Talkin’ Transit: Tourist Tips

Photo courtesy of
‘Packed Blue’ courtesy of ‘ArcaHeradel’

So Memorial Day has passed, meaning that from now through Labor Day, hordes of tourists will be pouring into the District for various events, concerts, vacations and visits. If you’re reading this and you’re a soon-to-be visitor to our region – or if you’re a resident who has friends or family coming in to visit – we want to encourage you to continue reading. We wish to equip you to better handle and enjoy our transit system with minimal disruption to those of us who live and work here.

It’s a win-win situation.

You don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of being a “District n00b” and we certainly appreciate minimal disruption to our daily commutes. So we’ve gathered up the opinions and suggestions from several District riders and residents and are going to share our golden wisdom with you.

Trust us, it’s best this way.

Photo courtesy of
‘Peep to the Right–Vote for Us!’ courtesy of ‘Hoffmann’

Unwritten Metro Rule #1: Stand right, walk left. By far and away the biggest rule in the District, this one applies to any escalator you find. Especially those in Metro stations. It’s simple, really. If you plan on resting, gawking, checking out maps, talking, whatever – stand on the right. Allow those of us attempting to transfer lines or hurry to work to jog up the left side. You’ll avoid yelling, disgruntled looks and venomous stares this way.

Unwritten Metro Rule #2: Watch those bags. We know you want to use those nifty wheelie bags or push those massive strollers around, to better facilitate your time in our fair city. But you need to realize something – those bags need to be tucked in near you on the escalators, and those strollers? Don’t even dare take them up the moving stairways. Use an elevator. Nothing drives a DC-ite up the wall more than colliding/tripping over one of these bags stuck out in foot traffic, or being blockaded by a stroller more fit for 4×4 off-roading. Only breaking Rule 1 is worse, in our book.

Unwritten Metro Rule #3: Avoid the fare-gate shuffle. Aside from Rule #1, nothing is more aggravating to DC-ites when their perfectly-timed transit shuffle is foiled by a tourist who waits until they reach the fare gate to find their fare card or SmarTrip card. General rule of thumb? Pull it out when you reach the end of the escalator as you enter the station. That way, you won’t cause us to miss that split-second Red Line transfer and give you an earful.

Unwritten Metro Rule #4: Courtesy. Metro’s doing a push right now with a creepy video about giving up those spacious open seats to the elderly, handicapped and pregnant. While it may look like that’s the best place to park your off-road independent suspension stroller, it’s not. (And if you do, lock those wheels. It’s annoying as heck for women with open-toed shoes to have their toes run over.) And by all means, give up that seat to anyone who looks like they need it.

Unwritten Metro Rule #5: Be quiet. Turn down that iPod. We can hear it. And if you’ve got more than two kids with you? Teach them to use their ‘quiet voice’ on the train. Especially before 9 a.m. Most of us aren’t awake yet.

Unwritten Metro Rule #6: Move to the center of the car. Yes, yes, we make fun of that stupid announcement. But it’s true. If you crowd the car near the doors, you are not only blocking the exit for commuters who need to leave (especially those timing their transfers), you’re making it doubly-hard for people to actually board the train. Nothing’s more embarrassing than when a train conductor berates you over the intercom.

Unwritten Metro Rule #7: Don’t eat or drink. Seriously, don’t. You may be on vacation and think it’s cool to sneak a venti latte onto the train without the WMATA police throwing you to the ground and arresting you, but for those of us commuters who may well end up wearing all or part of your drink, it’s not funny. At all.

Photo courtesy of
‘Crowded Platform’ courtesy of ‘M.V. Jantzen’

Metro Tip #1: Note that many Metro stations are really close together and not worth a transfer. We’re talking only a few blocks here – and besides, wouldn’t the extra leg exercise be beneficial? Be green! Avoid unnecessary transfers. (For example: Farragut West and Farragut North are *really* close together, just on two different lines. And if you’re headed to the Smithsonian, you can get there with a few blocks of effort by getting off at Archives/Navy Memorial, Federal Triangle, or L’Enfant. It’s better than waiting forever in line at the always-packed Smithsonian station.)

Use your map and figure out if you really and truly need to transfer trains. Spending a little extra time working that map (but not breaking Rule 1!) will get you out of the crowds.

Metro Tip #2: Spend the $5 and get that SmarTrip card. It’s worth it. You won’t have to do the stop-and-slip with the fare cards and you’ll look more like a DC-savvy visitor than a slack-jawed tourist.

Auxiliary Tip #2A: Those paper fare cards de-magnetize very easily when near another card with a magnetic strip. If you want to waste your time trying to reclaim your last balance and reactivate the paper card, go ahead. But you’re better off following Tip #2.

Metro Tip #3: Heading to the Smithsonian Zoo? Take the Red Line to the Cleveland Park exit, rather than Woodley Park. The walk is nicer and the station MUCH less crowded.

Metro Tip #4: If you’re driving to an outlying Metro station with parking, be aware that parking fills up fast in the morning. If you’re desperate to get an early start, try parking at the next-to-last station, rather than the end of the line. Or, better yet, wait to park after 10 a.m., when you can slip into one of the ‘early permit’ slots that are opened up after then. (And be warned – if you slip into a permit slot even at 9:55, you WILL be ticketed.)

Metro Tip #5: Avoid clumping. Most visitors tend to congregate at the middle of the platform, which congests the middle of the train to bursting. Give some space – and avoid the more aromatic cars in the middle of summer’s heat – by heading up or down the platform towards the ends. Most Metro trains are 6 cars, and the end cars are usually the last to fill up.

Metro Tip #6: Use the bus. It may be slow, but it does go to more places than the train. And it often may be less crowded.

Auxiliary Tip #6A: If a bus looks crushed to the full, don’t get on. Nine times out of ten, there’s another bus right behind it, thanks to traffic-stacking. And that bus will most likely be empty. (This rule does apply on occasion with trains, but isn’t always a sure thing.)

Photo courtesy of
‘”And that big thing over there is the Washington Monument!”‘ courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

Sidewalk Rule #1: Walk like you drive (unless you’re from Maryland). Walk on the right, pass on the left, don’t wander into oncoming traffic.

Sidewalk Rule #2: Segway doesn’t mean “Road Master.” Just because you can afford to stand on a wheeled platform and whiz around the city does not give you the right to mow people over. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: pretend you’re walking and use appropriate courtesy. Or be prepared to see outraged locals attempt to “knock the tourist off the Segway.”

Driving Rule #1: Obey the box. You know, the intersection. Don’t pull into the crossing lane, don’t sit and wait in the middle of the intersection to turn when the lane is blocked ahead of you (or you’ll get pasted by cross-traffic when the light turns), and for the love of heaven, figure out how the grid system works so you don’t sit in the middle of the road fiddling with your GPS or scouring a map when your route is blocked off due to a sudden motorcade.

Got more tips for our tourists? Drop them in comments!

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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24 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: Tourist Tips

  1. Can we start a community campaign to have these rules given out at all metro stops and hotels and visitor’s centers?

  2. “don’t sit and wait in the middle of the intersection to turn”

    Isn’t this exactly where you should be if you’re waiting for oncoming traffic to clear before turning left? If you don’t do this at busy intersections, you might be stuck at a light through several cycles and I will be stuck behind you and pissed.

  3. True, but most times those drivers in the box waiting to turn end up in the middle of no-man’s land when the light flips. And if traffic’s backed up where they’re turning, they’re boned – especially when they set themselves up like that on purpose (when you can see the lane already backed up). So not only are you pissed, so is everyone else at that intersection. It’s a phenomena I see way too often downtown and sadly, perpetuated mostly by Virginians.

  4. I whole-heartedly second Skywalker.

    I am willing to give international tourists a bit more lenience on the stand right-walk left thing. I did get a bit confuzzled when I first came to this country and it was reversed. However, took me two seconds to figure out how it worked, and without being yelled at, because I LOOKED AROUND. With my eyes.

    But those damn Amurican tourists with their double-wide strollers and folding maps and screaming kids taking up the entire escalator/aisle? No niceness here!

  5. Don’t walk 12-abreast on the sidewalk. You’re almost surely slower than everyone else, so please let them past.

    If lining up outside the Spy Musuem, Ford’s Theatre, Hard Rock Cafe, whatever, remember that it’s a public sidewalk: leave room for people to walk.

  6. It’s a perfectly legit thing to be in the intersection waiting to turn. While you’re obligated to clear the intersection when the light changes, so are the people in oncoming traffic, ideally stopping before the box to permit such a turn. Generally I’m cool with one car being in the intersection, not so much with more than 1.

  7. Walk. Seriously. For a lot of stuff in the area, walking may get you there faster plus you’ll see some cool stuff on the way. And Metro stopped air conditioning their tunnels long ago, so it’s probably not any cooler underground anyway…

  8. Metro Rule # 8: Don’t stop and block everyone else as soon as you get through the turnstile or get off of a train. MOVE! Get out of everyone’s way. If you need to stop and think in order to orient yourself, at least move out of the way of foot traffic to do so.

  9. Ben, I agree with you – and I’m a Virginian. Virginia drivers are also prone to refusing to cede the left lane even though they are moving slowly, are quick to cut you off, and rarely acknowledge that someone let them in. I think they frustrate me more than the poor tourist lost trying to figure out how to get to their transfer train.

  10. I’ve got a suggestion for the Europeans: “Yes, DC is an American city. Accordingly, it will be filled with Colonials. Don’t look so disgusted.”

  11. Corollary A to Unwritten Metro Rule #2: If the train is really crowded, take yer damn backpack off your back so that you’re not whacking people in the face with it when you turn around to check the map to see if this is your stop.

    Corollary B to Unwritten Metro Rule #2: Ladies with ginormous purses/bags: If a train is sardine-crowded, don’t keep that bag on your shoulder. Hold it down by your legs. It actually frees up space.

    Unwritten Metro Rule #8: Let people exit the trains before you attempt to board. This is almost as basic as “stand right, walk left.” (Do other cities with subway systems follow this rule? They sure as hell don’t in New York!)

    Unwritten Metro Rule #9: The poles — INCLUDING THE NEW WAIST-HIGH HORIZONTAL ONES — in train cars are not your personal back (or buttcrack) rest. Let others hold on.

    Unwritten Metro Rule #10: On crowded trains, the seats are for people, not for briefcases or shopping bags.

    Unwritten Metro Rule #11: You can’t always read on the train. This is for those folks who still insist on trying to hold an open newspaper, magazine, or book while grasping onto a pole, sometimes with the crook of their elbow, on sardine-crowded trains.

    Unwritten Metro Rule #12: You don’t have to be right at the door as the train is coming to your stop. In other words, if you are seated or in the aisle between the seats, don’t make others stand or let go of their handholds WHILE THE TRAIN IS STILL MOVING. Even if you are in an inside seat on a packed train, you should still be able to get off once the train has stopped. If you can’t get off, you’re not trying/pushing/elbowing hard enough or vocalizing loud enough. You can’t always get onto a Metro train, but you can ALWAYS get off one.

    Unwritten Metro Rule #13: If you are standing by or near the door on a packed train and it’s not your stop, step off the train to let others off. You’ll be able to get back on. This is the one exception to the “You can’t always get onto a Metro train” rule — people who step off a train to let others exit get first priority for getting back on.

  12. Don’t come to an immediate stop at the end of the escalator. That thing is continuing to move a conveyor belt full of people behind you and you don’t want them piling up or running in place because you decided to come to an abrupt halt. Man I hate that.

  13. To add to Lynne, please don’t stop as soon as you get off the escalator. Use some common sense and realize that people are behind you and will fall on top of you if you plant yourself at the bottom. Also, please, please, please, even if you just think I’m fat, err on the side of caution and offer me your seat–as I am 6 months pregnant and I see you looking at me anyway. Thank you kindly.

  14. I promise you that if you really do need to use your cell phone on the train, talking like a normal human being into the phone works fine- there is no need to shout so people at the other end of the car can hear you complain about the rash on your butt (true story, the whole car was staring at her). We all need to answer that work call or let someone know where we are on the track, but be polite about it.

    Oh- and if you’re one of those types who sings along to whatever you’re listening to on your earphones, I assure you that your love for Kanye West or whatever you’re listening to isn’t shared by everyone on the train. SHUT. UP.

    One more- the rails along the roof of the train car are great to hold onto- if you’re tall like I am (6’5″). But there’s no shortage (pardon the pun) of people who can’t quite reach them. So if you’re one of the taller folks, please use the roof bars, and leave the vertical bars for those who can’t reach that high.

  15. Speaking of leaving the vertical bars for short people like myself: DON’T HOG THE POLE! I will not hesitate to grind my knuckles against the spine of any jerk who is leaning against a pole in a crowded train. But if you’re one of those people that does the full-body lean against the pole, such that the pole rests in the space between your ass cheeks, you deserve a beatdown.

  16. Oh- I almost forgot. If you’re one of those horrible human beings who believes your purse/briefcase/shopping bags/whatever deserve the seat next to you on a crowded train instead of your fellow riders, get your head out of your butt and show a little kindness for the people around you- maybe they’d like a seat? Or is your purse really more important than they are?

  17. And please do not try to be The Hulk and hold the Metro doors open as you try to run & get on the train. These are NOT elevator doors and will close on you. There’s another train coming soon. You’re only going to break the train and everyone will be ticked off at you when the conductor points out that you’re the one who put the train out of service and is forcing everyone to de-train.

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  21. I wish these rules could be printed in the visitors booklets and distributed in all the information centers on at the airport so that when they arrive, they can acquaint themselves with these rules.

  22. This is a quality post. You can tell a ton of time was put into it. Travelers will certainly benefit from the travel tips. Including my self and family.