Getting around DC may seem like a mystery if you are new to the area (people that have grown up in the suburbs face the same challenges as those that move here from afar). As a lifelong resident, and one that travels across the city almost every day, I promise you getting from here to there can be mastered.
At some point, you may have heard that the city was laid out by L’Enfant and in many ways it resembles Paris. Well, that was then and this is now.You may arrive in town via a plane, train or automobile. You will discover DC now has a subway, zip cars and a bike share program. There are metro buses and circulator buses. There are taxi cabs, limo’s and Uber’s. Each system interconnects with another so you may use more than one when getting from point A to point B. Of course, the number one mode of moving about is pedestrian. In DC, you can saunter, stroll, speed walk and jog.
The big challenge most people face is not how to get there, but HOW to get there. Let’s set the fear of getting lost aside. You can not get lost in DC. You may not be sure where you are, but where you are relates to everywhere else in a pretty orderly manner. Trust me on this. No matter where you are, you can walk about two blocks and you will know where you are and how it relates to where you are going.
The city is laid out in a grid fashion with the Capitol Building being the center (I know, it is not even close to the geographic center, but everything is centered on the building).
If you were to climb atop the Capitol Building, North Capitol Street would head directly north, South Capitol Street would head to the south and East Capitol Street would head to the east. There is no West Capitol Street because the land between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial is pretty much our national mall.
Now, streets that run north and south are numbered and the numbers are higher as you move away from the Capitol. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but if you go east or west a few blocks from any point, you will reach a numbered street. How do you know you are heading east or west? The streets going east and west are named. Those closest to the Capitol are named letters in the alphabet. You will find an occasional named street mixed in, but the alphabetical streets are sequential. The next series are alphabetical with two syllable words (i.e., Adams, Bryant, and so on). Again, anomalies have been mixed in over the years, but this pattern continues until you reach Allison and the pattern starts over with three syllable words. As you get farther out, neighborhoods cropped up and other names were added.
A few odd ball things seem to occur in some areas. In NW, 7th St appears to turn into Georgia Avenue. Georgia continues all the way out to Silver Spring and beyond. 7th St NW reappears up above Columbia Road NW, 17th St NW does turn into Connecticut Avenue and is never heard from again. Connecticut continues all the way into Chevy Chase and beyond. Wisconsin Avenue NW is in a class unto itself. It runs from the river, north all the way into Friendship Heights.
Having lived here all my life, I have discovered short cuts that make rush hour bearable. It is possible to leave the Capitol and be in Montgomery County in 30-45 minutes during rush hour. You can get across town without struggling light to light. That will come with time. For now, you have an basic understanding of how the city is laid out and you are on your way to understanding, you can’t get lost in this city.