The Day We Were All Car-free
It was January 20, 2009.
The air was cold, the sky was clear, and approximately 1.8 million people propelled themselves, sans car, to a common destination. They were there, in our nation’s capitol, to welcome to office the 44th President of the United States. All streets surrounding the Capitol Building for about a three-mile radius were closed to regular car traffic. Most bridges crossing the Potomac and Anacostia rivers into the District were closed.
The only options for getting to the Obama bash were foot, bike, Metro, or bus.
I biked from my house in the city’s Northwest quadrant. With not a car in sight, except for those of the helpful police force directing travelers, it was the easiest trip downtown I’d ever made. When I reached K Street, WABA’s (Washington Area Bicyclist Association) complementary valet bike parking service made me feel like royalty as they whisked away my bike and helmet to a guarded area and gave me a retrieval ticket.
From there, I walked the rest of the way (about a mile and a half) to the Mall—with about 800,000 of my closest friends. If everyone in Washington, D.C., that day had been wearing a pedometer, I think we could’ve set a collective distance record.
By the time we crossed Constitution Avenue, it was clear to me that this would be no normal day on the Mall—and I don’t just mean that Barack Obama would be there.
I mean that, most simply put, people were happy.
Most days on the Mall, there are photo-snapping tourists bumping up against jogging locals bumping up against rushing commuters, all under the grumpy gazes of police personnel and security guards. But on this day, the energy was high, and if there was any negative energy in the mix, it was quickly diluted amidst shouts of:
“I say ‘O,’ you say ‘Bama!’”
Strangers asked one another where they were from, traded travel stories, and shared cocoa from thermoses. Teams formed to hoist people up on shoulders for better views. A group behind us whipped out party hats to celebrate a birthday.
I met two men from Ireland who had flown in the night before to take in the event and would repeat the trans-Atlantic flight to return the following evening. At the completion of the swearing-in, one of them shook my hand and said, “Congratulations on your new president.”
I choked up with emotion.
When the ceremony ended and it was time to head to our respective homes, parties, and balls, the congestion quickly led to human eddies and traffic jams. Still, no one angered or panicked. Younger attendees laughed off their impatience. Older attendees counseled all to remain calm. Everyone made extra room for wheelchairs.
Later that day, news programs reported jam-packed subway trains, shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic in the streets, and hours-long waits to cross downtown intersections. However, they reported no major disturbances or incidents of violence associated with the event.
Maybe, in addition to having a new president, we were also happy that we hadn’t had to drive that morning.
We had all woken before dawn, bundled up, and headed to the National Mall to celebrate the historic inauguration of the first African-American U.S. president and to welcome a new era in our country’s politics, but there was something else to celebrate too. That day, as thousands of strangers converged and the potential of conflict and mayhem ran high, our District of Columbia shown like a gem, a polished model of harmony, tolerance, and togetherness. I’ll remember that day as perhaps my proudest, not only as a voting U.S. citizen, but as a car-free D.C. resident.
We were car-free. We were together. We were joyous.
P.S. May this post serve as a belated Presidents Day greeting!