I recently flew down to Washington D.C. to attend a friend’s wedding in Rockville, Maryland. With trains, planes, and automobiles involved, surely, I thought, there would be something to write about.
My flights were thankfully uneventful. With nothing more than a carry-on, electronic check-in at Albany International Airport was a breeze. The machines were easy to use and took no time at all. The line through security moved fairly quickly too, despite the now-familiar ritual of removing outerwear and shoes and passing through the body scanner.
Finding the Metro was easy once I landed in Washington, thanks to a helpful airport attendant who pointed me in the right direction and good signage that took me the rest of the way. Having googled the Metro map on the plane, I walked confidently toward the station figuring I needed to take the Red Line to my destination, Grosvenor. Plus, I thought, I’ve navigated subway systems before in New York City, Paris, London, and Montreal, how hard could it be?
I was therefore surprised by what I encountered at the Metro station. First, I couldn’t find a Metro map to confirm my route, so I inquired at the ticket window. The attendant – in quick, somewhat-garbled speech and an unfriendly tone – told me I needed to catch the Yellow Line then transfer to the Red, and added that the fare would be $6.55 – pointing at the fare machine.
Annoyed by his manner and puzzled by the transfer, which I had missed on my smartphone, I asked him to repeat his directions. This was partly to confirm I got the information right and partly out of a misguided belief that if he was asked to say it again, he would speak slowly, clearly, and courteously. Did I mention this was a misguided belief? Getting nowhere with the attendant, I headed to the fare machine.
Holy smokes! I couldn’t believe what I saw.
This was the mother of all fare machines. I had never seen anything so massive, complicated, and unfriendly. It contained so much information, I just stood there trying to absorb it all. The numbers on the machine implied that just three steps were required to purchase a ticket, but let me share with you how it actually worked:
Step 1: Select the kind of fare to purchase – pass, single-fare card, or multiple-fare card. Okay, easy enough.
Step 2: Enter your fare amount. But how do you know your fare?
Step 3: Find your stop from the list of 91 on the machine (at least they are in alphabetical order).
Step 4: Look in the appropriate column to the right of your station to determine whether you are traveling at peak or off-peak hours. But how do you know what peak hours are?
Step 5: Search for peak versus off-peak hours on the machine.
Step 6: Once you’ve found that, return to the list of stations, find yours, and identify the appropriate fare.
Step 7: With fare in mind, come to an electronic window that displays “$20.00″ and use the levers (left for dollars, right for cents) to manually adjust the price in the window to your fare. First, when have you ever seen levers on a machine? Second, when have you ever had to input the cost of your fare?
Step 8: Still with me? I was losing it at this point. I just stepped back and stared at the machine again, incredulous that there could possibly be more to do. The unfriendly ticket agent came over, breaking my daze, and pointed to the next step: Entering the method of payment. I used a credit card that was readily accepted (sure, they make taking the money easy) and my ticket was finally issued!
Contrast this vending machine with those of Portland, Oregon’s TriMet light rail.
Now I haven’t actually used this machine, but just look at it – the simplicity, the clear indication of the three steps involved reinforced by the color scheme. This at least looks user-friendly. (I would, however, not include the system map on the fare machine. I think it’s better to have transit riders consult the system map first, then purchase tickets once they know where they are going. This should help prevent holdups at the fare machine.)
Ticket in hand, I finally headed on my way and, of course, only after passing through the automatic gate to the tracks did I see a Metro map and could finally confirm the Yellow to Red Line connection.
If you think I am exaggerating in relating my experience, check out YouTube, where you’ll find clips of people either venting their frustrations with the fare machines or offering a friendly “how to” on navigating the D.C. Metro. Interestingly, in one “how to,” a woman first tries to explain the fare machine and only later introduces the system map. Go figure?
Here’s one example:
Over the course of the weekend, I used the Metro a couple more times – to return from the National Mall and to head back to the airport to catch my flight home. These experiences were good. I was very pleased that each train arrived in a matter of minutes, even on a Sunday, and that I always found a seat.
Still, the information provided on the trains themselves could have been better. The outside of each train is marked by its color and final or near-final destination, such as “Red – Grosvenor,” so you can feel confident you are getting on the right train. Inside the trains, there are electronic signs hanging from the ceiling by each set of doors. These simply give the color of the train, such as “Red.”
How much more helpful would it have been if, instead, these signs announced the approaching stop and, even better, with audio too. I suggest this because 1.) the conductor’s announcement of the stops is incomprehensible (this, by the way, is not a problem exclusive to D.C.), and 2.) all the stops on the Metro (to be fair, at least the ones I experienced on the Yellow and Red lines), all look alike. (Thankfully, the new advertising screens I noticed at some stops are adding variety.)
Frankly, as the transit agency of our nation’s capital – a city drawing millions of tourists each year – I expected much better from Metro.
First encounters matter. If we want people to choose options like trains and buses, we need to make using them easy and pleasant from start to finish. This starts with good maps, directional signage, user-friendly fare vending machines, and good communication during the course of the trip. And let’s not underestimate the human touch – the value of friendly and helpful transit staff in leaving the patron with a positive impression even when, despite the best planning, things fail.
Photo by Aaron Webb