As yesterday’s inauguration smashed all records for cramming people into DC’s core, many came away inspired, many frustrated at the disorganized crowd control in many areas. From the anecdotal evidence of my guests and friends and from early press reports, it seems that the inaugural event itself handled the crowds poorly, the bike valet ran smoothly, Union Station failed completely, and Metro, which easily broke its all-time ridership record, handled the day’s crushes and crises admirably.
Most of all, communication made the difference. According to one friend, leaving the inauguration, crowds at the tops of escalators at one station became too dense. If more people ascended the escalator, they wouldn’t be able to step off, creating a dangerous situation. Metro staff stopped riders from exiting, and most importantly, communicated clearly. A woman with a bullhorn stood at the bottom, explaining to people in a folksy way why they couldn’t go and assuring them they’d be on their way shortly.
A woman fell on the tracks, but got under the platform safely to avoid an oncoming train. Metro had her off to a hospital to be checked out and trains running again within 45 minutes, partly thanks to Metro’s training for just such an eventuality.
Sure, many parking lots filled up, but everyone expected that. Crowds built up at stations and many people had to wait a long time for Metro trains, but crowds filled up every facility (like the Smithsonian). At Union Station, those crowds crippled commuter rail. Friends who rode VRE to the inauguration couldn’t make their 5 pm return train because the fire marshal had closed Union Station. Amtrak, MARC and VRE didn’t effectively keep the swelling crowd informed about the situation for hours, until they finally conveyed news that the railroads would get everyone home and honor tickets for trains other than the ones riders had originally reserved. Closing the main room for a ball, as Union Station did, seems foolish for a day which needed every piece of transportation infrastructure.
Logistics for the inaugural event itself, in particular, left many disappointed. Those who simply decided to stand near the Washington Monument fared best, since they didn’t have to pass through the excruciatingly slow metal detectors. The jumbotrons worked (except for an annoying ten-second video delay), and most of those without tickets who simply went down to the Mall to see what they could see and enjoy the ambiance had a pleasant, though cold, experience.
Many with tickets, on the other hand, never made it into their assigned sections (blue, purple, or silver). Silver and purple
filled up entirely, turning people away, mismanaged crowd control, blocking the entrances and depriving many ticket holders of access to their sections. A power failure stopped the X-ray machines in the blue section, keeping many people out. Instead, people in the silver section, unsure if they could cross a low barrier near the Capitol reflecting pool, crossed over into the empty space in the blue and purple sections. People who’d worked hard to get precious tickets found concluded inaugural officials had given out too many because of the flow problems.
Inadequate communication by inaugural crowd control officials, too, created problems. Those volunteers deployed to give directions performed well, but were too few. At one area, visitors unable to get answers started asking a nearby paramedic team, placed in that spot to help anyone in need of medical attention. Not knowing the answers and swarmed with frustrated questioners, they decided to decamp to another location. Signs, which would have helped answer many questions, were scarce.
And some inaugural watchers reacted by becoming unruly. Crowds waiting to get into the overwhelmed blue, purple and silver sections started shoving as the swearing-in approached and people could still not see or hear. Just Up the Pike was trapped in the Waterside Safeway “where already disgruntled people had to wait over two hours to use a bathroom and others quickly resorted to stealing food.” Others there pushed and shoved and some even “tried to pick a fight with me after I asked them to quiet down so I could hear Obama’s speech,” he wrote.
Many buses were diverted and became stuck in traffic, like the 3Y whose passengers staged a little mutiny to get off early. But Metro, DC and federal officials managed to get almost 2 million people to and from the Mall, then around DC for numerous balls, with few injuries and (as far as we know) no fatalities. The bike valet was packed. Millions witnessed this historic occasion. And our Metro system managed to cope with the record throng quite adeptly. Good work!