Photo by clydeorama on Flickr.

Tour groups to DC arrive in an endless stream of big honking tour buses. People frequently ask, “Why can’t these kids just walk and use the Metro?”

It’s a fair question. After all, I’m willing to bet just about every reader out there has been a tourist in a new city and managed to poke around without the benefit of a motor coach. We have an extensive mass transit system that manages to shuttle thousands of other tourists. What makes eighth graders so special, so lazy, so pampered, they can’t hoof it a few blocks?

There’s a few reasons why this wouldn’t work out. From my perspective as a tour guide, the main drawback is that I need a place to use as a “base” when touring. When I travel by myself or with my family I try to find a hotel as close as possible to where we are planning to visit, ideally within walking distance.

This allows me to stop back during the day, stash things I don’t need, and so on. This just isn’t possible in DC. There are several hotels in downtown DC, but tour groups can’t afford them and I suspect these hotels don’t want them.

At best we may stay at the Savoy Suites on Wisconsin Avenue or in Crystal City. While theoretically we could swing by, the logistics of getting 45 eighth graders off the bus, up the elevator, and back down preclude me from doing it on my tight schedule. And keep in mind, we’re usually not anywhere this close. Most of my groups are still staying out in places like Woodbridge or Laurel.

Instaed, the bus ends up being these kids home away from home. When you leave the hotel at 7:30 in the morning and get back at 9:30 at night you need someplace to stash your bags, leave a rain jacket, leave your souvenirs, grab a bottle of water, and so on.

Additionally, teachers and chaperones have quite a bit of stuff to lug about. Many schools require teachers to have on hand medical consent forms, permission slips, contact information and other paperwork for students. The “drug bag”, filled with the students’ medications is often now a roll on suitcase. And many groups elect to bring bottled water with them.

This is a must-have for a youth trip to Washington. I half-jokingly challenge my groups to see if they can make it through the trip without someone throwing up. I’ve had groups decorate the National Cathedral, just about every room on the public tour of the Capitol, the White House, and perhaps most memorably, the elevator of the Washington Monument. These kids are away from home, with all the stress that can entail, eating unadulterated crap, staying up until three in the morning, and not getting anywhere enough fluids. Sounds silly, but staying properly hydrated is a major issue for me.

Take Arlington National Cemetery, for example. We get them off the bus at the Visitor’s Center, where all the exterior water fountains (assuming they are not turned off) are barely usable with a sad, warm trickle of water. Heading inside, students end up bypassing the scant interior water fountains because there just isn’t any time wait in line for them. Nor is bottled water available for purchase at the Visitor’s Center (although there is at the Women in Military Service Memorial).

Then we start our two mile trek through the Cemetery, with a grand finale at the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Water fountains are available, but limited and often not working. Experienced groups plan ahead and have bottled water for their students, ideally one for the walk and one to replenish afterwards.

I don’t mean to just pick on Arlington, which clearly has bigger management problems right now than fixing their water fountains. Visiting the Memorials, the Capitol, even the Smithsonians, require a lot of walking with limited bathroom and water facilities. The National Mall is a virtual desert. Having a place to regroup, get hydrated, pick up or drop off a rain jacket, and so on isn’t really a luxury when you are responsible for forty to fifty children.

Nor can we expect them to carry it themselves. Sadly, student visitors will have more first hand experience with police and security officers than any other occupation in their time in Washington, DC. These guys have a demanding job to do, screening thousands of people a day, with the very real threat of personal violence to themselves. Patience is at a minimum, and being in the customer service business, it’s my job to make sure my clients get through without incurring the ire of a stressed security guard.

I do this by emphasizing “leave on the bus” as often as possible. Visits to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Capitol, the Archives and even lunch stops such as Ronald Reagan Building and Old Post Office are planned so that I drop off and pick up as close as possible.

I can get a prepped and ready busload of students through security in under five minutes by leaving bags on the bus. Search every bag, and it can take up to fifteen minutes. Multiply that by 5-7 checkpoints I have to get through on a tour, and this starts to add up to real time lost.

Not to mention the items you can’t bring in with you grows every year. The White House does not let groups bring cameras in. The Holocaust Memorial Museum makes my kids throw away gum and candy bars. Most ridiculously, the Capitol Visitor’s Center will not allow empty water bottles in. Cases can be made for each of these, but taken in aggregate it means I need a place for my students to leave stuff and pick it up. The hotel is out, it’s got to be the bus.

But all of this is my problem. It’s not why you should care. Go down to Garfield Circle, at the southwest base of Capitol Hill one morning in the spring, and watch buses disgorge students in waves reminiscent of Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front. Now picture these same hundreds of kids getting on at Capitol South, trying to figure out fare gates, purchasing metro cards, standing on the left right, and generally getting in your way.

I do take a group on the Metro, every so often. I encourage this. Once per trip. Most of these kids have never taken mass transit, and things my six year old is an experienced pro at befuddle them. When I have this opportunity to show the Metro off, I purchase tickets ahead of time, I hold a “class” on using it before we step foot underground, and we even do a dry run. I have the kids repeat after me “stand on the left right, walk on the right left” in unison before we get on. I make sure to do it on off peak times and use less crowded entrances and platforms where possible.

Even still, it takes forever. Sure, it’s a great experience for the kids and I’m glad to show them part of the “real” Washington, but it takes way too long to get fifty inexperienced metro users around town for it to be an acceptable substitute for bus transportation.

Try this on for size. There are, give or take, 45 coach parking spots at Arlington National Cemetery. Quite often in the spring, they’re all full by 9:00 in the morning. Do you really want to share the Blue Line with the over 2,000 students that will spilling out of there mid-morning and heading over to the Mall? Sure, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to Metro’s daily ridership numbers, but you guys really don’t seem to enjoy the 45 or so I bring on by themselves.

No, there’s got to be better ways we can handle the bus problem, but just sending them all on the Metro won’t work for me or you.

Cross-posted at DC Like a Local.


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Tim Krepp is an author and tour guide, living and specializing in Washington, DC, but working throughout the east coast. A resident of the more fashionable east side of Capitol Hill, Tim has lived in Washington, DC since graduating from George Washington University a few decades ago.