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?

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.