Monday, December 22, 2008

Towards a Final Tally

Guessing how many people will attend Barack Obama’s inauguration in just under a month is quickly becoming the most popular parlor game in DC. Backing away from previous estimates that as many as 6 million people could flood the city for the January 20 festivities, city officials revised their projections downwards in an article appearing in today’s Washington Post. But new figures of 1.5 to 3 million are drawn from maximum capacities of DC’s metropolitan area transportation infrastructure, not demand. In other words, the new figures reflect how many people may actually make it into the city for the swearing-in and subsequent parade, but not how many people may try.

The Post article reveals that original estimates of 4 to 6 million came from projected demand and did not reflect infrastructural capabilities. Much like the German army’s Schlieffen Plan in World War One – which put more troops in motion than roads and trains could physically carry – these early projections appear to have originated with haphazard reasoning based on little more than holding a wet finger in the political winds. While officials are cutting those estimates by more than half, their new figures do not account for what will happen to any excess of people who come to the DC area during the inauguration weekend but are left stranded outside the city due to insufficient road and rail capacity.

In an augury of just how little officials know about inauguration turnout, the Post story repeats City Administrator Dan Tangherlini’s fallacious reasoning that the final number can be estimated by accounting for Metro’s 1.2 million person capacity. Metro is not an indicator of turnout as a Metro rider must already be in the DC area to use Metro in the first place. How many people can ride the subway doesn't reflect how many people will try to come to the city. Furthermore, while suburban residents from Maryland and Virginia may use Metro to reach the inaugural festivities, the 1.2 million figure also accounts for visitors who reached the Washington area by other means.

Calculating those numbers is easier.

500,000 people are expected to arrive on 10,000 chartered buses – half of the total number of charter buses east of the Mississippi. An additional 500,000 are due to arrive at National, Dulles and BWI airports. 75,000 are slated to arrive on Amtrak. 580,000 people live in the District. 5.3 million live in the Washington Metropolitan Area. While these projections, drawn from ticket sales and bus charters, appear relatively stable, several important variables remain unknown that could radically alter the final attendance numbers.

Perhaps the most important is car travel. AAA told the Post that three-quarters of tourists visiting DC arrive by car. But with bridges closed to private vehicles and large swaths of the city closed to traffic for security, it is anybody’s guess how many people will try to drive into the city or to outlying park and ride areas. If anywhere close to the three-quarters figure holds true in this case, upwards of 3 million people could be stalled in gridlock on the complex system of interstate surrounding the nation’s capital. How many would-be drivers actually make the inauguration is anyone’s guess.

The next most important factor is weather. If January 20 is a clear, relatively warm day, hundreds of thousands of residents living within a few miles of the National Mall may walk to the inauguration, swelling the total numbers substantially. DC is a Janus-faced city. On the one hand, it is Wonkdom – home of legions of federal bureaucrats who live and breathe politics. On the other, it is Chocolate City – historically and culturally one of the most important black cities in America. In a testament to his political charisma, Obama has sent a bolt of electricity through both enclaves. Decent weather could bring out Washington area residents in huge numbers.

Finally, one must account for interest. While people who already purchased tickets are unlikely to scrap their plans, visitors planning to drive from east coast cities and residents of surrounding suburbs and exurbs looking at a potential meltdown of mass transit services may opt to stay home and watch the inauguration on TV. That decision is affected by a complex and fluctuating political energy. Obama attracted record numbers during his close primary fight and election battle. Inauguration turnout may measure whether the Obameter is already starting to settle towards a new reality.

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