Things I Miss Most About Pennsylvania Include. . .The DMV


Eight months ago my wife and I finally closed on the sale of our wonderful home on a nice acreage in the western Philadelphia suburbs, downsizing, close to where we began our marriage some 37 years ago to south Arlington, Virginia. It’s less than a mile from the townhouse we bought in 1985. And another bonus: we love living right on top of Civil War history.

For those of you who have cycled through (or, still live) in the Washington, DC area, especially northern Virginia, it’s considered a right of passage to live in historic Fairlington Villages. America’s largest apartment complex at the time was hurriedly built during World War II to accommodate military officers being cycled through the Pentagon for training.

A decade ago, we bought a nice walk-up condo for use by the first college graduate in our household. Now, it’s all ours, about a fifth the size of our Pennsylvania home. We did the Fairlington thing in reverse, after the end of my career. It is a lovely, well-appointed, superbly managed and maintained, and highly desirable place to live – Amazon’s new HQ2 is less than 3 miles away; we are frequently serenaded by military helicopters that traverse nearby I-395 between Quantico and the Pentagon, not 5 miles away. The sound of freedom, my Army son says.

It was a homecoming of sorts. We left Virginia (Loudoun County) for Pennsylvania almost 20 years ago. Things have changed, and not all for the better. The place is more crowded, way more expensive, and less friendly than I remember. I blame the Pandemic for some of that. But not all.

The first thing I tried to do, as the weather warmed, was to rediscover the biking trails nearby that I traversed some three decades ago. I live near “mile 0” of the W.O.&D. trail and the Four Mile Run Trail, and the scenic Mount Vernon Trail. Over the past two decades, I fell in love with Philly trails, such as the Chester Valley Trail, the Perkiomen Trail, and of course America’s finest trail, the Schuykill River Trail.

Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail

But I was sorely disappointed with much of my return to Virginia. The trails are not as wide as Philly’s, are much more crowded, and are not nearly as well maintained, with several segments under repair and increasingly impassable with never-ending traffic stops. And a few of the bikers in Virginia are highly aggressive. They enjoy trying to needle between walkers, without warning, while speeding over 20 miles per hour on their $5,000 bikes and outfits featuring ads for companies you’ve never heard of.

You take your life into your own hands if you are a recreational biker, walker, or runner on many of northern Virginia’s trails on a nice weekend day. I never encountered people like this on Philly’s trails. Must be a DC thing. I do not bike on weekends and carefully pick my trails for walks and runs on weekends (not the W.O.&D. or Mount Vernon Trails). Philly’s trails have posted speed limits (15 mph). Not northern Virginia’s.

Mount Vernon Trail near Reagan Airport on a typical weekend day

But you know what I miss about Pennsylvania, aside from great friends and a plethora of fantastic BYOB (yes, Bring Your Own Bottle of wine) restaurants (mostly Italian)?

The Department of Motor Vehicles. Don’t laugh.

Getting a driver’s license and a new title for your vehicle is pretty much a piece of cake in Pennsylvania, albeit not perfect. Yes, you need to go to two places. The DMV for your license, and the private “tag agent” for your plates (only one is required in PA, not two as Virginia). But they are ubiquitous, and once you obtain them, the rest is easy and done online. Maybe I’ll find that to be the case in Virginia, at least as long as I’m here.

Being a good citizen, one of the first things I did, as I had done in Pennsylvania, was to visit Virginia’s DMV website. Not as friendly or navigable as Pennsylvania’s. And given the pandemic, I had to make an appointment. OK, but I had to wait 3 MONTHS. And I had to make not one, but two appointments – one for our licenses, and another for our auto titles and plates. And by the way, you still have to make an appointment, even now – no “walk-in” service. Too consumer-friendly, it seems, or perhaps too much fear-mongering over the bug, but at least some legislators are trying to fix that.

Upon arrival at a Pennsylvania facility, there is a help desk that kindly directs you (they have one at our Virginia facility, too, but he/she is more of a “show me your papers” gatekeeper). In Virginia, we were greeted by a surly, foreign-speaking agent who checked us in after not being able to find our names on a list, while exuding the friendliness as a Stasi agent. Other foreign nationals scolded us for being with 6 feet of other people in line. Once we found an agent, another foreign national (nothing wrong with that, by the way), who proved competent, helpful, and patient. But what a journey.

And we had to do it twice. Turns out Virginia’s website would not allow us, as new residents, to take care of business in one appointment or trip.

A terrible Virginia DMV office in Arlington, VA

We finally did get our licenses and tags. But Virginia gets no points for efficiency.

Memo to future Governor Glenn Youngkin: I offer myself to help reinvent the Department of Motor Vehicles and especially its “customer experience.” Obviously, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (who wants his old job back, God forbid) and his turgid black-faced (or, hood wearing), moon-walking successor, Ralph Northam, have done nothing to improve it. I am at your service.

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  1. She Member

    Yes, I’ve put in a good word for Pennsylvania’s DMV quite a few times as those in other states have been the subject (object?) of a number of posts over the years.  It’s truly remarkable that a state which has galvanized one department into such efficiency can’t extrapolate that type of service to anything else, starting with liquor sales.

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  2. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston

    She (View Comment):

    Yes, I’ve put in a good word for Pennsylvania’s DMV quite a few times as those in other states have been the subject (object?) of a number of posts over the years. It’s truly remarkable that a state which has galvanized one department into such efficiency can’t extrapolate that type of service to anything else, starting with liquor sales.

    Amen. PA’s liquor system is convoluted beyond recognition. 

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  3. Stad Coolidge

    Yes, our DMV here in SC has improved dramatically.  Okay, I can only speak for the one office I interact with, but my guess is somebody implemented a statewide program to make them more efficient, and it worked.

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  4. David Foster Member
    David Foster

    Maryland DMW is also pretty good, at least in my county (Montgomery).  Must have had really effective leadership at some point.

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  5. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt

    Thanks for the reminiscences. I wound up in Reston in 1980, met my wife, raised my family, and finally moved back to where I was born in 2004. Northern VA is beautiful and we were happy there.

    Re history, if you are inclined to check out some Civil War hardware visit Clark Brothers Guns in Warrenton. Reenactors love the place. I have fond memories of their outdoor range, where occasionally you would hear a distinctive “boomf” from the rifle stations and a cloud of black powder smoke would drift across. Everyone would go and look at the flintlock and beg the owner to fire it again. 

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  6. jeannebodine, Verbose Bon Viva… Member
    jeannebodine, Verbose Bon Viva…

    Correct. I can’t relate to horror stories about the DMV departments in other states. I’ve been driving in PA for more years than I care to count but I’ve never encountered a single problem. As others have mentioned, we more than make up for it in the Liquor Control Board.

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  7. cdor Member

    First, I can’t imagine anyone retiring BACK to the D.C. area. Moving on, is there a DMV anywhere that people just love to visit? The only positive coming out of the pandemic might be the text list developed by our local DMV. There’s an app they use that allows you to enter your name and your need (D.L., plates, registration, taxes, etc.) right on your phone from anywhere and get on the list. You automatically get texted when you are 30 minutes from being called up to the desk. If you need more time, just tap a button and they move you back in the digital line. It really takes most of the pain out of doing these tasks. And another great relatively new use of current technology is online payments. Taxes, fees, etc all easy to pay online. If I were a little drunk, I might say it makes paying taxes fun. But it’s way too early in the day for that.

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  8. ddavewes Member

    The DMV in Illinois is surprisingly well run. The Secretary of State is Jesse White, in office since 1999.

    Previously, the Secretary of State’s office was a Republican stepping stone for Governor. Jim Edgar and later George Ryan advanced via this pathway. After his one term as Governor, Ryan was found guilty of using the Secretary of State’s office to fundraise for his reelection. He was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in jail. 

    Jesse White by the way is a Democrat – the only one I currently vote for.

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  9. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos

    Northern Virginia is ridiculously overdeveloped.  And the character of the towns is lost.  Arlington was small shops and quiet neighborhoods.  I used to ride a bike over Key Bridge to go to the duckpin bowling alley and buy some lunch up the boulevard.  That is all giant buildings now.  Falls Church was a distinct town.  Alexandria was denser has but kept some old character. 

    The roads have been expanded but still suck.  Tysons lunch traffic became as bad as AM and PM rush hours–kind of a continuous slog all day.  I still think the road layouts (especially Seven Corners) was all part of a master plan to confuse the invading Union army.

    When an area imports lots of above-average incomes into a climate of mindless growth and no sense of local history that seems to breed kneejerk generic liberal Democratic sensibilities.  I am so old I can remember when Arlington was one of the first southern state House districts to become reliably Republican.


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  10. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred

    Ahh, yes the ever-present auto tags/public notaries.  It really made all auto sales/transfers super easy.

    I’m sure it’s not this way anymore, but when PA made the switch to photo licenses, my picture was taken by a nice retiree at a VFW hall in Newtown, Bucks County. Easy, friendly and efficient. Quaint, but then again this was the early 80s.

    Carefully time managing my life to get a case of beer on Fridays, not so easy.

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