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August 10, 2005 01:31 PM

Broken: Washington, DC Metro

John F. writes:

Given the budget problems all public transit systems seem to be having around the country, it's interesting that Washington, DC would not fix the Metro, which doesn't adequately help the millions of tourists who visit every year. I could see ignoring this kind of stuff at the far-flung stations at the ends of the lines mostly used by commuters, but not down by the Mall/White House/Downtown area.

Link: Welcome to Washington, And Now You're on Your Own


I used to live in DC. Broken. (Oh yeah, first...)

Posted by: Tim at August 10, 2005 01:37 PM

Okay, I spoke too soon. I meant DC in GENERAL is broken. The Metro was actually rather intuitive, I thought. I've lived there several times, once when I was about 13 years old. I used the metro without a problem... There are maps everywhere... I say the Metro isn't broken. Anyone else from DC?

Posted by: Tim at August 10, 2005 01:41 PM

I lived in DC twice when I was 9 and 13 and I took the metro by myself all the time. It was quite simple and I never had any problems with it.

Posted by: fin at August 10, 2005 01:48 PM

I live in Va, and the metro is the only way into DC for me. And there's nothing wrong with the stations. There are many scattered all around the mall area.You just need to actually think for a second about where you're goping, instead of bitching about it to those of us who actually need the metro more. Back a few months ago 2 trains collided. I'd rather see them spend money to fix any safety issues they have then to build more stations so fat tourists don't have to waddle down an extra block. Seriously just stop complaining if you don't live there.

Posted by: Mike at August 10, 2005 01:50 PM

I think the signs are pretty clear too, but I speak fluent English and had used public transportation before stepping onto the DC Metro, so I know to identify line directions by the endpoint and such.

As for the funding, here's what's broken: DC's lack of political representation. Most of the people who work in DC and make lots of money live in MD or VA, and take the Metro in to work. That means that DC needs some means of getting those guys in MD & VA to pay for the services they use in DC, and with zero political power of any sort, it's not gonna happen. Getting MD to fairly split the costs for fixing the metro rails into DC is like pulling teeth. Congress won't pass a commuter tax, and it already vetos important lines on DC's internal budget. Until DC has some sort of political power---which may mean retrocession into MD---the Metro will be underfunded and broken.

Posted by: Mr. BK of Washington, DC at August 10, 2005 02:49 PM

Not broken. I've been on it, and I have hopes of living there when I'm older. The thing is, you're not even explaining what's wrong with it, anyway.

Posted by: Jake Nelson at August 10, 2005 03:02 PM

NOT BROKEN! I live in the DC metro area and there are signs everywhere not to mention a downloadable map on the web page.

Posted by: Scott at August 10, 2005 03:12 PM

I'm an occasional tourist to DC. I think I've been there 4 or 5 times in my life now. I think their subway system is awesome, and I now use it exclusively when I travel to DC. It's the best I've been on - better by far than NY, London, and Paris.

Posted by: Todd Bradley at August 10, 2005 03:26 PM

I can only echo everyone else who's said that the Washington Metro is intuitive. I'm notorious for having one of the worst senses of direction possible, and I got around the system with barely any difficulty as a tourist to the area. I personally thought the signs listing the stations were quite easy to figure out... much easier to decipher than some of the roundabout routes on small-town bus systems that I've dealt with!

Speaking of small-town bus systems, the confusing routes are not the only way they're broken. Sure, people can still get to work and back, but good luck getting your groceries or having any sort of social life when service stops after 6:30, is very limited on Saturdays, and doesn't run at all on Sundays...

Posted by: codeman38 at August 10, 2005 03:37 PM

You guys are missing the point! The idea is that the system isn't user-friendly to all users! You are used to it and understand it better because you use it often. As the artical said, many users have never even seen a mass transit system before! It IS broken because it's not intuitive to a large user base!

Posted by: Kevin at August 10, 2005 03:48 PM

I lived in DC for 11 years and used the Metro to and from work everyday. In my opinion, it is the riders who are broken not the Metro system. There is plenty of signage and maps throughout the system, and yet newbies were constantly asking riders rather than reading the signage / maps.

On the surface streets, it is another story. Locals have a name for these confused souls: tourons

(Name is an elision of tourist and moron, and derives from the way they drive.) Actually, to be fair... the surface streets in DC are a mess. Tons of one-ways, tons of dead-ends, confusing signage, and strange intersections (due to the way the A-Z / 1-9 grid maps against the L'enfant grid of "state names" and rotaries).

Posted by: Craig at August 10, 2005 04:12 PM

Mr BK: "As for the funding, here's what's broken: DC's lack of political representation"

Okay, I know I'm risking starting a flame-war here, but here goes anyways (sorry, everyone, but I think this is a greatly misunderstood issue in DC...):

When I lived in DC, I saw bumper stickers all the time which merely said: "D.C. - Taxation without representation". This is the gist if a qualm many people seem to have about DC, the feeling that "Hey, I have to pay taxes here, how come I don't have any federal representation? No fair!". These people seem to think they have been somehow duped by the 'evil empire' of the US Government into paying taxes without getting representation. I disagree. Washington DC was first created with the express purpose of centralizing government into a politically neutral area. George Washington realized that centralizing government into an area over which that same government had power would give occupants of that area an unfair advantage. That's why DC was sreated as a district instead of a state. Each and every state is entitled to representation.

Posted by: Tim at August 10, 2005 05:51 PM

"gist if a qualm" --> "gist of a qualm"


Posted by: Tim at August 10, 2005 05:52 PM

I recently moved from DC metro area after living there for 4 years. i would agree with the article in that there are not many signs to ensure you are exiting at the correct stop, yet was very helpful in planning your route. I used it frequently. It allows you to map your course from a particular Metro stop and then continue the trip by foot.

I now live in LA and the Metro here pales in comparison.

Posted by: Imani at August 10, 2005 07:58 PM

Kevin: I was using it as a tourist who had only been there once before at most. And I come from an area with mass transit that's not the greatest, to say the least.

Posted by: codeman38 at August 10, 2005 09:19 PM

What people seem to forget with the whole "broken, not broken" thing--and not just in this thread but all the others as well--is that the entire point is to be as unbroken as possible to as many people as possible. A design can't be all things to all people all the time any more than you can say something isn't broken just because it works FOR YOU.

Every design made sense to somebody--the person or people who designed it and who made the design decisions for whatever reason they did. It makes sense to them and folks who think like them, and the better the design the larger the group that it appeals to. Pretty much every design also has an audience that it just doesn't reach, for which it simply doesn't work. The challenge is to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Personally, I think the DC Metro is well designed and very easy to use. That doesn't mean it isn't broken for another whole segment of the population trying to use it.

Posted by: Erich at August 10, 2005 09:35 PM

Be it D.C., or *any* big city, I've often wondered why wither chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus don't bring in folks specifically for the purpose of getting feedback on getting around town. Depending upon the city, you may have some folks drive, or take public transit, or whatever, but I've been dumbfounded sometimes in a new area. I consier myself to have a good sense of direction and do proper trip planning, but lack of signage (or, confusing signage) abounds in so many places......why don't they have some stangers give them some pointers?

Posted by: Bob at August 11, 2005 02:33 AM

Wow, lots of long posts. I'll keep mine brief.

I live in Northern VA, and my first trip into DC was one of my first experiences with mass transit (suburbs of Delaware don't really even have a public bus system). I stared at the fare breakdown signs in complete confusion. I ended up overpaying by a few bucks and almost missing my stop.

It's not intuitive to people who have never used systems like this. The group of people I was with were a little confused by it too, and they had used it a couple times in the past.

And to those who talk about website info and downloadable maps: this article was based on TOURISTS, most of which will not have Internet access while in DC. There certainly isn't any such connectivity while you're in the Metro stations.

I say broken.

Posted by: Manni at August 11, 2005 12:40 PM

Not all that broken, but pretty good actually. The best metro in the world is the one in Mexico City. After that, Paris since there's so many stops. Third, maybe DC because it is very easy to understand how to get places and it is kept very clean. But, there are not enough stops, and the stops are laid out in much less than ideal places. You often have to walk a long ways to get to a station or to get to the most common of places from a stop.

Posted by: J. Scott at August 11, 2005 02:51 PM

Ain't brief, Manni. *This* is brief.

Posted by: Bob at August 11, 2005 03:20 PM

Well I live in London - was in Washington for a holiday and I was impressed how clean the metro was and how easy it is to get around - in comparison to the London underground so I'm afraid I agree with everyone else - its far from broken! Perhaps if you're colour blind then maybe ...?

Posted by: kay at August 12, 2005 11:30 AM

I think that one of the main complaints by tourists was not that it was too difficult to navigate to a certain station, but that they didn't know what monuments, museums, or other destinations were at what station. This is hardly evidence that the Metro way-finding system is broken; it's evidence that the tourists didn't do even the most elementary homework before setting out for the day.

If you want to see confusing subway wayfinding, try London -- for example, DC's Metro names the lines after their color: simple, the Blue line is colored blue. But in London, the line color is pointless because the lines are named with... names. So, looking at the map means you must somehow equate the color with a name that has no relation to it; and there are several lines that are, if not the exact same color, close enough that any colorblind person will never be able to tell between them.

Metro's other big drawback when it comes to tourists is the differing fares depending on distance travelled. Perhaps in this area, Metro should emulate London: a zone system.

Which brings us to another broken transportation nightmare: DC's taxis, which charge by a zone system rather than mileage... and the zones make no sense at all.

Posted by: Gene Cowan at August 12, 2005 09:31 PM

What did they do with all that dirt from the metro hole?

Posted by: Soup at August 13, 2005 09:38 AM

Not broken:

Mass transit is for the locals. Tourists are supposed to help the economy by taking taxis.

Posted by: Loren Pechtel at August 14, 2005 01:24 PM

Well, I was just in DC on vacation. My mom was with us, and she had taken the metro before, so we kind of knew what we were doing. However, the SmarTrip-capable farecard machines were incredibly badly designed and poorly laid out.

Posted by: Adam at August 14, 2005 07:45 PM

I don't know about D.C. but Montreal threw it in the river and made an island with it for expo 1967.

Posted by: Sean P at August 15, 2005 02:51 PM

Sorry, to be clear I was speaking of the dirt dug up from making the Montreal metro system and they built up on a small existing island.

Posted by: Sean P at August 15, 2005 07:23 PM

I live in DC and take the metro often. While I don't think the entire system is broken, the elevators are a problem. The button labels are not consistent between stations. Also, a lot of the elevators don't work and are hard to find.

The first time I tried to navigate the metro with a stroller it took me 30 minutes to find the correct elevator in the L'Enfant Plaza station, and I had been taking the metro for years. I had to take an elevator from one platform to another and then find a second elevator to actually cross the tracks to get home. This elevator was nowhere near the first one. Also, sometimes there is only one elevator to actually get from street level down to the station. You have to know where that elevator is among all the station entrances, which are blocks apart. Try navigating the system in a wheelchair or with a stroller and you will see how inaccessible it is.

I have been on other systems--London, Lisbon--which are worse. They are not accessible at all. But I think that Metro could have done better in this department.

Posted by: Lisa at August 16, 2005 03:34 PM

Variable fares - broken. It's the kind of compromise that sounds good but just creates confusion.

Posted by: barrett at August 16, 2005 04:16 PM

Anyone who thinks the DC metro is broken should spend some time on the NY subway and quit whining.

DCs metro is clean, the stations and the cars are air-conditioned, the routes well organized, maps are in every station, the escalators and elevators generally work and when they dont there are regular announcements over the intercom.

Sure variable fairs can be confusing but the turnstiles tell you if you dont have correct fair on you card and they even tell how short of the toll you are. There are info-desks with helpful staff at every station. There rarely are re-routings or closed stations. Not to mention the architecture is quite nice, there are no pan-handlers in the stations, police regularly patrol and there are cameras everywhere to ensure safety. The only thing I can see thats broken about the DC metro is that its not 24 hour (but atleast it runs later than the London tube that shuts down at midnight).

Like I said, if you cant see how nice all that above is, come to one of the burroughs of NYC. I commute every day from Brooklyn to midtown, and nearly twice a week my station is either closed or the F train is re-routed and doesnt stop at my station, even during rush-hour. If thats not the case, chances are the trains are backed-up somewhere and there is no telling how long you may have to wait. Announcements are rare. Signs indicating changes aren't always accurate or even posted. The stations are not air-conditioned, they smell like piss, most are homes to the foulest species of diseased beggars and other sketchy sorts. Rats are common. In the burroughs like mine, the lines are confusing as hell. Even after a year living here, I often get lost and end up in the wrong place or pass my stop or transfer point (not on my commute mind you). If there is anything good about the NY subway, its only the fixed fare (and the fact its 24 hours), and ya know if it would help the MTA fix everything thats broken on the subway, I'd gladly pay a little extra.

Basically, I think the article is way off target.

Posted by: Mike at August 16, 2005 05:21 PM

The best metro system in the world is the japanese. only about a fourth is underground but the system has been transporting japanese and tourists around for years and years and years with little or no incident.

like J. Scott said, paris has a good metro too. But in all fairness, japan has the system really worked out the best.

Posted by: andy at August 16, 2005 08:18 PM

Wow, I hadn't realized how emotionally connected I am to my city and it's subway system. This town may be broken but I mostly don't want it fixed.

I hate to say it, but everyone from somewhere else seems to think our metro is clean and well run, but a lot of the cars, especially on the orange line, have leaks and those carpets in the trains get really smelly with mold. New York, Philadelphia, and London's trains seemed a lot cleaner than Washington's when I visited. Maybe you're talking about the exteriors of the cars being graffiti-free?

DC does have some problems with maintenance. Especially with the breaking systems and such. The station are not well-lit anymore. They sort of have a tradition here of letting things go to waste through neglect. Oh, and they also have a tradition of sticking with a bad idea. It may have something to do with the fact that it's hard to get funding for things unless they are in a shocking state.

To the guy who made the comment about it being good that they want to add signs that make it easier for tourist to navigate the place--you're right in theory, but the compromise is that in order to do this they removed informational signs that tell you which street you're exiting on and replaced it with the equivalent of "you are nearby Chinatown." I found myself in a panic and found myself asking for directions in the station with the new "test" signs.

Posted by: SG at August 16, 2005 10:53 PM

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