With a people-moving challenge of that magnitude, I wasn’t expecting perfection. In fact, I was particularly worried about the plan for Saturday back when Metro officials were saying they would offer regular Saturday service. If Metro had stuck with that strategy, central Washington would have been overwhelmed. Transit officials wisely decided to offer more service, because anything less would have brought the capital to a halt.
It helped — a lot — that travelers on both Friday and Saturday were in such a good mood. At the top of this posting, you can see a tiny portion of the crowd heading for a bank of escalators at L’Enfant Plaza. See their faces. Now see what they were looking at.
That photo shows the scene several minutes after Metro turned off the entire bank of escalators at L’Enfant Plaza for safety and crowd control. It was a long, slow walk up those escalators, and many of the marchers were not young people. It’s difficult to walk on a stopped escalator under any conditions, let along amid the biggest crowd I’ve seen at L’Enfant Plaza since the first Obama inauguration in 2009.
Metro did the right thing by turning off the escalators. With a crowd that size, there’s always a risk the escalators will break down with scores of people on them. And to speedily deliver that big a crowd to the D Street level — where an even bigger crowd awaited them — would have created a problem of even greater magnitude.
What I saw in this little scene combined several elements for success: The Metro staffers and transit police kept calm in both action and word. They turned off the escalators and talked to the people moving through the station mezzanine and toward the escalators. The marchers stayed cool about the situation and enthusiastic about the event they were moving toward.
I can say the same about transit staff, law enforcement and the travelers I saw in and around Metro stations on Friday. The Friday scenes were less intense because of the rush-hour service from the 4 a.m. opening to 9 p.m., because the Friday crowd was smaller and because the inauguration crowd’s destinations were more spread out than those for the Women’s March.
Friday’s smaller crowds gave me a chance to observe a few things that Metro could do better for big events.
Despite all the information available to people in advance, there are many who just show up and hope for the best. That strategy works in many situations where you can just follow big groups, but there are times when staffers and signs would help. People entering the Greenbelt station early Friday didn’t know that if they walked to a corner across the mezzanine they would find a table where they could buy day passes loaded on SmarTrip cards. What they saw first were the fare vending machines, so that’s where they lined up. Metro staffers were very helpful in one-on-one conversations with the visitors, but signs and loudspeaker announcements would have helped.
Metro did station staffers by the fare gates to guide people through. It’s interesting how many basic things we locals take for granted, thanks to our experience riding. A hesitant first-timer might ask a staffer which side of the SmarTrip card is the right one to tap at the gate.
On the Greenbelt platform, as at many others on Friday, visitors would cluster at the top of the escalator and wait for a train to arrive. That created a bottleneck for those coming up behind, and it also meant that people would crowd into just a few cars when the train arrived. A bit more activism by the staffs on the platforms would have helped.
That said, I can give you examples of activism that helped a great deal. On Saturday morning, there was potential for big problems at Stadium-Armory with thousands of people coming off the charter buses at RFK Stadium. A transit officer at the bottom of the escalator used a bullhorn to calmly advise the people descending that they should be sure to get a SmarTrip card. It wasn’t just the travel tips she was offering that helped those people. Her upbeat voice and friendly gestures helped keep things calm in what to many of these visitors was a new environment.
This was by no means an isolated incident. Time after time on Friday and Saturday, I saw transit staffers and law enforcement personnel reaching out to help guide people. That includes train operators. On Saturday afternoon, as many people were beginning to leave the march, I boarded the most crowded Metro train I’ve been on in 28 years of riding. It was a Glenmont-bound Red Line train stopping at Metro Center. The train operator, like so many others over the two days, made calm announcements, thanking people for their patience and describing the crowding at all downtown stations. To that, passengers on the platforms and aboard the train reacted with matching calm, despite what for many visitors was a new and difficult experience.
Like many local riders, I’ve been aboard trains where the operator wants to make sure you know you’re doing something wrong that may cause the train to be taken out of service. On Saturday, I rode all lines through many crowded stations and heard none of that.
I give Metro credit for its planning, particularly for Saturday. Inauguration Day stresses the system, but the transit authority spends months planning for it, and the operation is pretty much the same every four years. An event like the Women’s March is much more difficult to anticipate. Even the organizers were surprised by the gigantic crowd that just kept coming. Moving that crowd required not just good planning, but also good execution from the management level right down to the staffers at the fare gates, on the platforms and aboard the trains.