Tag Archives: metro

How much does the DC Metro suck?

It’s become a joke that pretty much every morning in DC the question of everyone’s lips is not just ‘does the metro suck* today?’ but ‘how much does the metro suck* today?’

Well, last Tuesday the metro was shut down entirely. Yes, you read that right. On a work-day, in a major, first-world city, they shut down the entire underground rail network.

They had a reason of course. The night before there had been an electrical fire similar to the one that occurred about a year ago, which resulted in the death of a passenger from smoke inhalation, and they had to therefore conduct a safety inspection of the entire network. But I don’t call this a good reason, because to my mind the fire shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The dangerous state of the electrics in the DC metro was (is?) due to chronic under funding and negligence – they apparently conducted a similar inspection last year but this did not take 24 hours and, according to the Post’s sources, was not done properly. Can we really believe that it was done properly this time around? I’ve already heard that they were not able to fix all the issues they found, so there will be delays while these are sorted out.

When we arrived in DC we were shocked by the state of the metro. The carriages were old, delays were commonplace, there were very few intersections and you often had to wait 10 minutes for the next train. However, it was pretty cheap (compared to London), and relatively clean (especially compared to New York). While we’ve been here there’s been some evidence of investment, though this has clearly been on a limited scale. The metro map is an illustration of aspiration – for a couple of years now there’s been a projected line from the city center to the international airport at Dulles, VA. The exciting new Silver line arrived and opened, and now you can travel all the way to Wiehle Reston (so close – they’re just short by 7 or so miles!). But the first trains on the line seemed to be the oldest DC possessed, it was only recently that a few new carriages appeared and others began to be refurbished.

Nice new shiny carriage – they finally realised that carpet is not a good idea.

So the DC metro tries hard, but on its current funding can’t seem to really deliver.

And people are apparently abandoning it. While DC apparently rates highly in a study that measured whether a city’s metro system was widely used or only used as an ‘insurance’ transport system for the poorer inhabitants, the Post consistently reports that those who can afford it are choosing other methods of getting to work.

Maybe that was the reason last Tuesday wasn’t the complete disaster I feared it might be. There were cars clogging up the road network, an accident on the Beltway, and ubers were racing down the rat-runs of my usually quiet residential neighbourhood; but people also took the chance to work from home, to cycle, or to walk to work. Maybe some of them enjoyed it so much they’ll do it again, and something good can come out of the metro’s suckiness.

*actually the question is more usually constructed as ‘is the metro/how much is the metro f*cked today?’ but I thought I should be polite.

The Downsides to Living in Washington DC

There are ups and downs to living in any city. These are the things that began to annoy me about three months into my stay in DC.

  1. The metro. Coming from London, the DC metro has not impressed. Granted, it’s a striking design – the symmetry and concrete grandeur can’t help but impress – but it’s not really a system. What I mean by that is that it’s not really designed for circumnavigating the city, changing trains quickly and easily in a plethora of choice and efficiency (as I fondly remember the London tube). It was designed to get people into the city from their homes in suburbia, and then get them out again – quickly. So there are usually plenty of trains at rush hour, but in the middle of the day you can quite easily wait 10 minutes for a connection. All of which means it’s usually more efficient to take the line you can (you very rarely have a choice of more than one line except at one of the 3 or 4 interchanges) to as close to your destination as that line will get you and then walk or catch a bus above ground, rather than changing. Given the paucity of train lines, it also means that if something goes wrong on one line, you’re stuck. And something does go wrong – very often. Also, I’m not sure if I’m imagining this, but the escalators – many of which are interminably long, as the metro is inexplicably deep underground – seem to go much more slowly during the day than at rush hour. In good news, most people know how to use the escalators – stand on the right! – but there will always be a few people who don’t know the rule, and people here have a lot more patience with these offenders than we did in London. Finally, there’s so little information that it’s amazing I haven’t ended up on the wrong train more often; they’re clearly so protective of the lovely clean lines of their metro design that they don’t want to mess it up with useful things like signs and maps. Overall, I’d say they could learn a lot from TfL.
  2. The rats. I know that in London you’re supposedly never more than a few feet from a rat. But that statistic is based on the fact that they’re usually in the sewers far beneath your feet. In DC they have alleyways – proper alleyways with rubbish lining them and mysterious substances oozing down the middle of them – and that’s where the rats live. In three months of being here I saw three rats – more than I had in about a year in London – and that’s not counting the squished ones that lie on the pavement until the flies finish them off.
  3. The climate. Granted, I’ve not experienced much of this, but when it was hot and humid those couple of months in the summer, when we didn’t have proper air conditioning yet, it was not fun. I’m somewhat dreading the winter. And when it rains, often out of the blue, it really rains.
  4. Lack of good Chinese takeaway. So far every Chinese I’ve tried has been bland. Generally American food seems to steer away from being too hot (apart from some good Buffalo sauce on chicken wings or pizza). In terms of Chinese, there seems to be a greater emphasis on healthy preparation – so lots of steamed rice and not enough fried rice or noodles. Prawn crackers don’t seem to be a thing here either – the only time I’ve seen them was at an American seafood restaurant. I have heard that many Chinese families moved out to the suburbs a little while ago, which might explain the dearth of good takeaway in the centre. Of course the silver lining to this issue is that I’m not eating much takeaway, for which my wallet is certainly grateful.
  5. Homelessness/panhandling. This was very noticeable in DC when we arrived, especially around 18th street and Columbia Road NW, where we were staying. Around here there’s a particularly aggressive style to the begging, and an ambitiousness to it too – one person demanded I give him $20, another sits outside a deli and shouts at customers to buy him a sandwich. Sometimes they just shout abuse. As well as the annoyance that the begging causes, and the distressing spectacle of it, we found some local attitudes towards the homeless rather hard to take as well. Because there’s so much emphasis on freedom and individualism there’s not much suggestion that the state or city should do much about it. The most sympathetic analysis we came across was that the majority of the homeless are mentally ill and that the cause of a lot of the problem was the shutting down of mental institutions, begun by Reagan (Thatcher in the UK) in the 80s. When two homeless men died of hypothermia in DC, one newspaper journalist reported that one of the men ‘liked wine’ and therefore chose to avoid the homeless shelters where alcohol was forbidden. Saying that someone who was in all likelihood suffering from alcoholism ‘likes’ wine just shows that you don’t know – or don’t want to know – anything about it. But if it can be believed that personal, individual, free choices led to this man’s death then obviously the city gets to duck the blame.
  6. The water. This smells and tastes weirdly of earth. After years of living in London and ridiculing people who used bottled or filtered water we have finally moved to a place where we need a Brita filter. While a great invention it adds expense and hassle to tap water.
  7. Lack of good gyms. This is a common complaint. There are not very many gyms and so we are rather a captive market to be exploited by fitness giants such as Washington Sports Club. We spend what we used to on our nice little gym/spa in Bermondsey, with its steam room, sauna, Jacuzzi and swimming pool, in order to use old machines, 50% of which don’t work, in a cavernous warehouse that has used space that could have accommodated a pool for a ‘Turkish hamam’ – basically some heated benches in a cold room with a shower.

I know there are aspects of every city that are annoying – I probably complained plenty about London when I was living there – and that DC is much more live-able than it has probably ever been, but right here and now these are the things that are affecting me and I felt I had to get them off my chest. Rant over (for now).