Taking to the Streets

Driving in the District is no easy task. D.C. was recently assigned a very unflattering “D” by TheSteelAlliance, an organization that conducts annual consumer safe driving surveys. TheSteelAlliance looks at the number of aggressive driving acts committed per month in certain cities and then assigns grades to these cities. Based on this criteria, the District’s “D” beats only Boston, which received an “F.” Not only are D.C. drivers aggressive, the city itself can be a difficult – if not impossible – place to navigate, and that’s not even considering rush hour.

The most common tourist complaint, even from those who are walking, is that the city is impossibly hard to wind one’s way through. For those who live in the District the city can be just as frustrating. These brave souls have to learn their driving skills all over again. With streets that are alternately one-way and two-way and then back again, sudden road closures and the ever-present oblivious tourists, learning to drive in the District is simply daunting.

Survey guru Bert Sperling, who conducted the well-known Most Drivable Cities study, placed Washington as the No. 10 worst place to drive in the entire nation. According to the study, D.C. suffers from “traffic congestion and rough roads,” which make the city “a difficult place to get around.”

To top it off, the D.C. gas prices range from middle-of-the-road to downright extravagant. While the average price is about $1.64 per gallon, prices can run as high as $1.80.

So nobody bothers to drive down here, right? Wrong. Each year, many GW students pay for parking and gas and build up tourist- and traffic-tolerance levels to bring their cars to school.

On a weekend day, sophomore James Hodgkins will stop by the grocery store, shop at the Pentagon City mall and then visit friends at American University, all in the space of about an hour. What would be several hours traveling on the Metro is a relative blink of the eye for Hodgkins because he is one of those rare students with a car. After a freshman year spent wishing he had an easier way to commute, Hodgkins drove his XTerra to school and now uses it to run errands and ferry his friends about.

Hodgkins said that living in Foggy Bottom can make it difficult for a student with an internship or job outside the District.

“If you have an internship or you’re working off campus, Foggy Bottom can restrict you because you have to deal with the Metro,” he said.

Parking in D.C., however, is no easy expense. It can put a major strain on any student’s budget. It might be hard to justify the $205 monthly fee or the daunting $710 semesterly fee, but many students are willing to sacrifice their cash for the sake of convenience. For a freshman living in the Hall on Virginia Avenue the expense is slightly more manageable, but at $660 it’s far more than most are willing to spend in just their first year of college.

Micky Keyser, a sophomore living off campus this year, brought her car freshman year and couldn’t imagine coming back without it for her second year. Keyser said she needs her car to escape the District every once in a while.

“I need (my car) to get out of here, to take road trips and stuff,” she said.

Keyser now takes her car out on weekends, along with a few friends, puts the top down and goes for drives to leave the stresses of the city behind. Keyser said the traffic no longer bothers her.

“I love driving in D.C. I’m used to the traffic and the layout now,” she said.

Keyser does offer a bit of advice to first-time drivers in D.C. – avoid Interstate 495 and Route 66. She said she despises going anywhere near the roads during rush hour in or out of the city.

Senior Joe Saka is another student-driver. After freshman year he decided to bring his BMW 325 to school and drove it here from Houston because he “wanted to get out of the city more.”

For Saka, however, it’s all about the convenience.

“I like to get out of the city at my leisure and not have to depend on the Metro,” he said. “I use it for daytrips, to go out to eat, grocery shopping and a road-trip every so often.”

Though more friends have brought their cars since sophomore year, Saka said he still uses his own car fairly often.

Obviously bringing a car to campus isn’t for everyone – the price alone will dissuade most – but there are many students each year who choose to bring their cars from home, and most of them now can’t imagine living without them.

Of course, there are students with cars who don’t drive as often as they had planned to. Jeffery Piper, a junior living off campus in Dupont Circle, shares a car with his roommate. When the pair lived in Virginia last year, the car saw much more use. Now, however, their proximity to campus hardly warrants driving a car.

“I don’t drive it and rarely ride in it,” Piper said.

Instead, he has resorted, once again, to walking to classes and riding the Metro; that is, until he can get his hands on his transportation of choice.

“No one will let me buy a motorcycle,” he complains with a smile.

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