“El programa piloto del estacionamiento de Park & Ride sera extendido es esta estacion,” one said.
But while Metro estimates tens of thousands of its riders each day are not fluent in English — and Census figures show the number is growing — there wasn’t much help at the station to show people how to buy farecards or add money to them.
Signs on the fare machines were only in English, as were the automated signs about which of Metro’s elevators were broken at the moment.
Sitting on a Red Line train a short time later, Calderon noted that instructions on what to do in an emergency — with presumably important messages, like how it’s safest to stay in the car, or what to do if you have to evacuate — were only in English.
“English. English. Everything English,” Calderon said.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is focusing on reversing the agency’s ridership losses through such steps as running more frequent trains after rush hour. But advocates for immigrants like Calderon’s daughter, Claudia Barragan, are pointing to another way to increase ridership: making Metro less intimidating for those who speak limited English.
According to U.S. Census estimates, more of the people who commute by public transportation in Washington and surrounding counties are not fluent in English than was the case a decade ago, reflecting an increase of people in the region who face language barriers.
The increase has been greatest within Washington, where, according to the Census’ 2017 American Community Survey, nearly half of those who do not speak English rely on public transportation.
According to the estimates, the number of Washington public transportation riders 16 and older who describe themselves as speaking English “less than well” more than doubled, from 5,734 in 2007 to 11,954 in 2017.
As a result, the percentage of Washington residents commuting by public transportation who do not speak English well nearly doubled, from 5.4 percent to 9.7 percent over that time.
Arlington and Fairfax counties have seen smaller increases over the past decade, but still, the number of people on transit with language barriers has risen by thousands. Among Arlington County residents who commute by public transportation, the share who do not speak English rose from 7 percent in 2007 to 8.9 percent over the decade, an increase of about 1,000 riders.
Fairfax County saw an increase from 14 percent to 16.6 percent over that time. According to Census estimates, that means an increase in non-English-speaking riders from 5,968 in 2007 to 9,321 in 2017.
Among Montgomery County residents, the percentage of public transit commuters who do not speak English well dropped from 17.3 percent to 14.1 percent. That means that about 11,374 people who speak limited English take public transportation, the Census estimates.
Based on a 2012 rider survey, Metro estimated last year that about 16,100 people who do not speak English well ride its trains around the region each day. That accounts for about 5 percent of its daily ridership, the agency said in a report last year updating its plan to serve those who aren’t fluent in English.
Based on a 2008 bus survey, Metro also estimated in the report that 53,500 people with language barriers ride its buses each day, making up about a quarter of its bus riders.
That’s brought changes to areas such as a survey handed out at stations earlier this year asking riders about a proposal to raise Metro fares during major events. It was printed in Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Amharic and French, as well as English, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
Five people in Metro’s customer service office speak Spanish and one speaks Portuguese. The office has access to phone interpreters, Metro’s report said. About 100 of the roughly 146,500 calls Metro’s call center gets each month require someone who speaks Spanish, and a few need someone who can speak Chinese, the report said.
Metro has also taken steps like flashing emergency information in Spanish on automated signs at bus stops, Stessel said.
But advocates say there’s still more Metro could be doing — particularly because public transportation is often a lifeline for those who do not speak English.
Taking Metro can be intimidating for many, said Duc Truong, a program manager at Boat People SOS, a Falls Church nonprofit.
Formed to serve Vietnamese immigrants, his organization has expanded to work with other Asian groups. Truong says he is planning next year to start giving classes on taking Metro trains and buses.
“The people in my country don’t have the same system,” he said. “Going into a tunnel, language barriers. People get scared they will get lost under the ground.”
Seeing a Vietnamese station manager would help, he said. But he hasn’t seen any. There’s no one to turn to for help, he said.
As part of its response to a more diverse ridership, a feature on Metro’s website allows it to be translated into Chinese, French, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese.
But clicking on to it in Vietnamese recently, Truong said “some of it makes no sense to me.”
Truong said he knows Metro can’t post signs in all 15 languages Metro says are the most prevalent in the areas it serves. What would help, he said, is if Metro’s site had a video in Vietnamese showing people the basics, like how to load a fare card.
Barragan, a member of a group called the D.C. Language Access Coalition, worries many non-English-speaking riders will be confused if Metro makes changes it is considering, such as no longer accepting cash on some bus routes. The change, she said, would disproportionately hurt lower-income immigrants like day workers who get paid in cash.
Calderon, Barragan’s mother, seems to have become a guide of sorts, for other Spanish-speakers who have trouble speaking English.
She’s had her own mishaps because of language barriers. She has a discounted SmarTrip card for seniors and people with disabilities, which lets her pay half the peak fares. But she only used it for Metro Access vans, and paid regular fares for other trips. It took her two years to figure out she could use it on trains or buses.
The card does says on the back it is good for rail and bus boardings. But, she said through her daughter, she didn’t know what boardings meant.
Another time, she was on a Red Line train from Shady Grove when it offloaded at White Flint, a couple of stops short of the station at Bethesda where her daughter was going to pick her up.
She didn’t understand the announcements when everybody got off, but she followed the others onto a shuttle. The bus happened to pass her daughter, who was on her way to pick her up.
They looked at each other, and the mother called her daughter.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” she said.
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