Housing Complex

Does D.C. Need Tour Buses?

Unpleasant, but maybe necessary.

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 pushed out as others expand is 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." (There totally is, but whatever).

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," says 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 says, 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 says, 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.

UPDATE, 11:11 a.m. – By the way: Tour guide Tim Krepp explained the difficulty of walking and Metro-ing kids around D.C. last fall.

Photo by Flickr user izik under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

  • Sharonc

    Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton sez "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."

    Well then, can we get rid of all of that Congressional and Senate parking at the Capitol?

  • http://www.dclikealocal.com Tim Krepp

    Great, article, Lydia! It really captures a lot of the short and medium term problems those of us in the tour mines face! No one wants the buses, but no one has a solution as to where we can put them.

    And you're exactly right about other cities. I lead tours in Boston, NY, and Philly; and all three are far more walkable than DC. Going without a bus for 5-6 hours is totally doable up there. It's a non-starter in DC.

    I'd love to hear ideas on how to use Segways, bikes, some sort of Tourmobile, etc. for educational tours, but I'm at a loss right now as to how it could work. Teachers, not tour guides, are responsible for their children, and many of them are very wary of not having them under their control. A bus allows that, other modes don't. Many of them are from non-urban areas, and just aren't comfortable in the city.

    I can't get these kids to stand on the right on a sidewalk, do you really want thousands of them trying to ride bikes around the Mall and downtown?

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Or maybe the tour itineraries will just have to change, if the externalities of tour buses are priced into parking, enforcement, etc.

  • http://www.dclikealocal.com Tim Krepp

    Oh, Alex, I was waiting for that response. To continue the earlier discussion, great! If you can push a decentralized enforcement regime (MPD, DDOT, Park Police, Capitol Police, etc.) that has an extremely poor record of coordinating ANY comprehensive plans to regulate and enforce a decentralized market with at least a dozen large tour operators (like Worldstrides mentioned above) and literally hundreds of smaller operators to come up with a cohesive plan, great!

    But how? Who is going to bell this cat? Not I, this isn't some armchair "you know what we need?" thought piece for me. Come March 9th, I've got to get back on that bus and handle my spring crowds in the current system. I don't have time to come up with some plan nor the power to get anyone to adopt it.

    There probably is a better way, but the political will doesn't exist to put it together, no one can articulate what it would look like, and certainly no one is going to volunteer to pay for it. So until then, please enjoy the bus driving around downtown looking for scarce parking. If you've got a spare place to stick the 50+ buses let me know (btw we tried RFK last year, it just doesn't work).

  • Weiwen Ng

    Why, precisely, is DC not walkable for kids? It's quite walkable for adults. I realize that adults and kids can have quite different needs, but someone needs to lay out precisely why they can't have kids walk the city.

  • Will

    How about the empty parking lots that Akridge owns on Buzzard Point across from Fort McNair? Eventually they'll be some sort of development, but in the short term, it's relatively close to the Waterfront, Tidal Basin and Hains Point.

  • http://www.dclikealocal.com Tim Krepp

    It's the distances, mostly. Let's take Philly, for example. In Philly, I drop off at Constitution Center, see Independence Hall, Ben Franklin's home, Betsy Ross's house, etc. I can grab lunch at the Bourse or Redding Terminal, use restrooms pretty much anywhere I need to, let the kids do a little shopping for souvenirs or snacks and still walk around interesting streets. All of this is within a few blocks of each other. I can do all of this without using a bus, and in fact, a bus would be an impediment. So for six hours, the bus can go park.

    In DC, a standard three day itinerary will include the Capitol, Arlington Cemetery, the Memorials (Jefferson, MLK, FDR, WWII, Korean, Vietnam, and Lincoln), National Cathedral, photo stop at White House, Mt. Vernon, Smithsonians, National Archives and Ford's Theater. While portions of this could be constructed in a walkable format, places like the Capitol, Cathedral, Ford's Theater, and the Archives require appointments for groups. In the Spring, you take what you can get, so I often have to finish a Capitol appointment and rush over to the Cathedral to make it on time.

    An adult or a family has flexibility and time. They can also just choose not to see something. I can't with a school group.

  • George Gauthier

    Expand DC Circulator to the mall and other top sights.

  • Mario

    Screw the tour companies. Their drivers are reckless and the city is congested enough. There are so many of them now; they think they own the town. Lower the scope of your tours and do it by walking or public transit. Anybody who'd want to spend 8-10 hrs on a bus touring the city is a nut anyway. It should be about the quality of the experience, not the quantity.

  • Sarah

    I'm surprised that the One-City crowd hasn't tried to resurrect this hare-brained scheme. Give 'em time.

    "Not to mention a point of extortion

    Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly yesterday proposed building a $300 million tourist center, shopping area and bus inspection station...that would be a mandatory gateway for tour buses visiting the city.

    The Internodal Transportation and Commercial Center...would generate $70 million annually, according to the city figures.

    It would do so by tapping into the thousands of buses that visit the city each year, each of which would be required to stop at the center for a $95 safety inspection.

    "All buses coming into the city will have a point of reference," Kelly said yesterday.

    --Washington Post, Oct. 27, 1994"

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    I think DC is just as walkable for tour groups as any other tourist destination! The onlyreason the sites visited are "too spread out" is that the sites selected don;t make any sense. You wouldn't take a bus-less tour grouup into NYC and attemtp to see all the midtown attractions, the Cloisters, Prospect Park, and the Unisphere over in Queens! Simple solution: drop off tour groups of kids near the Mall, and stick with the walkable, nearby atractions; museums, monuments, Tidal Basin, Spy Museum, Portrait Gallery, etc. By simply eliminating the National Cathedral, and Arlington Cemetery from the itinerary, it becomes totally doable, even with a large group of kids. Getting the big, smoke-belching tour buses off our streets is a worthy goal, as is having some of today's sedentary children actually hoof it around a city.

  • Adam L

    "They’re really doing all they can to keep coaches out of the city, but they still want those dollars," says Rob Teweles, director of sightseeing for Worldstrides.

    1. These student tours don't bring in much by way of revenue to the city. The tour groups mostly stay in Maryland and Virginia hotels, where they have most of their meals. The most students buy in D.C. are tax-exempt trinkets from Smithsonian gift shops and maybe some fast food for lunch.

    2. For Worldstrides to accuse others of trying to make money off these tours is laughable. Worldstrides is a mega-corporation that bilks kids out of their car wash and babysitting money to line the pockets of giant investment corporations. There should be accommodations made for independent tour operators who simply want to provide kids with a cost-effective way to see their capital, but as far as I'm concerned, Worldstrides itself causes a great deal of the tour bus problem.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Well, the reality is that this is the national capital and people come here to visit and many do so as part of organized tour groups that get around by big buses.

    So we ought to deal with it.

    And a central location for the buses being parked is a lot better than inducing vehicle trips to farther out locations.

    Speaking of the cover story, maybe part of the building over the railyard could just focus, for the short run, on the part between Union Station and the south side of H Street.

    The parking garage floor used for the inter-city bus terminal now could be expanded and focused on maintaining service and access for tour buses.

  • Rob

    Mario – Our student groups certainly do not spend hours upon hours on a coach. They get off the coach and truly experience the Sights. The coach brings them into the city from their hotel and gets them from Sight to Sight. As Tim Krepp mentions, with a group of 50 to 100 7th graders (American history is normally taught in the 7th grade) we cannot simply show up where we want, when we want. We are normally bound by diligently secured appointment times (National Cathedral, Ford’s Theater, Mount Vernon, the group’s Senator or Congressman etc). We can pack twice as many attractions into a 12 hour touring day with the coach at the group’s disposal.

    Our groups spend large chunks of their day off the coach, walking or metro railing, but a group of 50 7th graders can only walk so far on a hot June day and I’m sure you can admit the DC Metrorail is not super extensive. How could we metro to National Cathedral, Mount Vernon, Walter Reed, and BWI Airport etc? Obviously it is not possible of safe to bike, cab or Segway a group of 50 children around the city. Motorcoaches are by far the safest, and most eco friendly way to move the vast # of students we are helping educate. We even have emergency contingency plans based on gathering the students securely on the coach in a 9/11 type emergency.

    We simply need safe, convenient and affordable parking for said coaches.


  • Adam L

    @Richard "So we ought to deal with it."

    If be "we" you mean the federal government or extra fees on tour buses, then I'm all for it since these problems are also of their own making. I would not be in favor of using DC taxpayer money to build bus parking for tour groups that contribute very little back to the city itself.

  • Crickey7

    Tim Krepp's points were important to hear. It's true that the sights here in DC are more spread out and not really walkable for those with limited time. As for those who want to push the busses out entirely, that's a pretty hostile and elitist attitude. It's not just our city--it belongs to all of America.

    The City needs to approach this in a thoughtful fashion. There should be underground bus parking on the Mall. We also need designated bus parking areas near Union Station as well, and maybe another one elsewhere. If there are a few, no single one will be overwhelming.

    The alternative is, as Tim pointed out, that the busses cruise around on the streets rather than parkign and risking a ticket. That's perfectly legal, but not exactly an improvement.

  • http://www.dclikealocal.com Tim Krepp

    @Adam L and Richard, Exactly. There is a role for DC to be involved. Certainly in the regulatory and enforcement area, and perhaps some modest (and carefully crafted!) investment in physical infrastructure.

    But these students are American citizens (largely) coming to see National icons. This is very much spillover from the Federal presence.

    And yes, tour companies should expect to pay for the services they use, such as parking.

    @Crickey7 thanks!

  • Adam L

    "We simply need safe, convenient and affordable parking for said coaches."

    This is Washington, D.C. There is nowhere in this city that is simultaneously "safe, convenient and affordable."

  • Rob

    Adam L
    "This is Washington, D.C. There is nowhere in this city that is simultaneously "safe, convenient and affordable."

    Sure there is. Or was.

    1. Ohio Dr. at East Potomac Park. For years we have parked tons of coaches there. It is a 5 min drive from the Mall and many of the sights our students visit. It is free, safe and out of everyone's way. But as of a few months ago, coaches are no longer aloud to park there. Why?
    2. Union Station. For years we and others could safely park around 70 coaches there. Cost was low, coaches were off the streets and out of sight. Groups could simply take the escalator down to eat at the US food court, take the metro, visit the Supreme Court and Capital etc. By March of 2012, all those charter buses will be kicked out (hence Lydia’s article).

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    No, DC's sights are NOT too spread out! Skip the Cathedral and Mt. Vernon, and just stick with the Mall area, and tour groups here for just 3 days will be fine. I don't understand if a tour group is staying at the Harrington Hotel why they would even need a bus at all. If staying at a more far-flung hotel, I'd just think they'd need a bus ti get into and out of the monumental core, and even then they could use Metro. Shuttling kids around in buses just reinforces the whole moronic idea that American kids can no longer walk to school, walk home, or walk anywhere for vague "safety" issues. Meanwhile, childhood obesity and diabetes is growing in leaps and bounds. Get the buses off the streets, and get the kids out on foot. Forget the Cathedral and Mt. Vernon and stick to the monumental core.

  • Adam L


    The NPS said that there were safety and traffic problems from the tour bus parking on Ohio Drive. Not sure I believe it, but there it is. I guess they thought it failed the "safe" requirement, but you'd have to ask them. Ultimately, adequate transportation and parking for visitors is their responsibility.

    But I do think D.C. should look at opening up the East Potomac Pool parking lot for tour buses. Outdoor city pools don't open during the week until late June. If they're not already using the lot for bus parking, that may be an option for the crush of visitors who come earlier in the spring. During the summer would be more problematic, but at least most student tours would be over by then.

  • Mark

    @Rob: The constant stream of tour buses on Ohio Drive and around Hains Point has destroyed the pavement. Tour buses idling all day long in the summer means runners, bikers and other people who want to enjoy the scenery are suffering through a cloud of diesel particulates. Lastly, while most tour bus drivers are professionals and do exercise due care down at Hains Point, some do not and mixing them with runners, bikers, and clueless sight-seeing tourists is a bad idea. What is safe, convenient, and affordable for the tour bus operators, compromises everyone else's enjoyment of the place.

    I don't want to ban buses from the city, but can we give them an appropriate place to park, when they can shut off their engines and plug into the electric grid?

  • http://www.dclikealocal.com Tim Krepp

    @Mr T in DC: No groups stay at the Harrington. A very few of my higher paying groups stay in Crystal City, but that's out of reach of most of them. We often stay an hour or more out of town.

    We'll just have to disagree on how walkable DC is for groups. I'll just say that I'm a walking fanatic, routinely walk my 3 and 7 year old 1.8 miles to school in the morning, push my groups off the bus more than just about any other guide I know, and I don't see how on earth I could do without the bus on student trips to DC. Maybe if we start now, we can figure out how to do that in 10 years, but no one is starting now. Right now, we need a better plan to manage the buses than wishing them away or just saying kids need to walk more. Open to ideas...

    @Mark Feel free to ban buses from the city. But that means telling Congress that their constituents can't come here. Good luck with that. And buses can't plug into the grid. Not yet, at least.

  • Preston

    Excuse me everyone......but to those of you who would like to banned the tour buses please consider the , D.C maybe walkable to some groups , but is that safe ? And most of the groups who come to your fair city travel great distances to get there and time is a very important component . Trying to see D.C. in the time that most groups are allowed would be impossible trying to walk it.
    After being on a bus , a quick freshen up just to be able to load again and do a night drive tour just to keep your group on schedule for an early morning start the following day is exhausting. D.C seems to think that it can do without the millions that come to see the capitol of our nation , the people have the right to come and they have the right to choose the way they come . No one from out of town wants to ride public transit from one point to another , try guiding 50 kids onto an already crowded and below standard transit , see how that works out ! a group aims to stay together , let the buses alone , D.C. we promise we will leave the city as we found it . The workable solution was the old one let them park at union , who were the buses bothering up there ?
    And finally to the lady who thinks you dont need the buses ,............thats accurate if your city were not so dependant on the millions of tour dollars generated annually by these hard working bus companies who try to promote your city in the wake of knowing you will be at the front of the line in figuring out how you can rip more of that from those companies by simply driving into that place. you have a permit to come in , you are proposing an inspection fee to park ok guys we see where this is going .............NOT. we must stand with ABA and any other friend we have to prevent this true highway robbery from ending the dreams of little kids who want to see their capitol.So , where we gona park these buses ?

  • c2b16e

    If the only "safe, convenient and affordable" way for kids to realize their dream of seeing their capitol is by bus, why don't one or more tour bus companies purchase land that meets these requirements and build a bus parking facility?

    It seems to me that for-profit tour operators are complaining that DC isn't willing to provide them with cheap parking anymore. So they can continue to profit by enabling visitors to avoid staying in DC hotels. In exchange for a few fast-food meals at Union station.

    The status quo is a bad deal for the city (and its residents), kudos to Del. Norton and the city government for ending it.

  • Rob

    @ Mr T in DC and c2b16e

    You really need to read Tim Krepp’s story at the end of Lydia’s article. It illustrates how educational group tours would be impossible without the use of a motorcoach.

    Did you know the EPA restrictions for motorcoaches are much more stringent than they are for cars? Any coach made in the past few years has a “re-gen” process, where any environmentally damaging particles are temporally stored in a compartment on the coach and then have to be burnt off or incinerated (takes about ½ an hour). If the driver does not stop and do this every so many miles, the coach’s computer literally shuts down the motor of the coach until the re-gen process is performed. This makes the environmental impact of the coach close to zero.

    Most DC hotels will not give student groups the time of day. True, they are more expensive than properties in VA and MD, but DC hotels are catering to business clients, not a group of 100 7th graders.

    I’ve heard tourism is the 2nd largest industry in DC, next to the Federal Government. Should we kick out the Fed as well? Fact is DC is the Nation’s Capital. Everyone has the right to come visit. The educational value of many of the sights that don’t happen to be within walking distance of the Mall are too valuable to simply be scratched from an educational tour.

    C2b16e – Of course most coach companies are family run operations and would never have the funds to purchase land in DC to park. If even a fraction of the coach companies who operate in DC bought their own land, it would be a very inefficient use of that land unless they worked out some way to sell it to other coach companies to use as well. On 9/10/01 I visited one of the larger area coach companies and I saw plans for just such a facility, although it would have only help their own coaches. Of course we know what happened the next morning that caused the plans to be scrapped.

    So, if we can accept the fact that students have the right to visit DC, and motorcoaches are the best way to make that possible (read Tim’s article), how do we minimize the environmental impact, traffic congestion, noise pollution etc? By making safe, convenient and affordable coach parking available! Without it, coaches “cruise” or “hide,” meaning they drive around, trying to avoid a ticket, until their group needs them again. This is not good for anyone.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    "D.C. is not walkable," he says.

    Let me fix that for him. D.C. is eminently walkable. "Washington" might not be...

  • Tom

    I see that it is alot of people talking about tour groups spend no money in the city. Well i have been doing tours in dc for 10 yrs. And most of our lunch and dinners are at DC rest. So for the people just talking having no clue about what is going on. How can someone comment about DC Tours when you have never done the job of a coach driver. The city makes good money on the backs of these bus companys. Tell me what city charges to bring people to there town but DC. NY or PHILLY DONT. I wish they would stop the bus from coming. And lets see were the money goes then. These groups spend more money then you think supporting DC businesses.So let them raise your taxes for the lose money.

  • http://www.hmibus.com Anthony Howard

    Here is my solution. Bus companies should BOYCOTT DC, don't pay that ridiculous $50 for a 6 day permit if you are only going to be there for ONE DAY. We can't park anywhere, if we are parked illegally we are HARRASED and THREATENED and not shown ANY RESPECT by these DC PIGS!!! The kids that come here via World Strides (whom I might add you have to be PRIVALEGED to work with them, or kiss there asses, WE DON'T)but these kids are staying in Virginia and Maryland and bused into the city and leave at night, they are on educational tours and sometimes have lunch at Union Station, (versus eating off of those disgusting foreign food carts, so they get special permission to poison people???) My company, we charge DOUBLE the cost to come there, even from our local area here in Maryland because we don't want to deal with the hastle. DC is POINTLESS, they could care less about small business like mine who would LOVE to service the district, but it is people like Delegate DEVIL Holmes Norton who are pushing us out... Hopefully we can push her ass out and people like her and these god awful Virginia drivers, the reckless cabbies, the retards who are against business, revenue, tourism, those who HATE buses out...

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  • http://Doesdcneedtourbusses Dennis

    Let me see,1 hour drive to work,1 hour drive to pick up passengers,6 hour drive plus a 1 hour food stop to DC,so far 8 hours driving,not much time for touring .Then a food stop on the way to Virginia Hotel,The last thing I want to do is drive around looking for a hiding place and babysit my bus,I respect the no idle law ,The last thing I want to do is hassle with the locals.Play your politics,It's not productive,My passengers drop thousand of dollars a day in DC,But if its not about money then one should be more ashamed of your self for not welcoming us.If you don't like where you live ,MOVE.You live in a city,get use to it,A place to park,really? Give me a break!

  • jimharris776

    I love chartered buses and bus tours.I did a
    tour bus dc with my kids and had soo much fun.