Baltimore to Philadelphia via transit/bike

Border crossing closed

For last week’s holiday multimodal adventure, I decided to try and replicate Josh Kucera’s account of getting from D.C. to NYC solely via local public transit. The Pennsy’s Northeast Corridor is the only corridor in the USA which features local (commuter), rapid (Northeast Regional), and express (Acela) services. It’s not Japan, where some lines feature five service levels, but it’s better than zero.

In particular, I hadn’t yet traversed local routes on Baltimore-to-Philadelphia leg; it’s the most thinly settled part of the corridor, one of the two rail service holes in the corridor (the other is from New London, Conn. to Providence, R.I.), a leg currently served only by Amtrak, Megabus, and Greyhound, since Philly’s Chinatown buses were recently shuttered. Long ago, mostly in the pre-Chiantown bus era, I’d done the local route via SEPTA and NJT from Philadelphia to NYC, which is common enough that the transfer at Trenton is timed and noted on the respective schedules.

My planned route took WMATA’s Red Line to WAS Union, MARC to Perryville, Cecil Transit to Elkton, DART First State bus 65 to Newark, and then SEPTA Regional Rail to 30th Street. The first few legs went off without a hitch; I feared for the tight connection at Perryville, but MARC was a bit early and Cecil Transit probably would have held the bus anyways, as we were the only customers on board.

Where things went awry was near Elkton: DART’s bus map indicates that a transfer is available in downtown Elkton, but the Cecil bus doesn’t actually go into Elkton, sticking instead to the US 40 highway strip. Its last stop is at the Maryland DMV office, just shy of the Delaware border. You’ll have to walk 1.4 miles — there’s a sidewalk most of the way — across the border (pictured above) to the first DART bus stop, in front of a Kohl’s. Once I got there (crusty with sweat), I turned around to see the last DART 55 bus roaring past, several minutes ahead of schedule. With an hour to meet SEPTA, I called in a cab from Newark for the 5-mile, $30 trip to the Newark train station. Had I brought my folding bike aboard MARC, I probably would have been fine skipping Cecil, DART, or both: US 40 seems pretty okay for bicycling, with ample shoulders and even side path signage on the sidewalk in Delaware.

I also pondered routes for biking between Baltimore and Philadelphia, where the most substantial natural obstacle involves crossing the broad Susquehanna River. The Northeast Corridor (no bikes, unless folded or Amtrak-checked), I-95, and the East Coast Greenway all do this just inland from its mouth at Havre de Grace & Perryville. That route has four downsides: MARC would be simplest but doesn’t (yet) run on weekends and doesn’t accept bikes, the Greenway relies on a shuttle service operated by a bike shop in HdG (closed on holidays), MTA’s local buses to Baltimore’s northeast operate only as far as White Marsh Mall, and heavy traffic follows US-40 and I-95. The only other crossing in Maryland, US 1 across the Conowingo Dam, allows bikes but is very narrow, with high-speed traffic. On last year’s Climate Ride, I found the Susquehanna crossing at Holtwood, Penna. to be only slightly frightening.

Since I feel lost when I’m outside the reach of transit, I thus plotted a bikes-and-transit route that heads 40 miles north through Baltimore County (thanks to the UGB set up in the Plan for the Valleys, the light rail terminus at Hunt Valley is at the edge of suburbia) via the Torrey Brown Rail-Trail and York County Heritage Trail to York, Penna., then east through Lancaster to SEPTA’s Main Line terminus at Thorndale. The rail-trail has an accessible grade, and once in Pennsylvania the route runs parallel to the east-west ridges. The transit backup plan exists on Saturdays, when city buses ply much of the east-west mileage from York: across the Susquehanna at Columbia, through Lancaster, east to Cains or Kinzer in Amish country, leaving just 20 miles to Thorndale. On Sundays, Lancaster’s buses still run, but York’s don’t, and SEPTA cuts the Main Line back to Malvern.

Combine that route with a ride back via Holtwood, a trip back via Amtrak or Greyhound (alas, bike-friendlier Chinatown buses and Bolt don’t serve the route), or a tag-on ride to NYC (where you can catch a Bolt back to DC) for a nice weekend adventure.

Walking to DCA, and driving away

[Part of an occasional series of FAQs about traveling to Washington, D.C. For more, please click on the “dc-faqs” tag above. Updated July 2019]

For those arriving/departing DCA on beautiful days like today, you might be interested in walking or cycling (perhaps using the marvelous Capital Bikeshare system) to DCA. It’s not just possible, it’s really pretty easy and fairly well signed. Indeed, it may be America’s most pedestrian friendly major airport. Note that there are multiple approaches, depending on where you’re coming from and where you’re going.

It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the airport from the nearest points of interest, which are Crystal City or Gravelly Point.

Where you’re going:
Concourse A is at the south end, Concourse C is at the north end, and B is closer to the north. Higher gate numbers are north.

As of this writing, American Airlines is at the north end (C/B), Delta, JetBlue, Alaska, and United in B, and everyone else in A.

Where you’re coming from:
1. From northern Crystal City, via the Mount Vernon Trail access at the Water Park/18th St. S., this map shows two route options:

DCA walk/bike access route

The yellow route is the signed route from the Mount Vernon Trail, without any grade crossings. It’s reasonably direct for cyclists approaching from the south, but for pedestrians from the north it adds almost 1/2 mile (and even more for people headed to the south pier or Terminal A).

The red route is much more direct for those coming from Crystal City (to the north) but requires jaywalking across a three high-speed roads, each one 1-2 lanes and with okay sight lines. Use extreme caution.

2. From southern Crystal City, or for the south end of the airport (Terminal A, south parking garage & car rentals), start at the sand volleyball courts and walk along the northbound exit ramp, over the Airport Access Road bridge, and follow the signs around the offices to the terminal.

There is a Capital Bikeshare kiosk next to the sand volleyball courts.

3. From points north along the Mount Vernon Trail, like Rosslyn, D.C., and Gravelly Point, you can also exit the Mount Vernon Trail into the airport employee parking lot at the airport’s north end. (There are usually US Airways Express regional jets parked behind the fence here, right next to the trail.) Just follow the sidewalk alongside the airport offices to Concourse C. [This area is currently closed for construction of a new north concourse.]

There is a Capital Bikeshare kiosk at the Gravelly Point parking lot.

(Another transportation option: Gravelly Point has a small boat launch; I’ve docked an inflatable kayak there, then walked it the one mile to DCA’s Metro station.)

4. From points south along the Mount Vernon Trail, the trail directly crosses a spur to Aviation Circle at the airport’s south end, by the Signature Flight Support building. Just exit the trail there and head north along Aviation to the concourses.

Once you’re on airport grounds, there’s adequate signage along the walkways, several outdoor bike racks, and a shuttle bus connects the concourse curbsides, rental car center, and Metro entrance. In most cases, walking is just as fast as waiting for the shuttle.

Driving away

DCA’s easy accessibility opens up another multimodal possibility: car rentals. In particular, Hotwire and weekend-special rates from DCA can often be found for around $10-15 (+ required fees = $30); these rates are generally available Friday morning to Monday morning, and sometimes at the last minute on weekdays.

Note: At peak times, e.g., when daily car rental rates exceed $30-40, it might be cheaper to use Car2Go, Zipcar, or Turo. Plus, you might save the hassle of getting to the airport.

If you prepay online, check-in takes a few minutes at an automated kiosk, and the cars are parked upstairs; the entire process takes about 10 minutes. The car rental center is in the south parking garage, across from Concourse A and near the south exit of the Metro station (map).

Driving part way in

Coming to town by car, but don’t want to deal with traffic once here? Good move. However, parking will still be a hassle — particularly on-street, between residential permits, rush hour restrictions, street cleaning restrictions, bad signage, and assorted scratches and dings.

So how about park-and-ride? The problem with this approach is that you’re competing with countless commuters; hence, most areas within easy walking distance of Metro will either have paid parking or some kind of permit system. A quick glance at DC’s permit parking map confirms that nothing within a few miles of downtown has free-to-the-public street parking.

I think it’s worth a few dollars to not worry about being towed, sideswiped, etc. Indeed, there are some reasonably priced garages that allow overnight parking. (Overnight parking at Metro-run lots is so limited that it’s just not worth trying.)

  • Free weekend parking, Friday evening through Monday morning, at Crystal City. Very convenient to the Mall and DCA.
  • $7/day at New Carrollton. Better yet, many northbound Amtrak trains stop here, including those to BWI.
  • $8/day at Eisenhower Avenue. Close to I-95 for those approaching from the south, not a bad trip to DCA.
  • Maryland SHA runs a bunch of free parking lots for its commuter buses, but these are mostly pretty far from metro DC.
  • Free at Herndon-Monroe, with bus service to DC and IAD. Minor detail: the bus, and the toll road in front of the garage, are both expensive.
  • $4.50/day at Wiehle/Reston Station, on the same toll road.

Flying in: the river visual approach


The flight approaches to DCA fly over the Potomac River, in order to avoid noise impacts over the city and to avoid flights over “P-56” (aka the Monumental Core). If winds are from the south/east, flights will land from the north and take off to the south. Planes are closer to the ground during landing than during take-off, so if you have this landing you’ll be treated to fantastic views of central D.C. (on the left side) and Arlington (on the right side) in the last few minutes of flight.

As a planner, I find it fascinating to watch the cityscape unfold:
– the topographical shift, from hilly up by Great Falls through to Georgetown, then the coastal flats below
– the formal straight lines of the Mall and L’Enfant Plan, reinforced by the dense built fabric, and on the other side the curves of Arlington Cemetery and its riverfront roads
– tracing the lines of activity and development along roads like Wisconsin and Connecticut, and the Metro subway lines
– the D.C. skyline of public monuments and churches, and how close planes fly to Rosslyn’s office towers
– further out, the clear distinction between preserved farmland in Maryland and suburban sprawl in Virginia

Where are some hotel values around D.C.?

[Part of an occasional series of FAQs about traveling to Washington, D.C. For more, please click on the “dc-faqs” tag above.]

Washington is a huge destination for business travelers, so hotels tend to be expensive. If you are at all flexible in the times that you can visit, you can find much better prices on hotels on weekends and during Congressional holidays — particularly in August and around Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other major holidays. Transient Washingtonians tend to leave town to visit families elsewhere during major holidays and even summer weekends.

The most reliably affordable, quality (3* to 5*) hotels are those in Arlington’s Crystal City neighborhood, often marketed as being near National Airport. There are thousands of hotel rooms there, with most major U.S. chains represented, and except during conventions or other big events (cherry blossoms, Independence Day, Memorial Day) they rarely sell out. That means that you can often use Hotwire or Priceline to get low rates.*

What’s more, Crystal City is very conveniently located right on two Metro lines, less than 15 minutes from the Mall. It’s also just off I-395 and offers free weekend garage parking. Capital Bikeshare docks around the neighborhood make it easy to get onto local trails or to shops in neighboring Pentagon City. Arlington is almost laughably safe.

The downside is that it’s not the most scenic neighborhood: it’s almost entirely concrete towers from the 1970s and 1980s, and interior renovations haven’t appreciably improved that aesthetic. Since the surroundings are mostly offices, it’s really quiet on evenings and weekends. There are a few restaurants there, so you won’t go hungry, and there’s a mall half a mile away at Pentagon City, but most locals will stifle a yawn at the very mention of “Crystal City.”

Just on the other side of the city, Silver Spring has a few hotels. It’s a livelier area than Crystal City, but historically their rates have been higher as well.

Within the city, the prime neighborhoods within or adjacent to downtown (including Dupont, West End, and Georgetown) often move in lockstep, so there are few bargains to be found. Dupont has some quirkier boutique options; Kimpton Hotels, in particular, has converted several 1960s studio apartment buildings in the neighborhood into themed hotels that have quite spacious rooms, if spare common facilities.

There’s a cluster of cheap motels along New York Avenue NE; these hotels often market themselves as “near Union Station.” Beware of the low prices: NY Avenue is a loud, busy highway that offers little connection to the rest of the city, and some of these hotels have a seedy reputation.

Similarly, there are dozens of hotels around the other two large airports, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington. These are generally very inconvenient to D.C.: getting to/from town requires going to the airport, then paying extra for transit service into town. I’d book a room near BWI before Dulles, and even then it would have to be at a steep ($50+) discount to justify the added travel time and cost.

You can also, of course, look for alternative lodging arrangements like AirBNB** or Couchsurfing or even camping.

* Affiliate link to BetterBidding, a useful site if you want to try and discern the identity of a hotel before you bid
** Affiliate link that could benefit me, but probably won’t

A weekend in Washington

[Part of an occasional series of FAQs about traveling to Washington, D.C. For more, please click on the “dc-faqs” tag above.]

Unlike other cities, you’re here in Washington not to understand a city, but to understand a country, so there’s no way that I would recommend that someone skip the usual monumental sights. Unlike other cities, I can think of few “tourist traps” here that are filled with visitors, but which locals can easily go a lifetime avoiding; all I can think of is that a single block of chintzy shops across from Ford’s Theater.

Let’s start with what the experts recommend.

To which I’d add these personal favorites among the monuments, memorials, and museums — although bear in mind that most people find what I’m interested in to be terribly boring, so you should take the time to find the things that interest you:

  • since I volunteer at the National Building Museum, I can vouch for its amazing space, thoughtful (and fun) exhibits, and fascinating museum shop; other architecture geeks might also see what’s in the windows at the District Architecture Center
  • the Smithsonian American Art Museum: be sure to spend time curating your own art experience at the library-like Luce Center on the third floor, and stop in to admire the magnificent Renwick Gallery across from the White House
  • most assume that the Smithsonian’s collections of Americana would overshadow its collections about the rest of the world, but in fact its connected Freer, Sackler, and African Art museums have some of the finest collections in their respective fields anywhere and are joined by a contemplative garden
  • whenever I’m feeling homesick for Chicago, the simulated “L” ride at the American History museum takes me right back to the Loop
  • the NMAAHC’s History exhibits can be overwhelming, since they follow a set path–they took me two separate day-long visits to complete. The Community and Culture exhibits upstairs are perhaps more reasonably attempted during a shorter visit.
  • the Library of Congress has consistently fascinating public exhibits, and getting a reader card to explore the reading rooms’ vast reference collections — and just maybe request a book, any book — takes just a few minutes
  • the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing towers are each given over to immersive installations; one for Alexander Calder mobiles, one for Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, and one for changing single-artist installations
  • the the Georgetown / Foggy Bottom waterfront has a cluster of enjoyable outdoor spaces: the Kennedy Center’s rooftop, promenade, and Reach gardens; nearby cinemas (from Hollywood blockbusters at Georgetown AMC Loews to indie documentaries at West End); woodland and wetland trails on Theodore Roosevelt Island; the waterfalls and urban alleys along the C&O Canal; and a waterfront park with, pubs, splash fountains, and boathouses
  • if a Hollywood blockbuster is showing at the Smithsonian’s [trueImax screens, it’s really not worth seeing anywhere else (plus, these are the closest cinemas to my house, not counting the outdoor film fests that have movies every night all summer)

I also find the monuments at the west end of the Mall to be too widely spaced for a comfortable walk. Instead, use bike share and this handy Monuments by Bikeshare route, which uses  off-street paths or low-traffic roads. For a great look at the city behind the monuments, the “13 Colonies Ride” is an excellent place to start.

Leaving your luggage in Washington

[First in an occasional series of FAQs about traveling to Washington, D.C. For more, please click on the “dc-faqs” tag above. Information verified current as of September 2014.]

Left-luggage facilities are fiendishly difficult to find in the USA. Security overkill accounts for some of that, sure, but countries with far more experience with train-station terrorism still have plenty of luggage lockers.

First up: it can’t be repeated enough, but pack light. Not having to wrestle with lots of luggage means much greater flexibility. Carry as little as possible while sightseeing in Washington, and in particular, keep metal objects to a minimum. Airport-style security checks are commonplace: you will walk through a metal detector, and someone will poke through your bag. During the summer, many museums will have long lines to have bags examined, but no lines for persons. I’ve never encountered a line when carrying the absolute minimum of wallet + phone, no jewelry, no belt.

Small bags can be checked at several Smithsonian museums and must be checked at the National Gallery of Art. Just be sure to remove anything that might raise a security guard’s eyebrow, and queue up to retrieve them before the closing-hour rush. Note that Gallery Place has small lockers and closes at 7PM, not 5PM like most of the other museums. The Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles airport, has larger lockers that can fit most carry-ons.

If you’re departing or arriving by train and don’t need your bags overnight, Amtrak allows passengers to check bags in a day before, or to pick up checked bags days after arrival. The key caveats: relatively few stations have baggage service, and on the Northeast Corridor, bags only go on the overnight train (so you’ll have to check your bags the night before or retrieve them the day after). To retrieve your bags after the fact, go to the information desk and have them call a baggage attendant; have your claim check ready.

Similarly, you can usually check bags for airline flights anytime on the day of travel. This would be a tremendous time-suck in most cities, but it’s easily done for flights from nearby DCA.

Hotel bellhops check bags for arriving/departing guests as a courtesy, and if you play your cards right you can usually take advantage of this. Dress like a business traveler, tip generously, and don’t lie if asked. You’re best off trying large convention hotels where the bell desk is outside the lobby (not smaller hotels where it’s at the front desk); walk into a side door of the hotel and out the front door to the bell desk.

One last resort is the left-luggage facility at Union Station, next to the MARC commuter rail gates. It’s expensive, but it’s also right there.