DC Traffic Box

How the Pope in Philly security plan compares to Obama’s historic inauguration

The above map looks a little familiar, doesn’t it?

While Philadelphia’s stringent security measures to prepare for the pope’s visit at the end of the month are new to this city and causing plenty of concern, they aren’t unique. Back in 2009, Washington D.C. shut down for Obama’s inauguration and the plans resembled those of Philadelphia’s, particularly its traffic box and road closures. 

“If you take a look at our map from 2009,” said Robert Thomson, the Washington Post’s transportation columnist, “you’ll think this is the Secret Service following the playbook they used from 2009.”

So how exactly did security and transportation work for the Obama inauguration? And how did it turn out?

D.C.’s traffic box

In the words of Thomson, the security plans for the Obama inauguration “walled off Central Washington.”

The city had been hosting inaugurations for two centuries but nobody predicted what would happen in 2009. America’s first black president, one who had achieved unprecedented hype courtesy of media and fans, was beginning his tenure. There was talk of crowds reaching 6 million, though the more reasonable estimate was 2 million. The previous record for an inauguration had been 1.2 million when Lyndon Johnson took the oath in 1965.

To prepare for millions, the Secret Service and several other national and local agencies enacted security plans more comprehensive than any in the history of Washington D.C. No automobile traffic — save for residents and permitted vehicles — was allowed inside a perimeter encompassing not only the Mall but most of downtown. All major bridges into D.C. were closed to vehicular traffic. Nobody could drive into the city from Virginia. A major highway, I-395, was closed. And the restrictions lasted from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. the day of the inauguration.

Comparing Philadelphia to D.C.

Philadelphia’s traffic box covers an area of about 4.6 square miles. D.C.’s encompassed one of about 2.5 square miles. So ours is bigger.  

Unlike D.C., Philadelphia’s box doesn’t completely forbid vehicular traffic. People can drive their cars within the traffic box as long as they stay away from emergency access roads  (portrayed in yellow). Of course, that restriction and the likely huge masses of people effectively make it impossible to drive.

As far as getting into the actual papal events goes, it might be easier than the inauguration. According to the map released last week by the Secret Service, the Parkway features 15 security entrances (seven for ticketed attendees and eight for non-ticketed attendees). The inauguration featured 13 security entrances for a crowd that was probably larger than what the Parkway will see for Francis’ appearance at the World Meeting of Families conference or his mass (expectations are 750,000 and 1.5 million, respectively).

D.C.’s Metro transit system operated on a rush-hour schedule for the 17 hours between 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. the day of the inauguration. Two stations were closed for security reasons, and the rest were open. SEPTA is operating on a plan designed specifically for the pope’s visit with several stations closed on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines near Center City and special passes needed for Regional Rail.

The groups that coordinated security and closings in Washington didn’t release the information until January 7, 2009, 13 days before the event. Rather than explain the security measures gradually, as Philadelphia has, the organizers released the plans all at once in a big information dump.   

Perhaps the biggest difference between the inauguration and the papal visit is the duration of the security measures. In D.C., the restrictions were in place for 15-17 hours. Philadelphia has to deal with them an entire weekend and perhaps longer. Officials still haven’t said when they’ll be lifted after the pope leaves. It could be late Sunday night or at some point on Monday.

Even with security measures lasting fewer than 24 hours, Washingtonians and those who lived in the outlying communities were worried about the plans before the inauguration. Thomson remembers people asking for advice about how to commute to work and one person Richmond wondering how to get to the airport that day. This comment on one of Thomson’s blog posts sums up the more extreme side of the concerns:

“This has got to be one of the most intrusive and restrictive plans local authorities have come up with. How is using 395, 66 or local bridges going to intrude on anything? On a day that celebrates how well our democracy works we are barred from freedom of movement. Given the number of police barricades we should just change the name of the city to East Berlin. I work in the TV news business and will need to commute from Virginia on Jan 20. What the hell am I supposed to do now? I feel like I am being discriminated against because I live in Virginia.”  

How it turned out

The security and transportation measures didn’t scare people away. About 1.8 million showed up, near the pre-inauguration estimate of 2 million, and Washington mostly handled the enormous crowd that found alternate forms of transportation to get to the Mall.

A record number of trips, more than 1.1 million, were made on the city’s Metro transit line, for instance. There were some delays: The sheer number of people blocked doors and caused breakdowns, and one major transit station had to be closed for several hours because of overcrowding.

The biggest point of controversy dealt with the security screening. There either weren’t enough security checkpoints or enough people working at the available checkpoints and perhaps both. Either way, about 4,000 of 240,000 people who had special tickets to the inauguration ceremony didn’t get through security and into the event despite waiting in line for several hours.  

Cold temperatures appeared to be as much or more of a problem for spectators than transportation and security issues. Thomson wrote about and still recalls a spirit of cooperation from the event. Attendees walked miles and miles and over those bridges from Virginia. Bikers gridlocked by all the foot traffic accepted a slower pace.  

“People on that day were very happy about being part of history,” said Thomson. “They were there because they wanted to be there, and they were willing to go through the extra steps by traveling by means other than cars. Everybody wound up having a good enough time.”

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