Metro courtesy is hard to achieve on crowded trains

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 25, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I’m not one to push around gentlemen with canes and pregnant women. But at 8:50 on a recent morning, I catapulted myself onto a crowded Metro car stopped at the Cleveland Park station.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

I was late for a 9 a.m. appointment, and after running down the escalators and gaining the doors of the last car as its passengers were crowding in, I pleaded with the riders to move in and let me on because I was late.

No movement. In desperation I pushed in, gained a foothold, but my backside clearly was blocking the door, so I reached for an overhead bar and forced the young man in front of me forward so the doors could slide shut.

Although I continued to apologize to the assembled riders and explain that I had never before done such a rude thing, no one smiled with mutual commuter understanding. Perhaps they were miserable with the squeeze and blamed me, or maybe they all knew what I soon learned.

At Woodley Park, a clearly pregnant young woman emerged from the mosh pit and exited the car, presumably to escape the crush. At Dupont Circle a man with a cane took the closest now-vacant seat.

Oh, the shame! I learned a lesson about consideration in crowding onto the Metro and thoughtfulness to strangers that I will not soon forget. And I specifically apologize to the pregnant woman and man with a cane who suffered from my selfishness.

Janet Sten, the District

DG: I think most of us have been there, positioning ourselves in a crowded Metrorail car only to realize later that we might have been creating a problem for another passenger.

So I view Sten’s behavior that morning as more natural than selfish, and I appreciate her candor in adding to our discussion about the sardine-can environment at rush hour.

A few general observations about these crowded situations: I’ve seen riders come running down the escalators and hurl themselves into a train as though it were the last helicopter out of Saigon. Unless there’s a problem on the line, the next train will arrive in a few minutes.

Riders aboard a crowded car don’t do much to manage congestion. The voice tells us to “move to the center of the car,” but passengers rarely speak to one another except to say “excuse me” when they want to get out of the inside seat. It’s hard to imagine someone piping up with, “We got a pregnant woman in here!”

Unfortunately, the transit system isn’t going to offer much relief for today’s commuters. Metro’s new Rush Plus strategy shifts trains around on three lines, using rail cars in the current fleet. But the long-term plan for buying new rail cars adds only enough to create service on the Silver Line when that opens.

The rest of the purchase plan swaps new cars for the oldest cars in the fleet. Something has to give, and it shouldn’t be the legs of riders who are pregnant or have disabilities.

Tempers in traffic

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Todd Schwartz of Stafford mentioned the “zipper” approach to merging [Dr. Gridlock, July 12]. Years ago, while traveling toward the District on Glebe Road in Arlington, I witnessed an amazing sight: One car at the yield and not yielding, and one car on Glebe. Neither wished to compromise, so they proceeded to butt up against each other, smashing passenger side door to driver side door for a good 25 feet.

It was a sight to see. Nobody got out of his car — no fistfight occurred, no guns were discharged in the process. Seems like neither wanted to “zipper” their temper.

Bob Perrino, Arlington County

DG: If you’re like me, you read this account and wondered how two drivers could be so stupid, risking so much over lane space.

Then you think about what it’s like to be the driver who is in the right as it becomes clear the other driver is going to be a jerk. If you can recall the sense of righteousness you felt at that moment, then — unfortunately — the scene becomes less weird.

You could take the advice that traffic engineers give me: Taking turns at a merge and obeying yield signs are very important, but the decisive factor in easing congestion is the smoothness of the merge rather than the order of the cars.

Or you just could follow the advice I got from another driver, applying C3PO’s survival strategy to earthly confrontations: “Let the Wookiee win.”

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