Five Things Every D.C. Newcomer Should Know about the Metro

Posted on Friday, Nov 16, 2018

For those of us who grew up in the highway-rich state of Texas, where every destination is within reach of our own personal vehicle, moving to Washington, D.C., can be quite a culture shock. You trade in those four wheels which symbolize the rugged individualism we Texans cherish so dearly for a plastic metro card loaded with seven dollars and fifty-three cents. Sure, some people drive cars here. But those people actually earn a salary – a very good salary – and you, well, you are taking home intern’s pay: somewhere in the neighborhood of zero dollars a month.
But there is one ray of sunshine. If, like me, are interning for the federal government, you will receive a monthly credit to your metro card equal to your commuting costs. That’s right – free rides on the metro (so long as you’re traveling to and from work). So set aside that bicycle, throw away those roller blades, stop wasting your time on those jetpack blueprints, and enter the nearest hole in the ground with these five rules in mind.
  1. Be prepared to get “comfortable” with strangers. As surprising as it may seem, you are not the only person heading to work at 8:30 a.m. on weekday mornings. In fact, many of your fellow D.C.-ians (that doesn’t roll off the tongue very well, does it?) are taking the Yellow line toward Fort Totten at the exact same time, and space is limited. So squeeze in, grab an available handle, and snuggle up to the most hygienic-looking stranger you can find.
  2.  Coffee is not allowed on the subway. Who doesn’t love a cup (or five) of Starbucks in the morning? If you’re like me – and 99 percent of America, for that matter – coffee is an essential part of your a.m. hours. That sweet black liquid and the delightful stimulants it carries give you energy, sharpen your focus, elevate your mood, and make you an all-around better person (CC’d: “I don’t drink coffee” people). But despite all these benefits, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that all drinks are forbidden on its subways – something to do with “keeping the subway cars clean.” So be sure to pound back that coffee, java, mocha, cappuccino, espresso, frappuccino, or whatever you call it before the train arrives at your station.
  3. Move it or lose it. I touched on this briefly in Rule Number One, but I think it’s something worth reiterating: You are not the only person using the metro every morning. Hundreds of thousands of riders take those same lines every day. Consequently, a lot of trains need to run during the peak morning hours. And the only way that works is if every train minimizes the time it spends at each station. What this means for you: That subway that just arrived will not wait on you to slowly meander aboard, and its doors will not stay open forever. Which brings us to Rule Number Four:  
  4. Those doors aren’t elevator doors. Most of us in the civilized world have used an elevator at one point in our lives. You push a button to call it down, it arrives and opens its doors, and those doors stay open until everyone is on board. This is not the case with subway doors; they will clamp down on you without a second thought. So remember this: When you hear a female robotic voice announce “Doors closing,” you better believe her/it.
  5.  The left side of the escalators is reserved for walkers. Washington, D.C., is a city full of unwritten rules, or “norms,” as they are so often called. Losing candidates call the winners to offer congratulations; presidents refrain from commenting on monetary policy; legislators with the longest tenure hold the greatest influence in the Capitol. So it is only fitting that the rest of us – we who are not obligated to kiss the babies of strangers every two or four or six years in order keep our jobs – maintain our own set of norms. Chief among them: If you’re on the left side of the escalators, you better be walking – and walking fast. The functioning of this city, and thus our nation, depends on it.
D.C. Veterans: What are your metro tips?

Spencer Brown
U.S. Department of Transportation - Office of the Inspector General
Washington, D.C. | fall 2018