Streetsblog Interview: Obamathon Man

2_20_09_obamathon.jpgToday we’re interviewing Drew Reed the writer/editor of the
popular blog “Obamathon Man.”  Reed
traveled across the country with his brother to see the inauguration of Barack
Obama and stopped at several places along the way to blog about their
transportation and what he saw.  A Long
Beach resident, Reed has developed some strong opinions about the state of
transit and transportation in Los Angeles and the country in general.

In this interview, we discuss his trip across the country and his experiences walking around the Capital during the inauguration.  If you’re more interested in just his D.C. experiences, use the jump and scroll down until you see a picture of a crowd gathered in front of the Capital.

Streetsblog:  We’re here today with Drew Reed, a regular
cyclist and transit user who just traveled across the country to witness the
Obama inauguration.  We’re going to talk
about some of the things he saw and wrote about at the blog chronicling his
journey, Obamathon, and how Washington, D.C. was transformed to a pedestrian
town for the inauguration.

Let’s start with the obvious.  What cities did you stop at?

Reed: First stop
was Denver.  I didn’t have the idea to
start writing about the trip until I was already in Denver.  We spent two weeks in Denver, an afternoon in
Kansas City, Columbia, Saint Louis, Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Nashville
Tennessee, Charlotte and Richmond Virginia before staying in the D.C. suburbs
for the inauguration.

Streetsblog: Did
anything stick out at any of the cities that you think we should bring here to
L.A. or any lessons we can learn from what’s being done elsewhere?

Reed: Every city
is different.  In every city you can see
things you like and some things you don’t.

In Denver they seemed like they’re really getting their act
together.  Unlike here in L.A., in
Downtown Denver, there aren’t massive freeways cutting the downtown up.  They had a nice outdoor mall, the 16th
street mall.  They have a free bus that
moves people from one end of the mall to another…about 10 or 12 blocks.

Because it had a dedicated right-of-way, it functions as a
trolley and it was amazing how useful it was. 
It was twice as fast as walking and came by every couple of minutes.

Living in Long Beach, we also have a bus service that’s free
in the downtown, but there’s no limited access way.  The walkway running next to it was nice, wide
and clean too.

Streetsblog:
We’ve been talking about a trolley way for Broadway, part of the Bringing Back
Broadway Campaign.  Do you think that the
success of this trolley in Denver speaks in any way to what we should be doing
here?

Reed: It would be
a different set-up here.  A better
parallel would be bringing a transit service to the Promenade in Santa
Monica.  The Promenade is only about half
as big, and Denver is a lot less shi-shi than Santa Monica, but what made the
Denver bus so useful was the dedicated right of way and the regular stops.

Streetsblog: Was
there any place you visited along the way that was just so terrible that you
wouldn’t want to see it replicated anywhere?

Reed: Well, we
stopped in Kansas City, and while I wouldn’t say it was terrible, they are one
of the largest cities in America not to have any sort of rail system.

Streetsblog:
Wait, don’t they have light rail?  I seem
to remember a blog called KC Light Rail or something like that.  (editor’s
note: I was right, there is a KC Light Rail Blog, and it can be found here
However, Drew was right and the Light Rail itself isn’t a reality as of
yet…)

Reed: I’m pretty
sure they still don’t have it, but that they’re still pushing for it.  I believe there was a ballot initiative this
fall or recently, and it lost.

Streetsblog:
Where you there long enough to see how the lack of light rail affected people’s
mentality towards transit?

Reed:  It wasn’t that bad.  Downtown Kansas City was very walkable, and
we were still walking around late at night and able to find open markets and
restaurants and we felt safe.  I mean, it
wasn’t like our least favorite place, a place we didn’t even stop at, Las
Vegas.  They have a monorail and it’s a
terrible place to move around.  I mean,
there’s places there where they have barricades up to keep people from crossing
the street without going over and overpass and through a couple of casinos.

Just because a place has better transit doesn’t mean it’s
automatically a better place to be.

You know what were the best places to be as far as mobility
were?

Streetsblog: Go
ahead.

Reed: College towns.  We made a point at stopping at a couple of
college towns and they were just as oriented towards bicycles and walking as
Santa Barbara was when I was a student there. 
We stopped at Columbus Missouri for the University of Missouri and the
University of Illinois.

You can judge how a community is doing with their bike
planning by the state of their bike racks. 
Are they full?  Are there enough
of them?  In both cases, we saw lots of
bikes but not so many that they were chained to every available piece of street
furniture.

I think a lot of why people bike has to do with perception
creating reality.  To many people out
here, biking is just a way to get around before you’re sixteen and can get a
car.  Thus, they may continue to do it
while they’re in college, but it’s become something you don’t do “as an
adult.”  Maybe that’s why college towns
are so bike oriented.  For us, bikes are
just the most practical way to get around.

Maybe we’ll get it so that when people go to college they’ll
learn there’s real value to biking around and they’ll keep doing it when they
leave.

Anyways, when we stopped later in Urbana we saw a lot of the
same things we saw at Missouri except there people were riding bikes in the
snow.  For me, being used to Long Beach
and Santa Barbara, to ride a bike on an icy street would be the height of
terror.  But people were doing it and
there must be ways to cope.

Streetsblog: Between
the college towns, you stopped in Saint Louis?

Reed: We
did.  We talked to some bloggers and
advocates there and it’s funny.

Streetsblog: Yes?

2_20_09_st_louis_light_rail.JPG

Reed: They
complained that the transit system in Saint Louis runs underground through the
downtown.  They want it to run on the
street, because people don’t think of it as a transportation option if they
can’t see it.  It’s funny when you
compare it to here, where there’s a big fight to get the Expo Line to run
below-grade.

(editor’s note: To
read Drew’s interview with Saint Louis’ Steve Patterson, click here.)

Unfortunately, he also told me there was a ballot initiative
that failed so train service is going to be cut off after 8 P.M.  When I compare it, it makes me really happy
that Measure R passed even though I did have some serious reservations about
it.

From there we went through Springfield which was exciting
because I was able to meet people that knew Obama when he worked there, people
that waited on him at restaurants and such. 
In some ways it was mundane, because they knew him as someone that
worked there, but it was still a nice stop.

From there it was onto Urbana, through Illinois and into
Kentucky.

Streetsblog: From
Obama-land to the Deep South.

Reed:  We got through Kentucky but into
Nashville.  In Nashville there really
wasn’t a train system to speak of, nobody was really biking either and there
wasn’t anything special there; but I did have one cool thing to report.

We got to talk to the American Barbershop Harmony Society
and they actually picked their headquarters based on walkability.  They relocated to Nashville from Kenosha, WI
in large part because the downtown area was great for walking.

Streetsblog: They
ought to write a song.  Take that Walking
in L.A.

Reed:  Moving on from Nashville, we spent the day in
Atlanta, which was pretty nice.

As far as bikes go, the city-scape there is similar to L.A.
There weren’t many people riding bikes and there were a fair amount of people
in the downtown area walking around. 
They did have a nice grade-separated rail system, I guess Damien Goodmon
would be a fan of that.

It was a little annoying because to ride the rails you had
to buy a $5 credit card.  It’s a one-time
fee, so I saved mine.  If I ever have to
go back I’ll be ready.

It was nice though that they had a subway from a big
park-and-ride lot, so we took the subway in and out, skipped the traffic and
were able to get right into downtown. 
They seemed to have put some thought into putting business around subways.

It reminded me of B.A.R.T. 
In a lot of ways Atlanta’s system was similar to San Francisco’s and
Washington D.C.’s, maybe because they were built at around the same time.  It’s a different feel from the older east
coast cities, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Streetsblog:
Anything from Atlanta we should be importing to L.A.?

Reed: Well , the
trains connect directly to the airport. 
I guess Metrolink goes straight to Burbank, but the train only runs
what, once an hour?

Streetsblog:
Atlanta a straight shot into D.C.?

Reed: We took our
time.  We stopped in Charlotte, which has
a light rail system but it was recently opened and pretty skeletal.  They’re just starting to ween off a car
reliant mentality.  There was also a
spread out downtown.  It was good to see
them starting to get on the right track.

From there into Richmond, where we had family living.

In D.C., they did a pretty good job moving people but in
Richmond they didn’t.  It’s a little
similar to here in that they used to have a trolley system, but they ripped it
out and now it’s gone.  Even the bus
service didn’t look that good, so we didn’t really try to ride it.

But they do have a nice science museum.

Streetsblog: Uhm,
ok…

Reed: I used to
go there as a kid.  It actually used to
be their Union Station.  They moved the
station to a Bungalow for some reason and kept this ornate train station as a
science museum.

Sort of emblematic to their planning in a way.

2_20_09_capital.JPG

(editor’s note: From here we get into the inauguration stories.  For a more detailed breakdown of the mechanics of the inauguration, see here, here and here.)

Streetsblog: So
now it’s close to the inauguration.

Reed: At the last
minute we got some friends in Hancock Maryland to put us up for the night.

We were fortunate enough to be on the side of Washington
that the Metro could take us in.  The Metro
picked us up in Shady Grove which is 15 miles from downtown.  I was expecting a wall of traffic into D.C.
but it wasn’t.  We were able to get into
the parking structure and on the train without too much of a problem.

We got to the Metro Station at around 7 A.M. and the
congestion was pretty much non-existent at that point, both on the road and at
the station.  We got into the station and
despite all of the people hocking stuff and we were able to get on the train no
problem.

We were listening on the radio and heard about someone
falling on the tracks on the other side of Union Station and were worried that would
lead to major delays, but there weren’t. 
Whether they were good at getting the man off the tracks or just not
letting it back up the system, I don’t know, but they kept us moving.

We got off at the Farragut North station, because we knew
the parade route would be cut off and walked around the White House to the
mall.  There wasn’t a lot of people and
they had out port-o-potties out for people to use.

Streetsblog: How
was walking to and through the mall.

Reed: It was
interesting, I have some pictures online…

Streetsblog: Oh,
I’ll steal them, don’t worry.

2_20_09_people_walking.JPG

Reed: They had it
pretty well planned out.  People were
getting out with us at Farragut and others at McPherson plaza.  They were probably hoping to get better
access to the parade route then gave up.  So it was us at Farragut and another wall at
McPherson.

They had the route blocked off and funneled us all on the
same route.  Sort of our own parade.

Streetsblog: And
this walk was carfree?

Reed: Yes.  Except for the occasional emergency vehicle.

Streetsblog: How
well organized was the walk?  Was it just
a mob?

Reed: A well
organized mob.  A happy, well-organized
mob.

Streetsblog:
Armed with hope instead of pitchforks.

So after you got over the hill to the mall, you were able to
walk to the inauguration.

Reed: It was a
dramatic moment, cresting the hill and then you can see the monuments and see
where Obama was going to be.  There was a
gaggle of people at the top of the hill, and there was a big break to 12th
street and then it was just completely packed.

Streetsblog:  In general, what kind of grade would you give
the system?

Reed: I would
give it, from a pedestrian standpoint, it would be a B+, A-.  From a bike standpoint it would be lower.

Streetsblog: How
about on election day?  Moving people
through mostly car-free streets?

Reed: That was
pretty good.  I was expecting
pandemonium, and it wasn’t.  I would give
it an A.

Streetsblog: Was
moving around town after the inauguration as easy as getting to the event
itself?

Reed:  It was tough getting out of the mall because
while we had 10 hours for people to trickle in, everyone wanted to leave at the
same time.  They had designated exit
areas which bottlenecked very quickly. 
That was really the only aspect I would give a lower grade.

We headed Southeast to the Eastern Market hoping it would be
a little less crowded and we wanted to sit down.  Most of the streets were still closed off, so
that was good.

When we wanted to get out of D.C. it was a little
tougher.  The Metro was packed.  I have a good picture of people at the South
Capitol Station waiting in an around the block line.  We walked pretty much across the Anacostia
River to find a station that wasn’t that crowded.

2_20_09_metro_stop.JPG

Streetsblog: So
let’s wrap up with a brief talk of the first month of the administration.  Do you have any thoughts on the stimulus or
other issues?

ReedI
had mixed feelings about the stimulus.  It’s similar to how I felt about
Measure R, which I ultimately supported but felt was too watered down and car
oriented. I know what Obama’s trying to do, but at the same time it seems that
he’s relying too heavily on the mantra that infrastructure (mostly roads, of
course) should be built primarily to "stimulate the economy". 
He really should be giving equal consideration to making sure that stimulus
goes toward building livable communities. If all we wanted to do was help the
economy, we might as well build twenty freeways through Sylmar. Though I
suppose it’s good politics; for a measure to pass, it has to give partial
support to everyone and full support to no one.

Also, I’m a bit disappointed that
Obama missed his chance to show that bikes and mass transit are for everyone,
not just for people too young to drive or people who can’t afford a car.

Streetsblog:
Thanks very much for your time, and good luck moving forward in the future.

  • That last bit about the stimulus is just about how I feel too.

    We still have the federal transportation re-authorization coming up. If the funding formula for trains, and that for highways, was re-jiggered to favor trains it would be a great step in the right direction.

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