A better time of year to bikeshare

The arrival of fall around here means three things to me: pears replacing peaches at farmers’ markets, a chance to grow a second crop of arugula, and a notable increase in my Capital Bikeshare mileage.

Between the temperature dropping into the 50s and summer’s stagnant humidity finally lifting, I no longer have to worry about rolling up to my destination glistening dripping with sweat. Meanwhile, the fall colors on the trees has the city looking pretty great, even if the leaves don’t get as vibrant as in New England. So why not bike instead of taking Metro?

Over the last few years, the growing network of bike lanes and the continued expansion of Capital Bikeshare’s network has made this an easier proposition. And when I can dock a bike to end a rental and then take the same bike out–“dock surfing“–I can reach just about anyplace downtown or on Capitol Hill without paying any extra charges. You can’t say that for those increasingly expensive e-scooters.

(My usual stations to daisy-chain free rentals: 24th and Pennsylvania NW if I’m riding to downtown, Lincoln Memorial if I’m headed to the Hill.)

So I’m seeing more of Washington than usual, I’m getting some moderate exercise, and I’m saving money–I’ve already recouped almost all of the $85 annual fee in saved Metro fares. What’s not to like?

Well, the chance that some inattentive driver will hit me. I got a reminder of that risk two weeks ago when one driver merged abruptly into a bike lane ahead of my wife, leading to her stopping abruptly, crashing, and breaking her collarbone. Yes, again. Could you all please try harder to share the road?

Notes from getting to Tokyo the hard way

When I woke up before 5 a.m. a week ago, I hoped that the main problem with my itinerary to Japan would be a long wait in San Francisco for my already-delayed Tokyo flight. At least I could watch the Nats game at SFO, I naively thought.

But more than halfway through my IAD-SFO leg, United succumbed to the meteorological reality of Typhoon Hagibis and cancelled my SFO-NRT flight, just as it had already scrubbed every other departure to Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports that day.

That was not the end of my trip, and I made it to Tokyo for the CEATEC trade show only a day after my scheduled arrival. (In case you missed this disclosure the first time: CEATEC paid my airfare.) But I did need to resort to some moderately advanced travel hacking. Should you find your own international itinerary going sideways, the following advice may help.

Research alternate connecting points. After getting that flight-cancellation notice and seeing the United app list no open flights to Tokyo, the next resource I checked was the route map in the inflight mag. I wanted to see where on the other side of the Pacific UA could get me from SFO–the idea being that once I was within a thousand or so miles of Japan, my travel options would expand. The closest such places: Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei.

At SFO, an exceptionally resourceful United Club agent–airline lounge agents are among your best options during irregular operations–quickly determined that the Seoul flights had no seats open Saturday or Sunday. Taipei could have worked, but then the only routing she saw would have had me fly to Bangkok to chance a one-hour connection to Narita; no thanks. An itinerary from San Francisco to Honolulu to Guam was open, but that showed no seats available from Guam to Tokyo until Tuesday morning.

Be flexible. This agent did, however, see that UA 857 to Shanghai, departing in an hour and change, had a seat free in Economy Plus. From there, she had me booked on an ANA red-eye to Haneda Tuesday morning–“morning” as in a 1:45 a.m. departure–with a chance that I could standby on the Monday-a.m. PVG-HND flight.

This did mean I’d lose the premium-economy seat I’d had on the original SFO-NRT leg. And my odds of an upgrade clearing on a route that sees Apple buy up most of the forward cabin would be exceedingly low, in reality zero. Oh well… the only way I could have held on to my original PE seat was to hope it would reappear on Sunday’s SFO-NRT flight, which did not seem like a winning move then.

Note that all of this rebooking was made immensely easier by the fact that I didn’t check a bag. Always carry on your luggage when traveling internationally.

Keep checking. Over the next 12 hours I spent in seat 23B, I thought to check a few other options for a Monday departure from Shanghai. (Remember, you should be able to use your airline’s app and site for free even if you don’t pay for its inflight WiFi). I was pleasantly surprised that United’s app listed a few one-stop itineraries from Shanghai to Haneda; it didn’t let me change to them, but at least I could ask United to rebook me on one.

I also remembered to see if any flights were available on miles. Another pleasant surprise: The app listed multiple connecting flights at just 15,000 miles, a miles-to-dollars rate I never see on domestic booking and worth breaking my rule about not burning miles on work travel. Lesson re-learned: partner redemptions can be much cheaper than anything an airline offers on its own metal.

I couldn’t get the most direct ones to complete booking, but I did secure a reservation that would have me fly from Shanghai to Sapporo Monday morning, then spend six hours in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido before flying to Haneda that night. Not great, but better than a 1:45 a.m. departure.

On arrival at Shanghai–meaning after the lengthy wait to clear immigration and customs–I discovered that the ANA desk didn’t open for another two hours and change. I decided to bag the idea of trying to standby on a 1:45 a.m. red-eye after 20 hours of travel and instead got in touch with United. The easiest way to do that in my bandwidth-choked environment (a hotspot with a terrible connection made still slower by the virtual-private-network tunneling mandatory in China) was via Twitter direct messages.

And, to UA’s immense credit, that worked. I passed on the flight numbers for my shortest connection–Shanghai to Fukuoka, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, then Fukuoka to Haneda–and, after an anxiety-inducing wait, got a response that ended: “currently working on the ticket change.” Fifty-one minutes later, a DM confirmed my rebooking. I undid the mileage reservation within the 24-hour free-cancel window and booked a hotel. That was shockingly cheap: $70 and change for an upscale, well-placed property.

Try to appreciate the adventure. Going to Japan via China was not ideal in many ways–literally any other connection would have given me a normal level of bandwidth–but it did have its moments. I got to take the Shanghai Maglev from the airport and back, something I’d last experienced in 2007. I was able to cross another two airports off my list (because I am sometimes 12 years old, I appreciated how one carries the IATA code of “FUK”). And on arrival at HND, I was able to incorporate yet another mode of travel into my itinerary, the Tokyo Monorail. That and two other trains got me to my hotel in time for dinner, which was more than I’d thought likely at SFO two days before.

Plus, this little travel saga reminded me that I could bounce around the Pacific Rim with zero advance planning and not get lost. That’s worth something in itself.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport is still not open

BERLIN–My introduction to this city seven years ago was supposed to feature a new, world-class airport. I continue to wait on that.

When I booked my flights for the IFA trade show in 2012, Berlin Brandenburg Airport was set to open in early June as a unified airport for the unified city, replacing both Tegel in the western half and Schönefeld in the east.

But fire-safety concerns forced a postponement of Berlin Brandenburg’s opening to the next spring. And by “fire-safety concerns,” I mean the belated realization that expecting to vent smoke by having fans blow it down from ceilings to vents in the basement would be very much not up to code. So I flew into Tegel instead and have since gotten to know that airport rather well.

Brandenburg empty gatesTXL is no prize, with a weird layout that puts passport and security at each gate. It’s also one of the few major attractions in Berlin that’s not walking distance from a U-Bahn or S-Bahn stop, instead requiring a bus connection. But Tegel does have the advantage of being open and operational.

BER, meanwhile, has seen its opening pushed back year after year while it’s sunk from being a subject of local civic concern to the internationally recognized spot where German efficiency went to die. As a BBC feature from late June recaps,  the saga involves epic levels of engineering, financial and political malfeasance. It will probably be taught as a cautionary tale in project-management classes for the next hundred years.

But although I have yet to step on or off a plane at Brandenburg, I have been inside the place. During my 2015 IFA (then, as now, the show’s organizers covered most of my travel costs), I took an afternoon off to take the BER airport tour.

Seeing this zombie airport from up close was a remarkable and spooky experience, even if I could only catch the occasional word or phrase in the German tour narration. In any language, it’s bizarre to stand on an airport ramp and not smell any jet fuel.

I took a bunch of photos and told myself I’d sell a story about that visit somewhere. And then I spent months failing to close the deal anywhere before eventually giving up. One might say that this drawn-out inability to execute was my Berlin Brandenburg Airport of freelance pitching.

Those airport tours are still available–and are something I will have to do anew before trying to revive this story idea–but now they require booking a reservation online three months in advance. So like BER itself, returning to this story will have to wait until next year. When, per the latest estimates, Berlin Brandenburg will finally open–not that you should bet too many euros on that happening by the new deadline of October 2020.

In the meantime, you might as well enjoy some of the pictures I took four years ago; if you’d rather not click through to my Flickr page (speaking of things from an earlier time), there’s a slideshow after the jump.

(Edited 9/6/2019 to explain the initial delay better and move one link.)

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Three decades of D.C., or how I learned to stop worrying and love the District

This Wednesday, classes began again at Georgetown University–which was my reminder that 30 years prior, I arrived in D.C. for my own new-student-orientation exercise. And somehow, I never got around to leaving.

I think that the awkward kid from New Jersey with the bad haircut has improved with age, but I know the city on the Potomac and the Anacostia has.

We overcame Marion Barry’s mayoral mismanagement and the city’s subsequent fiscal ruin (although municipal corruption lives on). The District’s population has topped 700,000, a level last seen in the 1970s, while the Washington area now ranks as the country’s sixth-most populous. Downtown is no longer pockmarked with parking lots, and neighborhoods teem with new development–some at the expense of residents who lived through the bad times. We have a baseball team that may yet advance past a division series in the postseason. The rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are cleaner. It’s vastly easier to get around without a car.

Yes, we have issues. Housing costs too much–but at least we don’t have San Francisco or New York’s insane real-estate markets. The summer weather is usually outright hideous. I wish there were more places to get a good bagel or a cannoli. Every place has its tradeoffs, and these are ours.

My appreciation of the upsides of here has advanced immensely too. For the first two years at Georgetown, I scarcely ventured farther from campus than Dupont Circle and spent my summers away. But I didn’t leave for the summer after my junior year, instead working an unpaid internship (thanks, Mom and Dad!) in the West End. That’s also when friends started bringing their own vehicles to off-campus group houses, allowing me to get to know much more of the District and its surroundings. (You haven’t fully lived K Street traffic until you’ve driven it in a 1977 Toyota Corolla with a four-speed stick shift.) An expanding Metro system further opened up the area to me, eventually leading me across the Potomac to Arlington.

It took me another three years to began discovering the bike-accessible parts of the D.C. area and realize one more great thing about living here: You don’t have to ride far to find yourself in the middle of a forest or overlooking a gorge, with only the sound of airplanes to remind you that not that many miles from a major city’s downtown.

Three decades in, I continue to find new parts of this place to celebrate and discover, as D.C. license plates used to say. And I’ve collected enough Washingtoniana memories to bore younger people with my curmodgeonly recollections: the reek of the old 9:30 Club, National Airport’s Interim Terminal, the evil and stupid taxi-zone map, seeing Fugazi play at Fort Reno shows. I look forward to gathering many more.

D.C. may be the city that politicians love to hate when they sneer about “Washington” (before deciding to stay here after they lose an election or retire), but it’s become the center of my world. My choice to go college someplace not at all like rural New Jersey seems to have worked out pretty well so far.

Six weeks in a row of travel

When I unlocked the front door on our darkened porch Thursday night–and, as if by magic, the power came back on–six consecutive weeks of travel went into the books.

View of Toronto from a departing airplaneIt all seemed like a reasonable idea upfront, not least when it appeared I’d have a couple of weeks at home over that period.

In an alternate universe, a spring break trip to see Bay Area and Boston relatives and then the IFA Global Press Conference in Spain would have been followed by week at home, then more than a week of additional downtime would have separated Google I/O in Mountain View and Collision in Toronto.

But then I got invited to moderate a panel at the Pay TV Show in Denver, with the conference organizers covering my travel expenses, and my Uncle Jim died. The results: 4/13-4/21 spring break, 4/24-4/28 IFA GPC, 4/29-4/30 in Ohio for my uncle’s funeral (I had about nine hours at home between returning from Spain and departing for Cleveland), 5/6-5/9 Google I/O, 5/13-5/16 Pay TV Show, 5/20-5/23 Collision.

I’d thought having the last three trips only run four days, with three days at home between each, would make things easier. That didn’t really happen, although I did appreciate having time to do all the laundry, bake bread and cook a bunch of food during each stay home, then be able to check the status of my flight home the morning after arriving at each destination.

In particular, my ability to focus on longer-term work and try to develop new business took a hit during all this time in airports, airplanes and conference venues. And because Yahoo Finance elected to have staff writers cover I/O and Collision remotely, so did my income.

Meanwhile, I can’t pretend that I’ve been following the healthiest lifestyle, thanks to all of the eating and drinking at various receptions. Consecutive days of walking around with my laptop in a messenger bag left a softball-sized knot in my left shoulder to complement my sore feet. And I’ve woken up in the middle of the night too many times wondering where I was–including once or twice in my own bed at home.

So while the past six weeks have taken me to some neat places and connected me to some interesting people, I don’t need to repeat the experience.

Crystal City wasn’t so enticing in 1993

With the news Tuesday morning that Amazon will put one of its “HQ2” locations in Arlington, Crystal City–or “National Landing,” the name picked to encompass an Amazon realm that will reach some adjacent blocks in Pentagon City and Alexandria–has suddenly become one of the D.C. area’s most interesting neighborhoods.

That was very much not the case when I moved there with three friends in 1993. For a single guy in his early 20s, there was one word for the neighborhood then: Loserville.

Then as now, Crystal City was bisected by a partly-elevated highway, with superblocks filled by bland, boxy buildings on either side. But in 1993, most of these office and apartment structures couldn’t be bothered to engage the street: Aside from a few scattered exceptions, retail and dining establishments huddled in the Crystal City Underground.

My walk to Metro from our apartment on South 23rd Street–a hulking structure with concrete-comb balcony railings that evoked Communist Bloc architecture–either took me through those climate-controlled corridors or along sidewalks with immaculate landscaping but few human life forms, as you can see in pictures I took that summer.

(My Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens later wrote a feature about Crystal City that ran under the headline “Habitrail For Humanity” and featured this wonderful line from Sen. John McCain, a resident then: “You can start to feel more like a mole than a human.”)

Shopping was not an issue, with a Safeway a short stroll into the Underground and other everyday retail spots not much further along. I had an easy Metro commute to the Post and other places in D.C., and we were close enough to National Airport that I once hiked home from it. But the only affordable nightlife-ish spot I remember on our side of U.S. 1 was a Hamburger Hamlet.

Crossing the other side of the road shamefully called “Jefferson Davis Highway” (and which marred our building’s mailing address) would get you to a short little strip of restaurants in older storefronts on South 23rd Street. But first you had to choose between a long wait for a crosswalk signal or holding your nose as you briskly strolled through a pedestrian tunnel that reeked of piss.

Meanwhile, all the cool kids lived in apartments or group homes in Adams-Morgan, Cleveland Park, Dupont, Georgetown or Woodley Park. Going to parties at their places–nobody ever headed in the other direction–meant dreading the question “where do you live?”

After 15 months, I was delighted to move to an apartment in Arlington’s Court House neighborhood and be able to walk to cheap, delicious Vietnamese food and some moderately-hipster bars.

Crystal City has grown less ugly in the 21st century. A series of redevelopments turned the west side of Crystal Drive into a great stretch of restaurants and bars, a few new and less-bland buildings have sprouted around the neighborhood, and the brownfield to the north that mainly served as an impound lot for towed cars has become the terrific Long Bridge Park. Even most Jefferson Davis Highway addresses are gone, now that Arlington decided in 2004 to reassign buildings street addresses that mapped to their front doors.

The people quoted in a Post piece Tuesday voicing complaints along the lines of Crystal City having “no nightlife” must not realize how bad things used to be.

Amazon’s arrival should make them better still, replacing more of those ’60s and ’70s-vintage hulks with taller, shinier structures. And unlike Amazon’s other HQ2 spot, NYC’s Long Island City neighborhood, Crystal City will also see serious infrastructure improvements: Current and future Metro stops will get new entrances, its Virginia Railway Express station will be expanded, the walk to National will take place on a pedestrian bridge, and the long-term vision involves turning U.S. 1 into a surface-level, human-scaled boulevard.

But Arlington’s plans don’t include another upgrade that’s out of the county’s hands until the General Assembly notices the current century: rechristening that highway so it’s no longer an exercise in Confederacy whitewashing. Click “Okay” already, Richmond.

The D.C. area’s token skyscrapers

Informed travelers don’t come here to see skyscrapers. But after years of having the Washington Monument be the highest structure in sight after a couple of radio towers, the Washington area now features some edifices outside D.C. and its self-defeating height limit that… okay, wouldn’t look embarrassingly small in Manhattan.

It’s a start!

I spent this morning visiting what’s now the highest building in the area, Capital One’s 470-foot-tall headquarters in Tysons. Having watched this grow on my way to Dulles Airport over the last few years, it was fascinating to see the views from the 19th floor and on up to the roof.

It was also somewhat frustrating, in that I hadn’t thought to bring binoculars on a day a little too hazy for me to make out the District’s taller buildings. I still had a fantastic perspective of Tysons and how Metro’s Silver Line is leading it to grow upwards.

(You can get a sense of what I saw up there in my Flickr album from this tour.)

Unfortunately, I’m not likely to get that same aerial perspective again anytime soon. Capital One Tower does have event space available for outside events, but it’s clustered on the lower levels.

The second-highest building around D.C., however, features an observation deck almost 400 feet up and open to the public–tickets are $21 online, free for Arlington residents. And because the CEB Tower in Rosslyn, 390 feet tall, sits part way up a hill from the Potomac, it seems about eye level with the Washington Monument and almost that high relative to planes on their way into National Airport.

That outstanding location also lets you look down on what used to be the tallest buildings near D.C., the twin 381-foot-tall towers built in the early 1980s after a federal lawsuit sought to end their construction.

“These monsters would ruin the skyline,” Carter-administration Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus said at the time. That was a foolish thing to say then and is even more so now. Taller buildings in Rosslyn like those two and the pyramid-topped 1812 N. Moore St. help hide the ugly ’60s and ’70s-vintage boxes that defined its skyline until recently, but they still leave plenty of space for the Washington Monument and the Capitol to stand out on their own.

The other reason to applaud skyscrapers: Beyond giving you a neat view of the surroundings, they let transit and walking work in a way that sprawled-out corporate campuses can’t. And if designed right, they should also look a hell of a lot better. I’ll admit that neither Capital One Tower nor CEB Tower has quite the grace and style to get kids drawing sketches of them from memory–but we should look at these somewhat boxy assemblages as a chance to do better.

Federal Aviation Administration restrictions on building heights in Rosslyn mean we’re unlikely to get anything bigger there. But back in Tysons, there’s now a proposal for a 600-foot-tall building by the Spring Hill Metro stop. If approved and built, that would surpass a Westin in Virginia Beach to become the tallest building in the commonwealth. I would be okay with that.