Thursday, July 21, 2011

The DC Metro: A (Novice) Rider's Experience

There's something about living in a metropolitan city, being a blogger, and riding the city's local metro system that, within a short period of time, a post about riding and commuting on the metro each day will inevitably come around.  With that said, here's that Dandygram:

Since moving to DC, I have become a DC Metro commuter.  Honestly, I don't have an atypical commute for residing out in the suburbs and driving to the local park-and-ride station with the rest of my neighbors (read: Greenbelt, MD). 

I am, however, new to it all.  In fact, I enjoy the commute via Metro (most days), so I am not going to rant about what I find obnoxious about my morning and evening commutes (although I might drop a few hints, like the investment I made in a damn good set of noise-canceling ear buds shortly after my first day of riding) or tell you about the obscenities I've witnessed whilst taking the late train back to my parked car after the weekly happy hour that went longer than predicted (more below on this).  Instead, I am going to try my best to tell you what it's like to see, hear, feel, and ride on one of the cleanest and nicest metro systems in the U.S. as a novice daily commuter.

There are a few caveats about being a novice Metro rider.  To start, you must learn and quickly familiarize yourself with "Metro etiquette," and this begins from the moment you swipe your fare card into at entry point to when you leave your destination's station.  Now, in what I think is the most chronologically correct order as possible of the day's events, here's what I've learned about Metro etiquette but with the twist only I know how to give for what I've observed:

First, do not spend more than two full seconds during the hours of 7:00am and 9:00am trying to get your pre-loaded SmarTrip Metro fare card or Metro card to work and process at the mere two of seven available entry machines.  If you spend as much as (heaven forbid) five seconds or more trying to get your fare card to scan, you may as well wait for the next train because the grudges, glares, and growls from the riders behind you--also waiting to scan their cards at the less-than-what-is-necessary entry machines--will haunt you stop after stop and make you feel like you were, once again, in fourth grade again and have been "that person" to have given too much time (and lip) at the hallway water fountain.

Second, the escalators have a very specific protocol.  This was something explained clearly by a colleague of mine who also commutes into DC from equidistance but on the southern leg of the Orange line.  She explained that riders on the escalators--both going up and down--are to "walk on the left, stand on the right."  This communal understanding quickly became about as simple as tying shoelaces, but if (again, heaven forbid) you are "that person" standing on the left, might as well open an umbrella because all the bringers and the buyers with their leftovers from lunch will surely let you know like a bad performance at a Shakespearean theatre.  (Not to mention, there's the slapping of women's high heels and men's dress heels as they slowly approach your unwavering stance standing on the left side of the up escalator, which make you nervous enough to shuffle between two people standing on the right who already get this.  Oh, and God forbid you do this on the escalators at L'Enfant Plaza or Metro Center... YIKES!)

Third, if no seats are available on your train, it's absolutely acceptable to stand.  However, you must ensure you've found a low center of gravity before departure and throughout the length of the ride.  For example, take what I like to call a "three pointed pose."

The "three pointed pose" is simple: two feet planted firmly on the ground a little wider than shoulder-width apart (for a lower center of gravity, obviously).  Additionally, make sure to have at least one hand firmly gripped on an overhead handle bar.  If you pretend to look cool (like I have witnessed time and time again from my carefully selected seat towards the back of the front train each morning) and ride with less than a "three pointed pose," it will be your luck that the conductor has a lead foot and brakes sporadically, or worse: abruptly stopping at least four times upon arriving to each station only to make sure his front train is perfectly aligned with their "stop-precisely-at-this-mark, Metro-system-conductors").  This, I'll have you know, makes the aforementioned witnessed cool "two pointed posed" rider lunge forward in dismay, surprise, and utter embarrassment.  If only they had read this post!  Nevertheless, just stick to any version of a "three pointed pose" if there are no seats available.  And trust me, the unsuspecting riders investing their trust in your cognizance will silently thank you for not falling into their laps.

Fourth, get into a routine--at least for the morning commute.  This is something I've learned to be quintessential each morning during my commute on the Orange line into DC (7:30am - 8:20am).  If you are a reader, like a former Metro commuter and colleague in my office has informed me, you can get through books upon books during your daily commutes.  However, if you ride half of your morning and evening commute with the sun beating through the windows and onto the seat you were fortunate enough to secure, fighting sleep becomes your daily routine.  

I have a Kindle (thank you, self, for having jumped the gun on a Christmas gift and getting it back in return).  I have a new iPad (thank you, Mom).  I occasionally pick up the Express newspaper that is handed--nay, forcefully given--to me each morning at the entrance to the New Carrollton station.  I also have an abundant supply of magazines along with the daily emails and education alerts that can be read on my Blackberry.  But for crying out loud, there is nothing short of getting slapped in the face that can keep me from closing my eyes, drifting in thought, and becoming complacent and/or losing a sense of time and place (read: nodding off).  This comatose phenomenon has become quite commonplace during my morning commute, but I've observed the more experienced riders are able to essentially set some sort of internal clock that alerts their circadian rhythm with the sound of cuckoo birds that it's time to disembark at their precise station.  This, unfortunately, is not something I've mastered.  Instead, I fall victim to nodding off and then coming to, but only to be one (or four) stops beyond my station where I disembark with my sleepy head held high, go up the escalators and walk across the wrong station, and take the escalator down catch the next train back to McPherson Square.  How truly humbling.

Nevertheless, I have found a fix to this problem beyond a good night's sleep, and it's seeking out the daily Washington Afro before boarding.  Needless to say, their reporting is timely, it works to keep my interest enough to stay awake for 30 minutes, and I've consistently arrived at my stop without the morning nod off!

Fifth, I have slowly picked up on the etiquette for Metro commuter people watching.  This is a more delicate kind of thing for commuters because you'll quickly realize that when you park and ride each morning, familiar faces begin to appear on your trains and in the seats around you.  However, those are not the people to watch.  It's people like me--the newbies to it all, or those going on their first day of a job or an interview, or better yet, the DC tourists. 

Yes, I can say it.  I have become captivated by the tourists who congregate on the Metro: the school groups, the church groups, the families, the couples, the newlyweds, the Tea Partiers, you name it.  I am so fascinated by their bright-eyed and early-Monday-morning-bushy-tailness to go visit a big marble memorial.  Like, where the hell did you get this energy to stare at some stone???  Can I get a fraction of that energy for my computer screen and a day filled with building Excel spreadsheets please?  Only kidding--I love my job.

Sixth, those damn broken escalators--especially at the end of the work day--are tumultuous for the flow of foot traffic.  There's something fascinating about a working escalator four out of five days a week that this all becomes second nature.  But when on the fifth day, the escalator is not working for whatever apparent reason, and everyone is forced to actually hoof it up and down "manually," the stopped escalator (read: STAIRCASE) becomes this freak of broken technology: so foreign, so archaic, and totally un-apropos!

Get over it people.  This broken technology is now called a set of stairs, and believe it or not, each step even has YELLOW PAINT TO HELP YOU OUT...

Lastly, there's the etiquette for the last stop on the metro line.  I have the luxury of parking and riding the Orange line where it both originates for my morning commute and terminates for my evening commute.  However, the Metro etiquette will remind us that, at the end of the work day or into the later part of the evening if you've had a few drinks for happy hour with friends, you really don't want to be "that person" who is aroused from a mid-evening nod off in his seat to find out from the conductor clearing the trains and picking up debris that it's the "LAST STOP! LAST STOP! WAKE UP AND GET OFF MY TRAIN!"  Yeah, once is enough for that, and I've learned.

So, there you have it.  Whether you're ready to make a trip to visit DC as a tourist or are interested in relocating to the suburbs of the Beltway, or if you just want a DCist perspective on the etiquette of riding the awesome DC Metro, I hope this will provide you with a good foundation for what to look for, what to (and what not to) do, and how to make yourself just blend in.  Plus, if you ride in from New Carrollton and PG County, blending in is not a bad thing whatsoever...

Next up on The Dandygram: Spending a Weekend Outside the Beltway.

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