Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Two days and one big snowstorm ago, DC hosted the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. It was one of many events that have shut down city streets. But are DC residents bearing more of a burden than necessary for these events? NBC’s Tom Sherwood passed along a letter to Councilmember Tommy Wells from a resident who has had enough of these events:

I would appreciate if you or one of your staff members could provide me with information on how I can access I-295 Southbound, or Pennsylvania Avenue West, around 7:30am this Saturday morning?  I live at [the 1800 block of C Street SE], and the last time one of these Saturday Running Events occurred, I went to do laundry (which took about 90 minutes), and it took me almost two hours to get back home after doing my laundry — even though the laundry matt is only about 10 minutes from my house!!!! ...

Another point not mentioned in the attached information is that our DC Government should not try and compare itself to City’s like New York, or Chicago, because those City’s have massive public transportation systems that are far greater than what exists in DC, especially their subway systems.  Accordingly, marathons in places like New York or Chicago can be accommodated in a manner that does not place a substantial number of City residents on “Lock-Down” when these events occur.

Tom Sherwood wrote, “I am all for healthy public events held in the city, but the writer [of the letter] raises an issue I occasionally have discussed — how can the city inconvenience thousands of citizens for half-days and more over such a wide area?”

Our contributors respond:

David Cranor: To answer Tom’s original question, “How can the city inconvenience thousands of citizens for half-days and more over such a wide area?” That’s easy, by closing a lot of streets.

But seriously, I take Tom’s question to be why would the city do this. And there are several benefits that offset the costs.

  1. Tourism. A lot of these runners come from outside of DC and they come in for the day and stay for brunch or lunch. Or they even get a hotel, etc. It brings something to the economy.
  2. Amenities. One thing a city does is try to give its citizenry opportunities to take part in interesting/fun/exciting events. The marathon qualifies. Having a marathon in town is much more convenient than having to travel somewhere else. You don’t even have to run in it to enjoy it. Lots of people pull lawn chairs out and sit in their yard to watch the runners go by. Or, with the Rock N’ Roll marathon they can go and listen to the bands along the route (we did this a couple of years ago).
  3. Overtime pay for police officers/other employment. Police officers have to staff these events and that’s paid for by the event organizers, as are other employees they need to hire. Not only does this put extra money into the local economy, but it’s not a bad idea for an employer (the city) to look out for its employees and help them to make extra money when opportunities present themselves — for morale. It’s a pay raise that the city doesn’t have to pay for.
  4. Fees. I know there are some. I don’t know how much they cost.
  5. Charity. Some races raise money for good causes
  6. Health. There are likely some positive externalities from hosting a race that encourages more people to exercise and boosts public health (if only a little bit).

So I’m not sure what those benefits are worth, or what the total cost in inconvenience is, but the answer to Tom’s question is that the city thinks the former exceeds the latter.

Matt Johnson: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon website ... has a map of the racecourse and road closures. [The original letter writer] lives at 18th and C Southeast. He wants to know how he can get on I-295 southbound or Pennsylvania Avenue west.

That’s easy. For getting on I-295, he doesn’t even have to cross the racecourse. South on 18th. Potomac Ave to Eye Street. Left on 11th. Get on 11th Street Bridge. Get on I-295 south.

For Pennsylvania Avenue West (how far west?), he can take Pennsylvania Avenue all the way to the Capitol without crossing the racecourse. For the section between the Capitol and the White House, he should get on I-395 and use the tunnel under the Mall. The same goes for getting to the section of Pennsylvania Avenue all the way to Georgetown.

Topher Mathews: This is an issue that has come up repeatedly in Georgetown. One point the ANC now makes is that if the event is not substantially charitable in nature, they will object to it. They also work very closely with the race organizers to minimize the impact, etc.

I think a balance is important, but I also don’t agree when people equate “I can’t get my car out” with “being forcibly stuck in my house.”

Canaan Merchant: I’m interested in several things.

  • I usually see announcements via the web (DDOT, GGW, DCist etc.). That could be an issue for someone not as connected as I am. There may be a dissemination issue to go over.
  • There seems to be real money to be made from all these races. I see different ones advertised all. The. Time. They’ve even started making obstacle courses and “zombie runs” a thing. Nominally, proceeds go to charity but the cynic in me says that races wouldn’t be nearly as prevalent if there wasn’t serious money to be made.
  • The “Rock ‘n’ Roll” marathon is happening in at least a dozen cities; this is a real franchise.
  • This Post story highlights that this route goes through a lot more neighborhoods than other races which stick to the Mall area and down on the parkways between Crystal City and Rosslyn. That’s the issue the original writer is concerned about. So there is definitely room to ask about the outreach to neighborhoods on these events and whether communication could be improved. But one positive is that this may be the first time a lot of people ever really explore Capitol Hill and other urban neighborhoods. That may be a positive overall. Sure, people trying to really race may have their mind on other things but a race like this works better in DC than in Fairfax where it’s not practical to close an arterial.
  • If they’re going to have “Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon” and NOT play rock bands that are famous to DC (Dag Nasty, Fugazi, Dismemberment plan, or call it the Go-Go marathon!) then that’s kind of annoying to me. They really had to go to Seattle to find a suitable band to play at the end of the race? (apologies to any fans of the Head and the Heart).

It may be worth it to talk about if there is a need to have a special road race transportation/neighborhood plan. Marathons and other races are super popular and they aren’t going away, much like sports stadiums they can be a positive for the city’s image but a drain on actual resources. Maybe a more a broader and more holistic approach to them is necessary.

Edward Russell: I disagree with a lot of the points the author of the original email makes. First, has he ever been stuck between the NY marathon on 1st Ave and 5th Ave, and need to get the west side? Sure, you COULD take the subway down to 42nd go to Times Square and then back up, but would you? Probably not.

Road races are a necessary public event in any city, regardless of size.

And I’m sorry, your laundry does not take precedent over an event thousands of people have trained for and are looking forward to — not to mention that has been planned and disclosed for months ahead of time.

DDOT has had digital message board advertising the race on 395 and other major highways coming into DC for more than a week now — if you’re a driver in DC, it’d be hard to not know there will be road closures and you can plan around them. The city has definitely done its job letting people know of the closures on Saturday.

Steven Yates: Given where I live, events that close down roads often inconvenience me. In fact, this one will go right outside of my apartment. But it’s really not more than an inconvenience for me. It might disrupt my bus route, which means I might have to leave a little earlier or walk to the Metro. I’ve sort of come to accept this as part of city living. Though I imagine if I had a car I’d find these a bit more of a disruption.

To answer your outreach question, Canaan, I think last year for this particular race I received a flyer on my door outlining the route (since, again, I live near the route) several weeks before the event. This year, I think I first saw it via email (or somehow knew it was happening). Signs announcing the road closings just went up a few days before the event. But often for events that close streets farther away from me (but still affect me) I don’t find out until I get an email, usually either from WMATA or DDOT.

Veronica O. Davis: To bring a different perspective, the portion through Ward 7 is the last leg of the race. Basically, it means that the roads are closed on this side of town until 1:00 pm. The community has asked the marathon several times if the race could be run in the opposite direction every other year, so that this side of town could get some relief earlier in the day. The race organizers stated they have to re-open downtown first.

The Twining neighborhood is effectively trapped. They are the small neighborhood between 295 and Minnesota Ave.  Over the years MPD has tried to be helpful in letting residents out of the neighborhood, by “slowing the race.”

The other major issue is that Ward 7 is a bus-dependent community. Shut down the buses and it basically shuts down accessibility and mobility. We’ve tried to work with WMATA on bus routing. However, Minnesota Ave is one of the two major north to south bus routes. With the race on Minnesota Ave, a sizable population loses access to everything.

Sure it’s only a half a day of inconvenience. However, some people to get to work, doctor’s appointments, etc.

Payton Chung: These event closures, and recent complaints about diplomatic road closures, offer yet another example of why street connectivity matters. A dense network of streets offers more routes through, even when some of the streets have been closed.

Granted, Ward 7 has topography that makes it difficult for streets to run through. In other instances, like in my (and Tom Sherwood’s) neighborhood in Southwest, the lack of connectivity is entirely self-imposed. We live literally on a cul-de-sac, within a neighborhood that is effectively a cul-de-sac, and even though many of the through streets still exist in practice there’s great resistance to letting others trespass across what’s now private property.

Hopefully, the opening of a continuous trail network along the Anacostia will open up new routes for future road races. I know that some informally organized (ahem) cyclists take advantage of the road closures and ride the route. Maybe this is a starting point for a proper Open Streets event.