When I started my job almost three years ago, one of the selling points was that the company was in Washington DC. Not a suburb of the city, but right in the heart of it. I can walk to Dupont Circle for lunch, and if it’s a nice day and I am wearing the right shoes, I could easily stroll to the White House or Georgetown after work. My office is just a couple blocks from three different Metro stations, which makes it very commuter-friendly.
My Metro trip is longer than my driving commute was at my last job, but it’s far less stressful. It was exhausting battling I-95 and Baltimore-Washington Parkway traffic each day, and I would arrive home angry and frustrated. With the Metro, my commuting time was more reliable, and I could spend it reading or even napping (yes I am a person who is not embarrassed to nap on the Metro) instead of swearing at idiots in oversized SUVs.
And I like the Metro because I am not using a car. The Metro will run whether or not I am on it, so I am not adding pollution to our planet by leaving my car at home. I am also preserving the life of my old and battered automobile – the longer it lives, the longer I can go without a car payment. My husband usually drives me to the Metro in the morning, he or my mom pick me up in the evening. Now that I work in DC, I don’t even put 3,000 miles on my car which saves money and also saves the planet a teeny bit.
I like my little walk from the subway to the office – one of the things I miss from working retail is being able to sometimes enjoy the day. If I didn’t have to be at work until 2pm, or had off a random Tuesday, I could enjoy a crisp fall day or spend a few hours on the deck reading a book in the sun. At my old job I went from house to car to office to car to home, sometimes not being out of doors even for a full hour each day. My short walk, I experience the weather, I see people, I feel the vibrations and personality of the city.
Lately, I am considering driving to work and I hate even thinking about such a thing. My car is not in good shape, and I worry that so much regular driving (and the stop-and-go craziness of city driving) will put its toll on it and it may die earlier than I can afford or like. And I hate the idea of dealing with the stress of driving – road work, stupid drivers, bad weather, trying to find parking. So why am I considering it?
The Metro in Washington DC sucks. I hate saying this because WMATA is getting so much crap lately. I want to support it, give it my hard earned pre-tax dollars (my company has a program that lets us pay for transit before taxes) and wish it well. When the big Metro accident took place (and it took place right near one of my daily transfer spots), I continued supporting Metro (I just changed transfer locations and stopped riding in the very first or very last car). When the rates increased, I just upped the amount to be taken out of my paycheck for SmartBenefits. The benefits outweighed the negatives of Metro, at least for me.
But lately things have gone from annoying but livable to really bad. In the past month alone, it almost feels as though Metro doesn’t WANT me to use them any more.
1. My SmartBenefits are being held ransom. When I go to a Metro machine to withdraw my SmartBenefits, it processes and then says, “Transaction Cancelled.” When I call WMATA they tell me that yes, they know this problem exists and they are working on it and I should be able to access my funds by September 1st. Luckily I am someone who has a bit of extra money in her wallet so I can wrangle out coins and mangled dollars to get myself to work each day.
2. Along with this, they have stopped allowing negative amounts on SmarTrip cards. I don’t believe in a free ride, but this feature has saved my butt more than once. On the 30th of the month, I know I am getting my SmartBenefits the next day, I would rather go negative a bit of money and replenish it the next day with pre-tax funds than put my last $10 on my card and either put it all on there or end up with seven pounds of coins in my purse for change. I also am one who doesn’t carry cash often (if I have it, I will spend it), having the ability to go negative for a few hours before I can get to a proper machine and add fare saves me the time it takes to add money with my check card, wait for the receipt, etc. Along with this, the Add Fare machines do not accept plastic, so this means if I end up in the red, I need to keep cash on me at all times or else I will be like Charlie on the MTA. My husband will bring me a turkey sandwich and a sleeping bag, throwing it over the turnstiles as I make a home next to the broken elevator in the nearby Metro station.
(Note: The only reason this happens is because depending on my work schedule, I sometimes have to drive and park at the Metro, which is $4.75, I sometimes get a ride home from my sister, sometimes work from home, sometimes work hours where I don't ride during peak (or the new peak of the peak) times. I can't know how much fare I will use in a month)
(Second Note: Emily at Metro-Venture has a different opinion than I, but I adore her blog so, and find the post as well as the comments on this post so well written, I just HAD to link to it so you could read and see both sides of this issue.)
3. The fare machines are always broken. One doesn’t accept coins, another doesn’t accept credit. One machine luckily doesn’t have a hand-written note on it saying what is wrong with it, I go through the process to add money with my check card and after all the time to go through the steps it will just stop working and say, “Transaction Cancelled.” Many times I will then pull a five or a few quarters out of my wallet to get just enough fare so I can get home and the machine spits my crisp dollar or coins back at me. The other day it took 12 minutes just for me to be able to put $5 on my SmarTrip card because there was only one functioning fare machine at the station, and it was the one that did not accept plastic. The line was immense, and the crowd very pissed off. I usually give my random coins and leftover dollar to the individual who is selling Street Sense outside the Metro, but now I have to keep my money in case I won’t be able to use my SmartBenefits or plastic to get fare.
4. The Metro is plain and simple, a mess. When it rains, the cars reek of mildew and often the ceilings in the stations leak all over you. The escalators and elevators are almost always out of service, the floors of the stations are littered with trash and broken floor tiles. Air condition hardly ever works in the cars, and it’s not only hot but incredibly stuffy and smelly because of the lack of air circulation. At least once a week I either am on, or at a station that deals with a train that needs to be offloaded because the doors won’t close properly. The signs that notify when a train is coming don’t seem to be working off a computer, it will say a train is coming in 10 minutes as one pulls into the station, will say a train is arriving when the track is a ghost town. Often I get on a train and the conductor doesn’t even know which way he is going, saying he next station is one in the opposite direction, or even one on another line. More and more often, I get on the last leg of my commute and find they are bypassing an entire station because the train got off schedule. We’re not talking some random station no one goes to, but a very popular one. Everyone needs to get off a station early and wait again for another train. Nothing sucks more than to get on a pretty empty train, have a seat to yourself, open your book, get comfortable and then find out you need to get off in one stop. Then the next train that comes is one without A/C and is packed to the gills and when I wedge into a corner to find a place to hold on, I end up stepping in gum, have some man’s crotch pressed into my hip, and get hit in the face by another person’s backpack all while I listen to “Man in the Mirror” on repeat on a neighbor’s super loud iPod.
I could go on and on, but those of you in DC are nodding your heads in agreement and those outside of DC probably don’t care. I just feel like the character John in the movie Blue State. I keep complaining and threaten to start driving, but I don’t. And I don’t because… just like John loved America even with a president he despised, I love taking public transportation to my job in the city even though WMATA is utterly awful.
In this land of reality shows, I wish someone would create an Apprentice-type show for the DC Metro. Offer a million bucks and the job of general manager of Metro if you can create a plan that will get the system out of the red and get it back to working semi-properly. I look at those fancy tiles on the platforms that pop up with every change in weather and think… how about give each student at the Corcoran 500 of them to make some sort of piece of art, auction them off and use the money to fund Metro? And then replace the stupid tiles with regular reliable (and much cheaper) concrete? Where are the revenue bucks from ads placed all over the busses, trains and stations? And couldn’t Metro make more if they removed expired ads and replaced them with new ones? I see ads all over the city for events that took place MONTHS ago. Get some of the best managers in the country together, have them brainstorm for the chance to win the big prize and help the nation’s capital be a better commuter town, and keep me from being a car commuter once more!