It is a familiar scene for city dwellers: A parent toting a briefcase, lunchbox and stroller blusters along a crowded Metro platform, only to watch the train doors close. It’s 8 a.m. Rush hour. She has less than an hour to drop off her child — or children — at day care and hop back on the train to work.
It shouldn’t be so hard in the region’s kid-friendly underground train system. Washington’s Metro provides elevators and escalators at all 86 stations, unlike New York, whose subway system relies on skinny staircases and emergency gates. Here, digital signs inform riders of their wait times. Children 4 years old and younger ride free. Need to check delays, closings or elevator outages? There’s an app for that.
“Our Metro is designed to accommodate families, not challenge them,” said Steven Taubenkibel, a spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and father of a 3-year-old boy.
But Washington parents and child-care professionals have varying opinions about how accessible and self-explanatory the system is.
Lisa Danahy, 47, executive director of the Friendship Children’s Center, says she thinks the transit authority could do more to accommodate people traveling with children. The center uses the Metro for field trips at least once a month.
“There are inconsistencies in protocol between station managers, and a lack of education about the fact that schools use this transportation, too. It’s not just for commuters,” she said. “Sometimes we’re well received, and sometimes we’re snarled at.”
Danahy hears conflicting instructions about what must be done before taking children on the train, how much it costs and what they can take with them. Half of the station managers she encounters allow her to bring “the wagon” — a stroller that can seat six children — and half don’t, she said.
The elevators are unreliable and often too small for multiple strollers, she said. Danahy routinely checks Metro’s Web site to make sure the elevators are in service but often finds the site is not up to date.
“If we get off at a stop and can’t use the elevators,” she said, “we’re stuck.”
Danah Telfaire, principal of the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Columbia Heights, said her school had smooth experiences with Metro for the past five years until recently, when station managers began questioning them about their ratio of adults to children on field trips. Metro’s policy allows children 4 years old and younger to ride at no charge, as long as there is at least one adult for every two children.
Because many of their chaperons meet them at the destination, this puts the school “in a bind” with the ratio policy, she said.
“Why has this not come up before? And what are we supposed to do about it right that minute? [The station managers] got so frustrated that they just threw up their hands and told us to figure it out the next time,” she said.
Michelle Muse, a preschool teacher at the Thurgood Marshall Child Development Center, near Union Station, said her school struggles with the elevators.
“We have to get everyone from point A to point B together,” she said. This can mean shepherding 60 children up and down in small groups, which can add 40 minutes round-trip, she said.
While child-care centers can avoid traveling during rush hour, parents don’t always have that option.
Jannike Jackson, an associate tax director at CapitalSource bank in Bethesda, uses Metro to take her three children, all under age 4, to and from day care. The system is accommodating, she said. Commuters are not.
“The elevators can be tough. There are so many people who take them — who, frankly, don’t really need to — and they don’t give parents with strollers priority,” she said. “A sign or two might help others be aware of this or encourage them to walk the extra 10 yards to the escalator.”
But Metro will not spell out etiquette rules. Taubenkibel said the transit authority finds much of it to be implicitly understood by regular riders.
“We’ve got to be flexible,” he said. “And parents, teachers and especially native Washingtonians, they already know this stuff. They know which elevator is closest to them on the platform and which cars to head for.”
Metro prefers recommendations over rules. It is recommended, for example, that adults traveling with small children ride in cars nearest to the train operators because they are less crowded and in view of the driver. It’s recommended that parents never bring strollers on escalators. If the elevators are broken, it’s recommended that parents collapse the stroller and carry the child.
The elevators “fall into the same category as the stand-on-the-right rule for escalators,” said Dan Stessel, a spokesman for Metro. “It’s a soft approach, not a regulation. Sort of social mores.”
Dan Liebman, whose 3-year-old son attends Friendship Children’s Center, said that the escalators are unreliable and that announcements can’t always be heard from the overhead speakers. But he doesn’t think riders need to be coddled when it comes to manners.
“It’s really common sense,” he said. “Of course people should give up their seat if a parent is juggling kids on the train. I don’t think we need to be told everything in life.”