Does D.C. Need Tour Buses?

Tour Buses Getting Squeezed Out of Union Station as Other Businesses There Expand

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    I wrote a cover story this week about Union Station: How much more it could be than it is, if all its component parts could work together more cohesively (and if hundreds of millions of dollars become available over the next five years).

    One of the pieces that's getting squeezed out as others expand? Tour buses, which have long been able to park in garage while their charges eat lunch in the station, allowing the driver to get lunch as well. Come spring, as I've mentioned before, they'll have to go to another parking lot, which looks more and more likely to be the one around the old Crummell School on New York Avenue.

    Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton thinks that's how things should be.

    "Charter buses should go somewhere else. This is not a parking lot," she said, with characteristic indignation. "It’s a disgrace that a building like this was made a parking lot for charter buses.... There’s no such thing as taking prime land in the District of Columbia and converting it into a parking lot."

    But this is just one more inconvenience thrown at the feet of charter bus companies, which have felt squeezed over the last year by new curbside parking regulations and fees for permits to come into the city. They're no longer allowed to park on Ohio Drive on Hains Point.

    Eventually, one tour bus company says, it might not be worth their while to come at all.

    "They’re really doing all they can to keep coaches out of the city, but they still want those dollars," said Rob Teweles, director of sightseeing for Worldstrides, which plans on bringing 85,000 kids through Union Station this spring. "It’s going to come to a head at some point.... Ultimately their plan is to sort of ban motorcoaches from the city at all."

    The silly thing is that Worldstrides isn't so bus-dependent in other cities. Center City Philadelphia and Manhattan, Teweles said, are dense enough with attractions that they can tour kids around without having to pick up and drop off using buses.

    But in D.C., he said, things are spread out enough that motorcoaches are the only way to get kids around fast enough.

    "D.C. is not walkable," he says. Even taking kids in on the Metro wouldn't be cost- and time-efficient. "That just doesn’t fit our business model," he says. "We can’t pay a driver to sit at the Vienna Metro for nine hours."

    At some point, though, that's probably the direction in which educational tours should go -- or as many of them as possible. Things like Segways, bikes, pedicabs and a newly imagined Tourmobile-esque service could absorb lots of the folks that now ride around in gigantic buses, and experience the city in a more authentic way in the mean time (there are few things more disorienting than taking a bus tour of monuments, which leaves you with no sense of direction or scale).

    It's easier to do that, of course, when the density of attractions increases to the point where moving at a walk or bike's pace is worth your while.

    D.C. may not be built for that, though, and when a company's marketing strategy is predicated on packing as much into a tour as humanly possible, a bus is the only way to go.

    Does D.C. Need Tour Buses? was originally published by Washington City Paper on Dec. 8, 2011.