Each day Metro riders carrying travel mugs of coffee or their morning muffins board crowded trains and buses, just a sip of joe or quick bite away from breaking the law.
The rules against eating and drinking are meant to help keep the system clean and avoid a pest problem, officials say.
But Metro Transit Police actually write few tickets for those offenses. Perhaps, the memory of a youngster infamously arrested and handcuffed for eating french fries on the Red Line 12 years ago still lingers.
The biggest offense these days, according to Metro, is consuming alcohol.
Ninety-seven percent of the roughly 1,200 tickets Metro Transit Police issued from January through October 2011 were for alcohol violations, which includes violating open container laws or consuming alcohol in a public space, according to records requested by The Washington Post.
Fifty-eight percent of the alcohol tickets happened at Metro stations, while 36 percent occurred at bus stops or on buses.
“It’s a matter of convenience,” said Deputy Police Chief Ron Pavlik. “You’re walking down the street. You go into a liquor store for a cold one. You walk to the bus stop, sit down and you crack it open.
“People feel like that’s not violating the law,” he said.
It isn’t a violation to carry the food or drink on board a train or bus, but if a rider consumes the item they can get a ticket of up to $100.
College Park, Addison Road and Anacostia ranked as the top three Metro stations where the most tickets were issued for all types of violations, ranging from eating food to drinking non-alcoholic beverages and alcohol. Fifty-three tickets were issued at areas just outside Metro stops and 50 were written on buses.
Branch Avenue, Dunn Loring, Rockville, Takoma, Virginia Square and Metro’s headquarters building, came in the lowest — with only one citation issued at each. Nineteen tickets were issued for eating food and 14 were issued for drinking non-alcoholic drinks on trains and buses.
The total number of tickets issued is small compared to the number of people who pass through the transit system. Metro records more than a million trips on the average weekday. The 450 officers on the transit force maintain regular watch for riders consuming food or drink on trains and buses, police said, but they issue more verbal warnings than written citations.
“We find that if an officer walks up and says, ‘It is illegal to eat or drink in the system. Put it away,’ most people do,” Pavlik said.
It can become a ticket, which can be on a person’s record and show up on background checks, depending on the circumstances, police said. If someone talks back or refuses to put away the food or drink, police are more likely to write a ticket, Pavlik said.
Metro Transit Police developed the warning system after they arrested 12-year-old Ansche Hedgepeth on the Red Line in 2000, generating cries of outrage around the world. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit later upheld the constitutionality of her arrest.
It was part of a weeklong undercover crackdown on violators at the Tenleytown-AU station after Metro Transit Police received complaints from business owners and riders about young people eating on the trains and leaving trash, Pavlik said. He said officers don’t go undercover looking for food violations these days and they have far more serious issues to police: threats of terrorism, iPhone snatchings, robberies and fare evasion.
After Hedgepth’s arrest, Metro Transit Police started issuing written warnings so “they don’t have to make an arrest of youth,” Pavlik said. Warnings are also often granted to tourists who don’t know the rules.
Pavlik said that for “just as many people who say ‘do enforce the no eating and drinking rules on Metro, just as many will say ‘why are you wasting your time?’ ”
Some riders say police don’t do enough. Metro’s stations, trains and buses are far from trash-free. Riders say they encounter everything from soda bottles rolling in the aisles to people grabbing a quick bite.
“There aren’t enough signs and they don’t do enough to enforce it,” he said.
Richards said he has politely reminded fellow passengers about the policy.
He’s received mixed reactions. Some riders tell him to mind his own business. Others oblige and stop eating or drinking — and thank him.
Some riders said they find Metro’s policy of being allowed to carry the food or drink, but not consume it, confusing.
“It's a strange policy to me, but it seems everyone respects the rule — or they enforce it — because the stations and trains are pretty clean,” said Metro rider Natalie Engel as she rode the Yellow Line to her job in Crystal City. “If I bring even a bottle of water on, I feel self-conscious because nobody else does it.
“It’s kind of nice [to have the] rule so you ride and don’t see chicken bones rolling around on the floor like you do in New York,” said Engel, who used to live in the Big Apple.
Last summer, Metro faced criticism when it lifted its drinking ban to allow bottles of water one weekend during a heat wave. Riders lashed out at Metro for not making the decision earlier while passengers were dealing with malfunctioning cooling systems on trains and in stations. Outrage grew after transit officials removed the news release about the temporary change from the Metro Web site, saying later that leaving it up would only create confusion about the policy.
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles recently took it upon himself to enforce the agency’s no eating and drinking ban. Sarles stopped an employee on New Year’s Eve as he was passing through the Union Station stop. The man was not on duty but was in his Metro uniform drinking a beverage, said Dan Stessel, Metro’s chief spokesman.
Sarles “let it be known that even though he wasn’t working at the time, he shouldn’t be eating or drinking in the system,” Stessel said.