September 2009


A dear friend of mine has been scheming about a guest post since my blogging schedule slowed to a crawl. In this masterful work, he takes swings at nearly every complaint I’ve ever mentioned on this blog in an attempt to say, Hey, It could be worse. (For the record, I have made a similar statement in the past). Read on for Hugh’s comparison of DC’s metro system to that of other major cities:

DC Metrorail – A Comparison
Under rated and under appreciated

DC Metrorail has been getting beat up in the news for a few years now. It is often portrayed as an aging relic in need of renovation. With the June 2009 collision bringing to attention even more flaws, area residents are taking extra shots at the Metro punching bag. Are we being too hard on Metro? Let’s take a look at how our much-maligned public transit system stacks up against two of the best in the world: Paris Metro and New York Subway.

Paris Metro
Although everybody in the DC area knows of the recent Metro accident resulting in 9 deaths, you may not be aware that Paris Metro has its own safety concerns. Paris Metro trains are susceptible to fires, with 34 injuries due to train fires since 2005.

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Paris Metro map ... there has to be 100 times as many confused tourists using this system

Despite the fires Paris Metro is great, conveniently serving 300 stations along 16 lines. But only when the employees decide to show up for work. Transit workers often use strikes as a negotiation tactic.

Crowded metro cars are common for mass transit commuters in most cities. But Paris Metro cars are narrower and shorter, adding to the claustrophobia. Additionally, its cars are widely criticized for having an awkward placement of seats that get in the way when standing room is needed.

It is frustrating when a rookie Metro rider interrupts the flow of regular commuters. Can you imagine if passengers had to manually open the train doors to disembark onto the platform? This is the case with Paris Metro. Open the doors too soon while the train is moving and risk barrel-rolling down the platform; too much hesitation and your fellow busy travelers might turn on you.

New York City Subway
Some wimps complain of the lack of air conditioning in the DC Metro stations. But the New York Subway system is certainly hotter. DC stations are built much deeper underground where the air is naturally cooler. (Paris Metro doesn’t have A/C either).

DC Metro is certainly not known for architectural beauty, but at least we have control over unwanted wildlife. Rats run amuck in the New York Subway, sometimes even boarding the trains.

Since the London bombings in 2005, New York City Transit Police have conducted random searches of bags entering the stations. By random, they mean “random.” Racial profiling complaints are common.

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A New York Subway station taking on water...

It is true that DC Metro riders have suffered from an increase in service interruptions. We’re not alone. Commuters in New York pray it doesn’t rain because of the Subway’s susceptibility to flooding, which causes circuit shortages of the third rail.

We have grown accustomed to the helpful signs informing us when the next trains are expected to arrive. Software problems delayed this luxury for New Yorkers for several years. They’re taking another crack at it, but it won’t be done until 2011.

So buck up, Metro riders, because it could be worse. Next time you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with other depressed commuters deep underneath Washington, D.C., take comfort that at least there isn’t a rodent nibbling on your ankle.

I have often lamented about the use of metro’s “priority seating” by people who do not need it and are unwilling to offer it up to someone who might need it. However, this morning I witnessed an incident that made me question the definition of handicapped as it pertains to priority seating. Allow me to set the scene:

When I got on the metro at West Falls Church, there were plenty of open seats. Not a single person was standing and there were seats to spare. As usual, I noted the passengers who chose to claim the priority seating and judged whether I thought they really needed it. All four were young, capable looking people, but of course I cannot judge whether they will jump at the chance to offer their seat to someone more in need. I never sit in those seats for fear that I will not notice a person who needs it, and as a result, turn into that jerk.

When the doors opened at Ballston, a large man who was resting on the fat scale somewhere between really overweight and morbidly obese, waddled onto the metro. He turned, crouched down to the face height of two girls sitting in the priority seats and with the condescension of a self-important yuppie said,

If neither of you are handicapped can I puh-lease have one of your seats…”

Both young ladies peered up at him in a combination of handicap symbolfright and disbelief. In fact, the whole train was looking at him. With the understanding that I do not know him or his medical history, I wondered how this man who could feasibly walk onto the train, crouch down and stand back up, could consider himself handicapped. As far as I’m concerned larger in size does not automatically equal handicapped.

I understand that at a certain point of obesity merely standing is almost impossible. But in many situations, forcing a person who is overweight or out of shape to actually use their muscles once in a while rather than allowing them to move from one seated position to another, could actually be the health care reform we need. I have read many pleas to remove seats from the metro altogether, with the reasonable exception of ADA-compliant places for truthfully handicapped passengers and senior citizens to sit.

Imagine if WMATA had actually gone through with a proposed plan to cut millions in funds by replacing all metro station escalators with stairs, as is dutifully reported in this DCist post. I’d like to briefly add that more often than not, Mitch Hedberg is right and metro escalators are nothing more than stairs. I’d also like to add an addendum to any proposition for stairs-only entrances and exits, stating that certain stations really benefit from the moving stairs, e.g., Dupont Circle.

I am not hating on larger people, handicapped people, senior citizens, or anyone else whose anger with me is growing readily. I simply think we can learn to use our legs. I like standing on the metro and not letting it knock me over; I like to think of it as a form of exercise. I walk up the Dupont escalator every day, and yes, at the top I have to catch my breath.

KFCBut for a culture that considers a sandwich between two pieces of fried chicken rather than two slices of bread a legitimate meal, we could stand to raise our heart rates during our commutes.

And for those of us who will never be able to withstand stairs or standing on the metro, there will always be shuttle service between stations with malfunctioning elevators so that your amount of walking will remain at a minimum.