The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Paris Métro compares to Washington’s

After a day of sightseeing in Paris, I sat on the green subway train seat, pulled a bottle of water and a raisin croissant from my purse, and I indulged.

I wouldn’t do that in our Metro system.

But in Paris, which has one of the world’s busiest subway systems with more than 1.5 billion passenger rides a year, snacking aboard the trains is almost as common as reading the Express is for commuters on my Red Line Metro ride to work.

It’s probably an exaggeration to say eating and drinking are encouraged on the Métro de Paris. But Parisians certainly have plenty of options to avoid going hungry while riding the subway system. Vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables at station kiosks, and vending machines at the platforms offer a selection of snacks and bottled drinks.

During my short visit last week, I saw a mother give a crying child a cookie to calm him down, riders holding tight to their French baguettes in crowded train cars, and three men sharing a beer.

The relaxed food policy in the City of Light is not unique. Some transit systems across the United States allow eating and drinking, including the subway systems in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia.

As commuters here know, however, eating and drinking is strictly prohibited on Metro’s trains and buses and in the stations. And riders must be careful not to break the rules: Transit police can issue citations or make arrests to enforce the law, Metro warns.

The transit agency has considered allowing food to be sold at station kiosks, but board opposition killed the idea. In recent years, the transit system has boosted efforts to make riders aware of the food and drink ban.

“This is not a diner,” says a poster in some Metro stations showing an image of a Metro train made to look like a 1950’s-style diner. “Please don’t treat it like one. Be considerate of others by not eating or drinking on Metro. You’ll obey the law and help keep Metro among the cleanest transit systems in the world.”

In Paris, the sight of food on the trains is part of the commuting experience, as is dealing with doors that don’t open automatically, street peddlers selling Paris history books to tourists, and performers playing music on trains. You may find them annoying — or entertaining.

Depending on the length of your stay and how much you’ll use public transit, you can choose between single Metro tickets or one of several passes. A ticket good for one ride within the city center costs 1.70 euros or about $2.35. I purchased a package of 10 rides for about $19, and they got me where I wanted to go in the city. The roughly 35-minute ride to the airport was about $13.

The system is easy to navigate, and it is a great way to discover the city. The signage is clear, ticket stations are easy to use with information in English and other languages, many of the station managers speak English, and in some stations the announcements are made in French, English and Spanish.

The relaxed policy on food consumption does not appear to have a major impact on cleanliness. The system is old, but the stations and trains are well-equipped and clean. And trains usually run on time, arrive frequently and run late into the night.

Just like in Washington, trains are more crowded during the morning and evening rush, and the system stays quite busy throughout the day with scores of tourists. I never waited more than five minutes for a train — not even on the weekend.