupons or you got some with Select or higher Guest Rewards status, there should be space at the end of the train where they bring the food to you. The downside: The train rolls into Union Station after 11, a time when Metro rebuilding-induced delays may or may not mean I get home after 12:30.

That was the case Thursday, when my day ended almost 21 hours after it began. Friday was not my most productive day ever.

Pros and cons of taking Google I/O outside

My most recent tech event took place in an unusual venue: a concert amphitheater set into the hills of the San Francisco Bay.

Android statueHeading into Google I/O, I was uneasy about Google’s decision–announced in a January 12 tweet from CEO Sundar Pichai–to move its developer conference from Moscone West in San Francisco to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. Unlike that convention center three blocks off Market Street, Shoreline promised no meaningful pedestrian, cyclist or transit access.

Fortunately, the traffic dystopia I feared did not quite happen at I/O 16, and this location revealed some redeeming qualities.

Having the analog environment of nature around was foremost among them–especially on Wednesday, when the temperature soared into the ’80s. Typing on my laptop in the shade of the press center brought back pleasant memories of 2012’s Tech Policy Summit, staged at a resort outside of Napa. But even in the concrete surroundings of the seating bowl, the noise of birds chirping offered a healthy reminder that much of the world doesn’t care what we humans do with circuits and code.

(This avian accompaniment was not risk-free. Analyst Jan Dawson almost had a bird poop on his leg.)

Shoreline is surrounded by parking lots, but they looked much better covered by tents and stages for I/O’s various panels and talks. And looking up on walks from one location to another often rewarded me with the sight of 747s and A380s low overhead on their approaches to SFO.

Shoreline stageThe official hotels Google suggested were no cheaper than most San Francisco hotels, but the clean, comfortable Airbnb suite I found in downtown Mountain View was much cheaper than anything I’ve seen listed in the city.

Finally, we did get to experience a concert at this concert venue, Wednesday night’s performance by Charli XCX and Kygo.

But while Google’s shuttle from the Mountain View Caltrain station–not advertised in advance–got me to I/O surprisingly quickly on Wednesday, on Thursday two shuttles in a row left without me because they had no seats left. On Friday, the bus arrived sorely late and then crawled through traffic, finally depositing me at Shoreline after almost as much time as it might have taken to walk the distance.

The weather also got less idyllic after Wednesday, even as the risk of sunburn remained the same. My teeth may have started chattering once or twice Thursday night and Friday afternoon. (Cardinal rule of packing for the Bay Area: Whatever season it is, bring a fleece jacket.)

And while having class outside is usually a great idea, it remains difficult to see a laptop’s screen in sunlight. Brightening the screen was not always a smart response at I/O; power outlets were a lot scarcer than they would have been in a conventional convention facility like Moscone.

All things being equal, I’d rather see I/O move back to San Francisco. But I suspect that Google is content with staging its event at a private space next to its headquarters that it can take over–a sort of Google Island, if you will–and that next May, we’ll have the same battles with traffic and logistics.

 

Bring on the pain train and get it over with, Metro

Metro is about to get immensely less convenient, and I am relieved by that development.

Woeful WMATA headwaysFriday’s announcement that the rail system will see miles-long sections of track and stations closed in series for rebuilding over the next year means a new level of agony for anybody trying to get around the area. At best, continuous single-tracking will reduce service to 18-minute headways; at worst, a 24-day shutdown of the Red Line across much of Northeast will upend 108,000 weekday trips.

But the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s “SafeTrack” plan has one thing the past five years of alleged rebuilding have not: a 2017 deadline. Since the 2011 launch of a $5 billion capital-improvement plan, we’ve been enduring miserably long headways and service interruptions at nights and on weekends without any sustained sense of progress.

And now that months of smoke and fire incidents (one fatal) have made “arcing insulator” part of the Metro vernacular, it seems this work didn’t fix a damn thing in some critical areas.

If this SafeTrack really can pound three years’ worth of work–things like replacing insulators and electric cables, cleaning debris, rebuilding trackbeds, and installing radio and cellular transmitters–into a single year and finally wrench Metro over years of neglect, make it so.

Silver Line track through TysonsI admit that’s easy for me to say. I work from home and my wife bikes or walks to work. For many trips into D.C. Capital Bikeshare has become an effective alternative to Metro, and Uber, Lyft and car2go can also take Metro’s place for many trips. When I do take the subway, I am adept at checking not just Metro’s own next-train estimates but the Metro Hero app’s real-time maps.

But I still have a substantial investment in Metro. Literally: We chose our house to stay within walking distance of two stops, and we could only do that because the condo I bought two blocks from an Orange Line station doubled in value from 2000 to 2004. I could give away my aging car last year because we live in an area with (supposedly!) effective rail transit that I continue to rely on for most of my trips to the District as well as such Virginia destinations as Tysons Corner and National and Dulles airports.

As such, I want to see Metro do two things before it takes a tire iron to everybody’s schedules.

One is to show the progress of this work clearly and consistently. Bragging about how many track fasteners have been replaced is useless when I have no idea how many still need replacement; I need to know just how much further along each closure advances the system. WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld has been saying the right things about transparency, so I am cautiously optimistic about this.

The other is accountability. Metro has been talking a big game about overcoming deferred maintenance for at least a decade–the quotes in the Post’s June 2005 story “Efforts to Repair Aging System Compound Metro’s Problems” are painful to read now, as are the things Wiedefeld’s predecessor Richard Sarles said–and we need to know what went wrong and on whose watch that happened. I would like to be optimistic on this point, but I’m not there yet.

I can’t quite say I miss I-95 and the Jersey Turnpike. And yet…

This is the first Easter since 1999 that hasn’t involved some quality time on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Interstate 95, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. My mom recently moved from northern New Jersey to the suburbs of Boston, and so our holiday pilgrimage took place in the sky instead of on the roads.

NJTP ticket at toll plazaThat is good overall. Those drives from D.C. to Bergen County for Easter and Thanksgiving routinely got bogged down in traffic, prolonging what should have been a four-and-a-half-hour schlep to six, seven, or eight hours. It was maddening, soul-crushing and usually inescapable.

I soon learned to break up the trip by segmenting it according to the sights. Beyond the service areas and the signs counting down the distance to NYC (what ever happened to the 100-mile sign?), my mental mileposts include Ripken Stadium, the Susquehanna River, the Our Lady of the Highways statue of Mary, the Delaware-toll detour (sometimes with a stop at what must have long been the northernmost Waffle House in America), the “Cruiser in a Cornfield” Navy testing facility, the NJTP’s split into car-only and car-and-truck lanes, the handful of crossings above or below Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, and the urban gash the Garden State Parkway cuts through the Oranges.

(If none of this description resonates with you, please read Randy Kennedy’s December 2000 New York Times feature on I-95 in the New York Times and Hank Stuever’s fantastic August 2001 Washington Post essay on the Turnpike.)

I also quickly settled on a soundtrack: WRNR’s freeform rock from Baltimore to Delaware, then either Springsteen’s Live: 1975-85 or the first three discs of Tracks.

But even with those mind games and slight improvements over the years–EZ-Pass, highway-speed tolling in Delaware and New Jersey, the widening of the Turnpike between exits 6 and 9, and Google Maps routing us around traffic–the prospect of this trip still filled me with dread.

Departing DCAAnd then my last three trips on this route weren’t all that bad. Hauling some of Mom’s furniture back to D.C. in a rented SUV in November was less punishing than I expected (I outright enjoyed paying my tolls with cash, Tony Soprano-style, to dodge Budget’s EZ-Pass surcharge), and early-morning departures around Thanksgiving allowed for two traffic-light journeys.

In particular, the drive north for the holiday that began when we hit the road around 7 a.m. Wednesday was almost miraculous in its ease. And when Google advised we stay on the Turnpike instead of switching to the Parkway to save a few minutes, the magnificent hellscape of industry and transportation that is the NJTP around Newark Airport led to some unintentional hilarity when my wife asked “What’s that smell? Is it something with our car?”

That’s no longer a possibility, and our holiday travel won’t be the same without it.

Flying is safer and more scenic–especially going in or out of National Airport. But it costs more, and it’s not immune to disruptions of its own. Friday morning, American Airlines canceled our nonstop to Boston and re-routed us that afternoon through LaGuardia. That delay and the unplanned connection at Joe Biden’s favorite airport meant we arrived in Boston some nine hours after we left home, or about what it would have taken us to drive had the traffic gods smiled upon us… which they almost never do.

Watching concrete dry on the way to Dulles

I find watching paint dry as dull as anybody else, but concrete’s another thing–when it’s reinforced by steel in the service of a large construction project that I will enjoy at some point in the hopefully not indeterminate future.

That’s why I don’t sit on the bus from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro to Dulles International Airport. I stand so I can get a better look at construction of the Silver Line’s extension to IAD and beyond.

Silver Line construction at IADThat project’s opening seems painfully far off when I look at a calendar and note how many months stand between now and 2020, the current if-all-goes-well estimate for its opening. It annoys me to observe how slow we build a railroad on mostly open ground–it’s not like we’re trying to thread the Second Avenue Subway under Manhattan, people!

But seeing bridges placed over roads and streams, the structures of stations emerge from the dirt, and columns rise out of the ground to carry aerial tracks through Dulles reminds me that there is a payday coming… someday.

Gawking from the bus or a car is also one of the few ways to monitor this progress. The Dulles Metro project sends out an e-mail newsletter every few months, and a thread on railroad.net (I know, nerd) sees a post maybe once a week on average, but there’s no Flickr or Instagram account to follow and no construction webcam to check.

Peering through the windows of a packed Silver Line Express bus is not a great substitute for that… or for, you know, having a one-seat and traffic-immune ride to my city’s international airport. But at least it gives me an excuse to give my phone a rest.

Bikeshare is my other Metro

My mental map of D.C. has looked a lot different since I got a membership to Capital Bikeshare. Being able to jump on one of those red rental bicycles and ride the next 30 minutes at no extra cost effectively collapsed my sense of distances between neighborhoods.

SmarTrip card and CaBi keyBut it’s taken me longer to realize how “CaBi” has changed my commuting budget: It’s replaced so many Metro rides that its annual membership fee has become effectively free.

Letting bikeshare replace bus transfers was easy and obvious (going from Farragut Square to 16th and U is a million times more pleasant on a bike than on a crowded, slow S-series bus). Then I learned that CaBi not only worked well for going from my home to morning or evening work events downtown–with the bonus of getting a Key Bridge vista of the Potomac and the city–but would also spare me Metro’s peak fares and recently-iffy reliability.

(I take CaBi home from downtown much less often. The bikes weigh about 40 pounds and only have three gears, making getting up the hill from Rosslyn a tedious and sweaty exercise.)

Finally, I got into the habit of chaining together bikeshare rentals, docking a bike at one station and then taking out another from an adjacent dock. (You can also get an extra 15 minutes of time if you get “dockblocked” by a station with no open spots.) With a combined 60 minutes of free travel available, Capitol Hill events easily fall within CaBi range.

So how much has this saved me? A few days ago, I went through my trip history and added up every ride longer than a mile, figuring that would be a decent proxy for trips I would not have otherwise taken on foot. The total over the previous year: 43, with the bulk of them understandably concentrated in spring, fall and winter. Valuing each Metro trip avoided at $2–a lowball estimate for the train, high for the bus–gets me to $86 in savings.

And that, in turn, is $11 more than the $75 I paid for this year’s membership and still exceeds the $85 I’ll pay at my next renewal.

National or Dulles? Yes.

SAN FRANCISCO—I took a plane from Dulles International Airport to here on Wednesday, and today I’ll fly home to National Airport. That is apparently an increasingly unfashionable choice.

Headlines like “Dulles International Airport struggles to find its footing” and “So how do you fix a problem like Dulles?” understate how unpopular Dulles has become compared to National. It may not be the airport that Washingtonians love to hate. But it is certainly the airport we no longer have to use.

National Hall with flagThe reason: the exemptions granted by the government to National’s “perimeter rule” banning flights to anywhere more than 1,250 miles away, originally put in place to protect a market for D.C.’s larger airport. Flying here and to other major West Coast destinations no longer requires trekking out to Dulles or connecting somewhere in between.

In my case, that’s meant that all of my family’s travel to see my in-laws in the Bay Area has moved to the DCA-SFO nonstop United launched in 2012, along with many of my work trips to here. National is only 10 to 15 minutes away by cab, and I’ve done the Metro commute in 35 minutes door-to-door. I’ve even walked from National to places in Crystal City. The main hall is a beautiful work of architecture (especially if you remember the Interim Terminal), and the views from the plane taking off or landing are spectacular.

But the price of convenience can be flexibility. There are two nonstops to SFO from DCA, while United alone has 10 nonstops between Dulles and SFO on this coming Monday. (Virgin America has another three nonstops; its useless frequent-flyer program and the lack of  D.C.-S.F. nonstops from anybody else helps explain why I spend so much time on United.) On this trip, a 12:39 departure out of IAD let me sleep in until a normal time and then walk my daughter to pre-school.

Lincoln Memorial River Visual viewAnd for international travel, Dulles is obvious. I do not want a flight to Europe hanging on the odds of a hop to Newark or another East Coast hub not getting delayed or canceled, and working around that by booking an hours-long connection in EWR or elsewhere is not my idea of fun. If I have to connect, I’d rather do that in the EU, where the lounges are worlds better.

Getting to Dulles, in turn, has gotten easier with the advent of Metro’s Silver Line and more frequent Silver Line Express bus service from the Wiehle-Reston East station. My trip out Wednesday ran an hour and 4 minutes and involved zero stress about traffic or parking. I can deal with that; it’s not much longer than the ride to SFO on BART (with longer headways) or to O’Hare via CTA, and it should get a few minutes shorter whenever they finally finish phase two of the project.

That leaves United’s miserable C/D concourse at Dulles–among the worst airport facilities in America, with too few windows and not enough space. I have wanted to apologize to travelers on behalf of the Washington area when I see how packed it gets before the evening bank of transatlantic flights. Any replacement for it seems years off, even as United has been upgrading its other hubs.

Dulles main terminalBut I have found a solution to that, and you can too if you have Star Alliance gold status: the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B concourse, steps from the Aerotrain station next to gate B51. In the afternoon and evening it’s got a cold and hot buffet and a full open bar, and those things can take a lot of the sting out of flying out of the dump that is the C/D concourse.

Lufthansa doesn’t mind if you’re on a domestic itinerary, and when you’re done you can reach the C concourse in 15 minutes by taking the Aerotrain back to the main terminal (you’ll still be airside), then staying on as it stops under the A concourse and then concludes next to C. If your flight’s at one of the D gates, you’ll have to switch the mobile lounge at the main terminal; budget a few more minutes and enjoy the view of airplanes on the way.

Dulles gate B51 viewI’m not going to pretend that my travel choices work for everybody, especially for people whose possibly saner allocation of travel funds leaves them without any elite frequent-flyer status. It may not work even if you are a frequent traveler; a friend with 1K status on United got fed up with his upgrades never clearing, switched his business to American and now rarely sees the inside of Dulles.

But I am saying that the “Dulles is the worst ever!” storyline is a little ridiculous, and so are all the ideas you see in comments about this airport suggesting we should expand National’s runways into the Potomac and close Dulles. You know what? While I’m at it, I want somebody to bring the Concorde back so I can fly supersonic across the pond.

Back in the real world, these are the two airports in my life. I might as well use them effectively.