Photo by jng03 on Flickr.

The Tourmobile is ending service October 31, Lydia DePillis reports. Some City Paper commenters are shouting hallelujah, but this isn’t really cause for celebration and certainly doesn’t mean the end of NPS problems.

It’s not like the goal of people calling for reform was to kill the Tourmobile. It wasn’t that the Tourmobile was a bad service, per se. I never used it, so I can’t say whether it gave a good tour or a poor one, but there wasn’t anything wrong with a $32 interpretive tour if some people wanted one.

Rather, the problem was the Tourmobile’s exclusive contract which prohibits other kinds of transportation. NPS’s model was to sign one concession contract for a type of service. For many years, that meant that the Circulator couldn’t run on the Mall and NPS wouldn’t even put up signs pointing to its stops.

The Tourmobile’s former owner, Tom Mack, did his share of lobbying against the Circulator, which gave residents plenty to hate about the service, but it was NPS which kept renewing the contract year after year (possibly illegally).

The Park Service could go one of several ways at this point. They could sign a new exclusive contract with a different provider, even the Circulator. That would serve most Mall transportation needs much better. But it might not meet the needs of those who want a tour.

And what if another kind of transportation arises? For example, NPS officials explained their harassment of pedicabs as necessary to protect the exclusive contract. They’re now devising new pedicab rules, but if a future new transportation service wants to run on the Mall, would NPS simply say that’s not possible because the only transportation can now be Circulator buses and pedicabs, nothing else?

NPS should instead take a different tack, where future concession contracts give an operator the right to provide a service but still allow NPS to allow other services of a similar type, but which serve different market segments, just as a $1 bus and a $32 tour serve different market segments.

The same should go for food vending, bicycling and more. NPS rejected a proposed farmers’ market in Rawlins Park, on E Street west of the White House, saying it conflicted with the vending contracts for hot dogs over on the Mall. We’ve gotten conflicting reports from NPS and spokesperson Bill Line (who continues to not reply to any emails) about reasons for rejecting Capital Bikeshare, but one is that their all-day bike rental contract interferes.

Fresh produce for office workers does not conflict with snacks for tourists, and all-day recreational bike rental isn’t the same as point-to-point bike sharing. The concession policies should generally recognize that a large and diverse area like the Mall, not to mention the small neighborhood parks, could benefit from more than one kind of transportation, more than one type of food, and so on.

Update: Lydia points out an important nuance, that as far as we can tell, NPS’s contract wasn’t actually exclusive, or at least wasn’t as exclusive as they claim. They probably could have allowed Circulator (except Mack got a few Congressional Republicans to shoot warning glances at NPS across a hearing table), and the farmers’ market, and pedicabs, and Capital Bikeshare.

Guest Services, the food and bicycle master concessionaire, told Joey Katzen that NPS hadn’t even talked to them about whether they’d object to CaBi. In other words, this exclusivity thing seems to be as much an excuse as a real problem. Or, if there is an actual law making Circulator, CaBi, farmers’ markets, etc. impermissible, NPS was never willing to explain it.

Bottom line: What’s dying is the Tourmobile, but what really needs to die is NPS’s argument that the transportation concession must be exclusive, whether or not it ever really had to.


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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.