Metrorail’s goal is a self-service system, but today’s riders can find basics baffling

Robert Thomson
Columnist March 23, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Had to use Metrorail for the first time in a couple years. I’m really not as stupid as I looked to that amused but helpful attendant, but the newer fare machines were poorly designed, and the fare boards have 65 different categories, and I got the wrong one and . . . I looked stupid.

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

But what about the tourists the local economy so depends on? No wonder regular riders are so mad at them all the time; they wander around looking lost, because they are.

Picked up a couple of SmarTrip cards on the way home.

— Warren Emerson, Arlington

Transit managers want to make Metro more of a “self-service system.”

In the draft of the “Momentum” plan for the next two decades, they state the goal this way: “Trip information will be easy to hear and simple to obtain with support from the latest self-service technology and responsive staff.”

A traveler should be able to sail through the system with a minimum of hesi­ta­tion and human contact. On Metrorail, way-finding, fare purchases, fare gates, train riding and exiting should be almost intuitive.

It’s a worthy goal and probably more achievable than some of those proposals for new tunnels that are in the same plan. But we’re not there yet.

During a presentation of the Momentum plan to the Action Committee for Transit, one member of the citizens’ group suggested that Metro assign some staffers to follow tourists as they move through the system to see where they hesitate.

That's a great idea.

Most regular riders internalize the travel map. A tourist approaches as we stand on the “Shady Grove” side of the Silver Spring platform, or the “Largo” side of the King Street platform and asks “Does this train go downtown?” We may pause, considering whether this is a trick question.

Of course it goes downtown. Everybody knows that, right?

On the mezzanine, there are machines that say, “Farecards,” and machines that say “Farecards and Passes,” and newer ones that say “Purchase SmarTrip.” Metro’s program to shift its customers from paper Farecards to the plastic SmarTrip cards has been very successful, but plenty of occasional riders and tourists still use paper cards.

Watch a first-timer standing at a fare gate trying to press a paper card into the top slot where they’re actually supposed to retrieve the processed card. You can see why an adult would feel like a 5-year-old.

Metro gears up to the task of getting riders through for big events when visitors crowd the rail system. On these occasions, the staff does a very good job. Rather than waiting for questions, they stand by the vending machines and the gates, searching for the confused and the glassy-eyed.

And Metro managers do know how disorienting the system can be to a visitor. Early on Inauguration Day, staffers at the Greenbelt station were distributing wristbands that would help visitors remember what station they started from.

Daily, I see station managers by the vending machines, helping visitors or occasional riders get through the transit system’s threshold. But there's only so many people that one employee can assist.

Long term, Metro wants technology to fill the gap.

“Metro will provide customers with accurate and timely information for navigating the region and for trip planning, including real-time information on arrivals and departures, or delays and incidents,” the Momentum plan reads.

Even regular riders who strain to hear train announcements or puzzle over platform message boards know there’s a gulf between today’s reality and that goal. So take pity on the tourists arriving for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Don’t limit your engagement with them to saying “Excuse me!” when they stand on the left side of an escalator.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

SECTION: {section=local, subsection=trafficandcommuting}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=local, subsection=trafficandcommuting}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments