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The D.C. area has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ways to get around town. Walking, driving, ride-hailing apps, bicycles, Metro buses and trains, scooters, mopeds, and Onewheels all jockey for space on sidewalks and streets. But with those options come a bevy of anxiety-inducing questions: Will the Metro catch on fire? Will I get stuck in traffic? What if I miss my bus? Is there a bike lane? Does this scooter have enough juice?
City Paper put five of these methods of transportation to the test to see which one would emerge victorious in a cross-town race.
Starting at 11:01 a.m. at 15th and H streets NW on a Thursday in October, five participants, each using a different mode of transportation, traveled to the same series of destinations, completing a few challenges along the way and texting staff photographer and race director Darrow Montgomery photographic proof of completing each step.
The first stop was the National Portrait Gallery, because not everything about federal D.C. is awful, and it gave our participants a taste of downtown traffic. It hadn’t yet opened when we started our race, but we encourage copycats to stop in and visit the Obama portrait of their choice.
The next stop was Pizza Mart in Adams Morgan. For better or worse, jumbo slice is a part of D.C., and we couldn’t leave it out of our race. In 2017 we had then-arts editor Matt Cohen compare different jumbo slice joints while drunk and sober. Pizza Mart was the winner of the sober taste test, making it the most humane option for our contestants. It’s also up a hill and not on a Metro line.
From there, contestants had to order a Frosty at the Wendy’s on New York Avenue NE. Simply put, no conversation about transportation in D.C. is complete without Dave Thomas Circle.
The final stop was Tune Inn. We knew our contestants would need a drink after all this madness, and lucky for them, Tune Inn opens early and closes late. —Will Warren
Washington City Paper to National Portrait Gallery
Time stamp: 11:05 a.m.
With only a few blocks to the first destination, I use my brief time on G Street NW to think through my approach. Not wanting to go full messenger, I decide to ride under the Commuter Code: brisk, but not rushed; lawful in spirit, if not the exact letter; and opportunistic, but never antagonistic. Whenever possible, I will choose streets that have some semblance of bike infrastructure.
Outside of rush hour, when office workers are tucked inside their cubicles, the streets change. They become the domain of the drivers, flaggers, operators, and laborers. There are different rules. Bike lanes disappear under truck tires and traffic cones. Still, I get to the gallery in under five minutes. —Brian McEntee
Time stamp: 11:14 a.m.
I whip out my phone and open the Lyft app. There’s a scooter a few blocks away. I’ll be able to make a straight shot down G Street NW to the Portrait Gallery. I hustle to the scooter, unlock my steed, and press the throttle. Nothing happens. I try again. Still nothing. I frantically weigh whether I should channel my Razor scooting-youth and power it with my feet, or ditch this scooter and find a new one. In desperation, I jam the throttle down one more time and lurch forward. The scooter is not aware that it’s in a race and moves at an unbothered, lethargic pace. We’re off. —Will Warren
Time stamp: 11:14 a.m.
I rush to the 14th and I streets NW entrance of the McPherson Square Metro station. I studied my options before the race began and chose to take the Blue, Orange, or Silver line (whichever arrived first) one stop to Metro Center, then walk from 11th and G streets NW. My other option was walking to Metro Center and taking the Red line to Gallery Place, but I commute on the Red line every day, and know not to rely on it.
By 11:08, I’m out of Metro Center and dashing down F Street NW toward the Portrait Gallery. 10th Street NW is one way and not very busy in this part of downtown, so I’m able to make up a few more seconds and cross before the signal changes. I get to the Portrait Gallery steps moments after the scooter rider, snap a photo, and descend into Gallery Place. —Caroline Jones
Time stamp: 11:15 a.m.
I figure I have the best assignment: I won’t have to exert much energy at all. I’ll be chauffeured around the District for a good two hours!
My Lyft driver arrives in under three minutes, which surprises me. I usually ride Uber because I’ve heard anecdotally that Lyft drivers are harder to get.
I tell him I am in the middle of a transportation challenge—not so he drives faster but to have something to talk about. I usually listen to music, but I decide to avoid my Spotify app because I have to charge my phone. Because Apple got rid of the earphone jack, I can’t charge my phone and listen to tunes at the same time. —Amanda Michelle Gomez
Time stamp: 11:30 a.m.
It takes me about 30 seconds to realize I’m heading in the wrong direction. As I make a right turn onto K Street NW, my GPS corrects its original course and I find myself back at my starting point a few minutes later. Not the best way to start a race.
But I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been driving around D.C. for years, and routes often change due to traffic, regardless of the time of day.
I knew before this contest began that I would likely finish last. Driving around the city in the middle of the day while having to find parking? No, thanks.
I arrive outside the National Portrait Gallery about half an hour after pulling out of a parking garage near the City Paper office. Luckily I’m able to find a spot just a block away, and I make the decision to rush over to the museum without paying for parking. I’ve wasted enough time getting here. —Kelyn Soong
National Portrait Gallery to Pizza Mart
Time stamp: 11:28 a.m.
I plan to take 15th Street NW north, so I ride back to where we all started. Secret Service has the White House plaza closed (ugh), so I’m forced to poke along sluggishly, conscientiously, but illegally for a block on the sidewalk. Walking the bike would have been faster.
On 15th Street NW, it’s a straight shot to R Street NW, then only a few blocks over to 18th Street NW and eventually up the hill. At Pizza Mart, I order and use the restroom. How many people have thrown up in here before eating a slice? Or more distressingly, how many after? I take one bite and box it to go. —BM
Time stamp: 11:41 a.m.
My next driver picks me up in under 5 minutes. I spot the Nissan Sentra quickly and jump in. We get to chatting: He’s originally from Baltimore, and he’s trying to start a business. I then tell him about the transportation challenge. He says I’m going to win because “pretty girls always win.” The comment makes me uncomfortable. Thankfully, by that point, we are turning onto 18th Street NW.
I get out of the car and run inside Pizza Mart, where my order takes longer than expected. I order my Lyft when I’m second in line. The folks ahead of me are construction workers on their break. My new driver arrives before my cheese pizza is ready so I begin to beg him to wait for me via text. Lyft’s countdown for how long drivers will wait makes me more anxious than I need to be: He doesn’t mind waiting an extra minute, he replies. —AG
Time stamp: 11:44 a.m.
I check out Slow Rider again. I decide I want to stick to bike lanes because I don’t feel confident on busier streets, so I make for 15th Street NW’s glorious protected bike lane. Unfortunately Lafayette Square is closed, and I’m forced onto the sidewalk where I’m surrounded by tourists and workers out for an early lunch. Scooters are not built for weaving in and out of crowds, so I end up walking to the bike lane.
As I glide north at a very unimpressive pace, I pass a lone man on a scooter heading south. I smile as we pass. He stares blankly into the distance.
I am pleasantly surprised to find our ride-hailing contestant leaving Pizza Mart as I enter, and leave with my jumbo slice feeling good about my chances. —WW
Time stamp: 11:51 a.m.
Google Maps tells me I need to be at the corner of 13th and U streets NW by 11:33 a.m. to catch the 90 or the 96 bus to Adams Morgan, so I hop on the Green line toward Greenbelt. After a four-minute wait (which felt much longer) and a three-stop ride, I emerge at 11:29 a.m. only to find out that the buses I need are running five minutes late. I make small talk with an off-duty Metrobus driver who’s also waiting for the 90, which finally shows up at at 11:37 a.m. The bus makes most of the lights on U Street and Florida Avenue NW before turning up 18th Street NW. Pizza Mart, when I walk in, is empty, save for two men sitting on stools, and I’m guessing I’m done. But just as I get my slice, another competitor—our driver—walks in to order! I sprint out the door—the next bus I need is due to arrive across the street in one minute. —CJ
Time stamp: 11:54 a.m.
When I arrive at Pizza Mart, I use the ParkMobile app for parking, which is easier to find than expected, and using the app helps me to make up some time. I arrive just a few minutes after our public transit rider, who lets out a cheer when she spots me behind her. —KS
Pizza Mart to Wendy’s
Time stamp: 11:50 a.m.
The most direct way to Dave Thomas Circle is U Street NW to Florida Avenue, but my self-imposed rules had me riding down to Q Street NW and then across town. This is my daily commute home. I’ve ridden Q Street NW more times than I can count. It’s flat and predictable. I begin to relax.
There is no bike parking at Wendy’s. I know this because I once had a bike stolen when I left it unlocked and propped against the building. (I am an idiot.) This is my first time back since then and my bike remains affixed to a signpost throughout the seemingly interminable wait for my chocolate Frosty. The guy before me pays a $67.86 bill. —BM
Time stamp: 12:08 p.m.
I know I’ve lost on my way to Wendy’s. The traffic along Florida Avenue NW is terrible for 11:45 a.m. on a Thursday, thanks to a lane closure. The estimated arrival time on my Lyft app ticks up every time I look at it, jumping from 11:58 a.m. to 12:01 p.m.
I shouldn’t even fault my driver, although part of me does—especially when a dog walker passes me. That’s when I audibly exhale. He looks at me through his mirror.
He has no idea I am in the middle of a race. Should I tell him? I decide against it, given what happened with the second driver. Also, my last two Lyft drivers asked me a lot of questions about my job when I did, and part of me worried that that distracted them. —AG
Time stamp: 12:20 p.m.
A scooter is just slow enough, it turns out, for the rider to hear people commenting on scooters and the people who ride them. “This isn’t who I am,” I want to tell them as I drift by, but alas, it’s proving hard enough to handle the scooter and a large pizza box at the same time. I haven’t felt unsafe doing this challenge, but I definitely feel uncool.
As I leave Slow Rider behind at Dave Thomas Circle I hear a girl yell to her friend, “Quick, get it!” I turn around, and I’m surprised to find myself emotionally attached to my listless scooter. She was talking about a piece of paper blowing in the wind, it turns out, and I enter to find a long line at Wendy’s. As I finally exit, our bus rider enters. —WW
Time stamp: 12:24 p.m.
Traffic is stop-and-go leading up to Dave Thomas Circle, but being able to use the drive-thru likely saves me minutes. I order a Frosty and also a grilled chicken sandwich, but the nice Wendy’s employee taking my order tells me it will be a 6-minute wait for the sandwich. There’s no time for that. Shortly after, I see our scooter rider walk by with a Frosty in his hand. I have closed the gap. —KS
Time stamp: 12:29 p.m.
False alarm: The bus doesn’t arrive in a minute, so I wait, indulging in a few bites of jumbo slice and dripping grease on my chest in the process. This is where things go off the rails, literally and figuratively. The east-west route means I won’t board the Metro for the rest of the race—its hub-and-spoke design isn’t super efficient, especially in the middle of the day—and my second journey on the 90 is … long. It retraces the route I took to Adams Morgan, then continues past Howard University Hospital, where it pauses for quite a while to load passengers. When, after navigating the narrow streets of LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale, the bus finally arrives at Florida Avenue and P Street NE, I want to run across the streets around Dave Thomas Circle immediately, but I don’t feel like getting hit by an aggressive motorist today, so I wait patiently for the signal to change and enter Wendy’s. —CJ
Wendy’s to Tune Inn
Time stamp: 11:59 a.m.
With the Frosty tucked in my bag, slowly melting next to the lukewarm pizza, I set off on the last leg. I waste no time crossing New York Avenue NE and soon get to 4th Street NE. There’s a nearly uninterrupted bike lane from Union Market to the Navy Yard, and other than the tiny climb onto Capitol Hill, nothing slows me other than the light at Stanton Park. D.C. has too many traffic lights and too many of those lights have phases that are too long. Red lights are good for checking Twitter, but not much else. There are no good tweets.
At Tune, I fish the Frosty from my bag to find it intact and unspilled. The pizza is as edible as it started, which may or may not be a compliment. I feast, confident in my victory. —BM
Time stamp: 12:25 p.m.
I look at my screen and see I have my first female driver of the day. She’s four minutes away in a Dodge Grand Caravan.
But alas, my instinct is right. It doesn’t matter that I beat the afternoon lunch rush at Wendy’s or that she gets me to my last destination fairly quickly. I text the race director a photo of the Tune Inn sign at 12:25 p.m. and he replies “Second!” Our cyclist beat me by 25 minutes. The gusty winds did not work in my favor as I had hoped. I blame Florida Avenue.
When I’m outside of Tune Inn, I look at my Lyft app to see how much this day cost me. Every ride cost me between $10 and $15. In total, I spent roughly $50, food included. —AG
Time stamp: 12:38 p.m.
Frosty in hand, I’m happy to find my old friend right where I parked it. Together we head south and skirt around Union Station. The best part about scooting around town, I’ve found, is that you’re going slow enough to take in the sights. I reflect on democracy and justice as I pass the Supreme Court and think about how someone needs to do something about Mississippi as I roll by the collection of flags outside the train station.
Slow Rider and I make it to Tune Inn without consequence and in third place. Not bad for a little scooter. —WW
Time stamp: 12:49 p.m.
Parking near Tune Inn proves to be the most difficult, and the only open spot I can find is two blocks away. I quickly plug the location in my ParkMobile app and sprint over to the bar, half expecting to see everyone already at a table inside. When I don’t see anyone, I figure I have finished last.
I’ve joked with friends that it’d be quicker to commute in D.C. by running than driving. According to Strava, I averaged an 11:11 per mile pace during this challenge. Turns out, it really would’ve been faster to run. —KS
Time stamp: 1:14 p.m.
I saw our scooter rider leaving Wendy’s as I walked in, but that was before I waited 15 minutes to order my Frosty. Once it’s finally in my hands, I cross the parking lot and spot a bus approaching my stop. I break into a run but it’s too late: The bus pauses to pick up passengers at a red light, but it departs when I’m still half a block away. And so I wait. And wait. And wait.
Finally, 51 minutes after I got off the bus that took me to Wendy’s, I board the 92 heading south. It cuts across Florida Avenue NE and turns right on 8th, then hits a detour, drives around the block, and continues south. I get off at 8th and Independence SE, near the Eastern Market Metro, with one percent left on my phone battery. Because of this, I don’t map my route and, out of habit, take Pennsylvania Avenue SE all the way instead of cutting across on North Carolina Avenue SE, a decision that nearly doubles the length of my walk. I’m two blocks from the Tune Inn when the race director texts to inquire about my progress. Clearly, I’ve lost. More than two hours after this race began, I finally snap a photo of the Tune Inn’s neon sign. —CJ