Standing on the Left? You Must Be on Vacation
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2004; Page A01
Here comes Sarah Shain, typical Metro rider. The 22-year-old District resident is hustling down the left side of the escalator to the lower platform at Metro Center, clacking on the moving metal steps in her sensible pumps, until she hits a roadblock: a pair of tanned tourists in shorts standing two abreast, talking and blocking her path to the Orange Line train idling at the bottom of the escalator.
"The train is right there and you see the doors closing and it's like, 'Get out of my way!' " said Shain, a behavioral and social researcher who missed that train by seconds.
Then, a moment of empathy. "A lot of the people who visit here come here from Middle America where there is no subway, so they're not used to it," said Shain, who grew up in Kentucky. "You have to just expect that if you live in this city. You have to deal with the tourists."
This is the paradox of daily life in the capital of the free world, where every second counts. The people who live and work here take themselves seriously, striding purposefully with their written testimony, task force recommendations and briefing books. But it also is a place that attracts vacationers from around the globe, people who feel a familiarity with the city if only from all the television images and history books. They're drawn to the Metro, with its simple design, as welcoming and cheap transportation and even as a destination itself. Many locals have dueling impulses: They yearn to share Washington with the rest of the country, but they also just want to be on their way.
With record numbers of visitors coming to Washington -- 6 million are expected this summer -- and a growing daily Metro ridership that hovers at 690,000, encounters between visitors and locals play out on the subway each day. It's a cultural as well as physical clash -- tourists from Indiana wandering among impatient Washingtonians rushing to make their trains.
The conflict is most visible on Metro's 572 escalators. Because the subway was built deep beneath swampy Washington, Metro has more escalators than any other transit system in the world. A typical passenger must ride at least two escalators to reach a train. The steps are 40 inches wide, broad enough for just two adults.
Many stretch deep into the ground, including the 230-foot-long moving stairs at Wheaton, the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere. To reduce accidents, Metro keeps the speed of its escalators relatively slow -- 90 feet a minute, compared with the 120 feet a minute that is typical of escalators at shopping malls, said Fred Goodine, Metro's assistant general manager for system safety and risk protection.
That means that riding the Wheaton escalator can take three minutes; and the Dupont Circle Metro's 2 minutes and 10 seconds. The escalator at Woodley Park Zoo/Adams Morgan, a favorite of tourists with small children, clocks in at 2 minutes and 20 seconds.
That may not seem very long, but to Craig Culp, it's an eternity. "I always walk on the escalators," said Culp, 44, of Gaithersburg, who daily sprints up and down the escalators at the Shady Grove, Metro Center and Eastern Market stations. "I'm not much of a rider. I'm just not comfortable standing still. I feel like I'm being incarcerated if I can't move on the escalator.
"There's a protocol," Culp said. "You walk on the left and stand on the right."
A pair of entrepreneurs launched StandtotheRight.com, a Web site that sells $15 T-shirts that make fun of the daily Metro collisions between tourists and locals.
One version is a black-and-white image of an escalator with the words Walk and Stand in the appropriate places. The other is an edgy revenge fantasy of someone rushing down a Metro escalator, pushing bodies out of the way. It says "Welcome to Washington, D.C., Now Please Stand to the Right."
"Why the hell is that moron from Ohio standing in front of you as you rush down the escalator and desperately try to make it to your train?" the Web site asks. "Because he hasn't been educated properly." The site advises riders to stand up for their "right to fly down the left side of the escalator, destroying everything in your path. No 'excuse me' is needed, let them read the back of your shirt as they try to collect their loved ones and luggage."
Although the influx of tourists, which grows thick in spring and summer, might irritate the daily commuter, Congress had visitors in mind when it began planning "America's subway" in the late '60s. The system was designed not just to ferry bureaucrats to their government offices, but also to serve as a national example of modern, efficient urban transportation.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
At Metro Center, escalator riders block the left side of the steps, inadvertently keeping walking traffic from passing.
(Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
_____Metrorail Special Report_____
Washington Post Will Buy Spanish-Language Newspaper (The Washington Post, May 18, 2004)
All Around the Capital, Preparing for an Emergency (The Washington Post, May 14, 2004)
John D. Kelly Dies at 80; Advocated for Brookland (The Washington Post, May 14, 2004)
D.C. to Roll Out New Downtown Bus Routes (The Washington Post, May 14, 2004)
Metro Fare Plan Prompts Call for Boycott (The Washington Post, May 13, 2004)
More Metrorail News