Friday, February 22, 2013

Living Car-less in DC

And now it's time for a fun little bit of local trivia about The Metro.

I love public transportation. No matter how long it takes, or how many times you have to switch lines, it will ALWAYS be easier than driving and parking in the city.

I've forever fantasized about ditching my car to live in a big city with an awesome public transportation system. I never imagined it would be DC... but here we are in the Virginia suburbs, living the dream.

I've ridden the subway in New York, I've hopped on and off the Metro in Barcelona, and I have to say, the coolest looking, least gritty, and perhaps most expensive Metro system is, by far, the one I'm riding everyday here in DC.

We live out in the 'burbs and our apartment is located a very easy 0.8 mile walk from the East Falls Church Metro stop. If I time it right I can catch a ride on the free hotel shuttle (which only runs in the morning, late afternoon and evening  --  perfect for people commuting to work, but not as great for me in the middle of the day). From the station it takes me 30-45 minutes to get to the Smithsonian stop, and about that same amount of time to get to any other Metro stop in DC, depending on how regular the trains are.

In the morning, paper dudes with bright orange safety vests are handing out copies of the Washington Post Express paper and saying nice things like, "Happy Valentine's Day sweetie; Good morning ma'am; You have a great day now." It's a lovely way to get short snippets of world news and stay in the know on cool happenings in the city.

The trains are pretty nice, as in they have cushioned seats and carpet, yes carpet, that doesn't reek of piss, puke or mildew. How they do this, I do not know. The trains run until midnight during the week and until 3am on Friday and Saturday, so it's not like they're keeping the drunks off. I never see any homeless people sleeping on the trains, and rarely is there anyone riding them who looks like they don't have a job in an office or are rich students with pretty handbags.

There are a couple regular characters on the routes I ride who inject a little adventure into my journey.

One short black dude who I see pretty regularly riding the train and begging, he puts on this super quiet whiny voice and asks, "Excuse me ma'am, am I in any way offending you or causing you distress? I'm asking for your generosity right now and hoping that you can spare a little money to help..." he uses this exact line on everyone. It's pretty annoying.

The other guy is a very tall, loud, black dude who looks like a Black Panther from the '60s and shouts about how homosexuals are violent, scary, and taking over the world.

But seriously, 2 dudes. That's it. The Metro police must be pretty strict and thorough in kicking the trouble makers out.

Plus there's no food or drink allowed. And there's no cell phone reception. Just sit down and ride quietly people, thank you very much.

I kind of miss that gritty side of the subway, but then again, riding a train around in peace is pretty darn nice.
Not that you can let your guard down. There is a rise in pickpockets and phone theft right now, and last week some guy killed himself by jumping on the tracks at the Chinatown station in the middle of rush hour, totally messing up a lot of people's commute home (sounds like that happens a couple times a year, so sad).

Our local friend who lives here told us to enjoy the Metro now, because starting in the spring, the tourists invade and totally screw up the Metro harmony and flow. For example: skinny city dwellers who wear stylish clothes and know how to hold onto the overhead bar when the train starts moving will soon be surrounded by loud, fat, mid-westerners with obnoxious kids who stand up and trip and stumble their way to the door while the train is still moving in preparation to exit. Meanwhile, the tourists waiting to get on the train all crowd in front of the door so no one can get off, instead of standing to the side while people de-train and then smoothly stepping on without panicking because they know they have enough time. And then there's escalator etiquette that everyone follows ensuring a clear path for the folks in a hurry: you stand on the right and pass on the left; no standing on the left gapers!

Look at me! I'm complaining about the gapers already. I must be a local! Now as soon as I stop going to the Smithsonian, I'll really be a local... oh, those crusty locals...

The underground tunnels at the stations look like you're on the set of Star Wars. It's a honeycomb-textured, arched ceiling with red flashing lights on the floor to warn of an arriving train. And that leads me to that little bit of trivial knowledge you were waiting for.

Designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, the station tunnels display late 20th-century modern brutalist style, with repetitive design motifs and lots of exposed concrete. Some don't like the cold, totalitarian feel of it, but that's what you get when the government wants to save some money. I think it's kind of cool and modern looking, and it's unique, so you always know you're on the DC Metro. 

After some infighting about whether to build big freeways or a big railway system of transit, construction began in 1969, and the Metro opened in 1976. Since then they've added to it over the years, giving us a 103-mile, 83-station system. And they're still working on extending it all the way out to the Dulles airport. The Washington Metro system sees the third highest number of riders in the US, behind the New York Subway and Chicago's L Train. In 2012 the Metro averaged 954,200 trips per weekday, but it never feels that crowded to me and I usually even get a seat. New York? 8,093,900 trips per weekday. 

The Orange Line, that's mine!

How much does it cost you might ask? 

I don't really know. It seems expensive, but I suppose I might be breaking even with how much it would cost to drive a car. They have what they call a "Smart Fare" system that has different rates depending on the distance and the time of day you're riding, like are you riding off-peak, during peak, or at the peak of peak. As far as I can tell, the same exact ride can cost me anywhere from $2.10 to $3.10 each way. I have a plastic card, looks like a credit card, I swipe it when I enter the tunnel through the turnstile, and then swipe it again as I'm exiting to get up to the street. When the value on the card dips to $20, I have it set up to auto-reload another $20 onto it. 

I suppose I'll see how much I spend at the end of the month and decide if I should switch to the unlimited, but I doubt I will, the 28-day unlimited pass is $230. Still, all told, anything is cheaper than owning a car, putting gas in it, paying parking tickets, and sitting in crazy DC traffic.

Hope you all get to visit DC someday and ride the Metro! In the meantime, here's a little taste of our world...

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