June 26, 2006

The DC Subway: Don’t Block the Box

Sardines. Every morning subway commuters are packed into overcrowded tins like generic and anonymous fish. The only way out of these cans is through three small doors. And by the time I’m ready for my exit there’s almost no way out.

I’m lucky. I get on at the beginning of the subway line so I can usually sit close to the egress. This gives me a front row seat as human nature typically unfolds; when people get on the train they mass at the exits rather than moving out of the way towards the center of the car. The closer we move downtown the more packed it gets. Natural selection has culled commuters in its own efficient way; we all want to make sure we can get off at our appointed stops. It’s the survival of the fittest. And who can argue with Mother Nature?

Working against her is the Metro. They’ve configured subway seats like a train’s: a small center aisle with two-by-two seating on each side (unlike the NYC subway where the seats are arranged along the sides creating large open areas for movement in and out). People don’t move to the center as instructed because the aisle is narrow and, in a crowded car, hard to navigate. So they congregate at the exit, a small space bounded by two windshield partitions. But when the doors part, they continue to stand there creating a dam and ignoring the rush that ensues. Riders are reduced to shoving upstream through a small rivulet.

As we enter each station we are admonished by the loudspeaker to “step back to allow customers to exit.” No one listens. And we push to get out and push to get in before that voice returns to let us know the doors are now closing. Subway doors are not like elevators. Touching their edges does not make them retract. These doors will close right on you like pincers. Human sardines beware.

The Metro is considering reconfiguring the seats like New York’s subway to allow for a better flow. But that’s a ways off, if it happens at all. Instead, last Fall they had a contest to find just the right new loud and forceful speaker to command us to move out of the way. The old voice was sweet (but, alas, ineffective). “Doors closing,” she’d say in her nurturing second grade teacher sort of way. But Metro was looking for a something sterner. The context winner is more like your six grade teacher (Quicktime Audio, 308 KB). You know, the one who rapped you on the knuckles if you passed a note to your girlfriend across the room.

Everyone hates her grating and condescending voice. And to prove our disdain we ignore her. People continue to crowd the exits. But I have a better plan and one we can implement right away. My idea also comes from New York. But not from downunder. Instead my inspiration comes from above (ok, more like street level).

My idea for better subway crowd control

My idea for better crowd control at every subway door.

Borrowing from New York’s plan to reduce intersection gridlock, the Metro should institute a “Don’t Block the Box” campaign. Mark off subway car exits in bright and bold yellow. Give the announcer a new script that includes the admonishment DON’T BLOCK THE BOX said in her best uncompromising tone (more like your middle school vice principal).

Metro, you need to link your serious announcer’s words to something concrete. Unlike the amorphous request to “move to the center of the car,” with these visuals you create a clear no-standing zone. Additionally, this campaign would give commuters a verbal snippet that will stick in our minds even when we try hard to banish it (just like the latest example of “subliminal” marketing from the makers of HeadOn). Easily repeatable when offenders, well, offend: “Don’t block the box, sir. I need to get out.” Civilized and to the point, with just a hint of shame —just the retort I’ve been looking for. Perfect. When the subway system figures out how to stop trains in the same exact place at each station every time, place these boxes on the platform too.

A little bit of yellow paint and already I’m beginning to feel like a big fish in this murky sea.

Update: The Washington Post takes note of my suggestion.

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Did they also let men compete in the contest?

Posted by: Donna on June 28, 2006 4:09 AM

What they need to do is get rid of what I call “ass panels” next to the door. Those are the plexiglass panels where lazy commuters invariably lean their ass and also reduce the space for entry and exit by about a foot on either side. If those panels weren’t there, people would no longer have the incentive to congregate there.

Posted by: Alex on July 2, 2006 2:37 AM

Donna, some of the finalists were men.

True, Alex. Getting rid of those panels would solve the problem. But until they do “someone” has to tell them they’re blocking our way. I’d prefer a big bold sign on the floor that would allow me to sneer from the safety of my own seat.

Posted by: Jeff on July 2, 2006 7:20 AM

Maybe “Danger” would help as people tend to think about themselves. And repeat the floor warning on those ass panels. A universal graphic with feet with the diagonal slash through them would alert foreign speakers as well.

Posted by: Donna on July 4, 2006 2:11 PM

I think the big problem with Metro is the “dwell” time at the stations. For some reason they didn’t put enough doors on the cars so people have difficulty getting on and off. That makes the dwell time longer, which makes the overall travel time longer and delays all of the trains. It makes very inefficient use of the tunnels and stations.

I think New York has more doors and their dwell time is shorter. (i.e. They load and unload faster). You get less seats but the ride is shorter so standing isn’t as big a deal. Also you can get more runs out of each train so the frequency can increase for the same cost of operations. Sydney got their dwell time down real low for the Olympics. I think it was less than a minute.

Hopefully the next car order that Metro does will include more doors and less seats or they should look into retrofitting the existing cars.

Also why don’t they run the Virginia Commuter trains through to Maryland and the Maryland MARC commuter trains through to Virginia. That way you could go straight from Gaithersburg, Rockville, Silver Spring, New Carrollton, or even Baltimore to L’enfant plaza or Alexandria and vice versa with less stops and no transfers. I think the Paris RER works that way.

Finally think about running 10 car trains and have the two cars on each end alternate stopping at station platforms. New York does that for their long trains at their short station platforms. AMTRAK does it too.

All in all DC could easily improve thier system operation and capacity with a little tweaking.

Posted by: Mark Jolles on July 5, 2006 10:07 AM

Until Metro runs trains on time and gets rid of that insanely bitchy lady’s voice we have to hear 12 times per stop, I for one will stand in the door of every single train car. I will also stand in the door of every train car I ride until Metro wises up and makes their “executives” use the same service that the rest of us commuters do — cut out the cars and office-site parking. If Metro is so great, why don’t they use it?

Posted by: MetroRider on July 5, 2006 5:18 PM

New York subway cars have the same number of doors per car (3 on each side). The biggest differences are having no panels at the doors and all seats facing the center of the car. You can fit a lot more standees with that config.

Posted by: Chris on July 5, 2006 7:33 PM

MetroRider, I agree that subway execs should be riding with the rest of us. However, I thought the rest of us were in this together. I don’t see how your standing at the exit to the subway car as a protest will help you/our cause for change. It only hurts your fellow riders.

Posted by: Jeff on July 6, 2006 10:24 AM

Regarding the comment about VRE (Virginia Rail) trains to Maryland and MARC (Maryland Rail Commuter) trains to Virginia, MARC has wanted to continue to at least Crystal City and maybe King Street for a long time.

We don’t have “regional railroad transportation” we have two separate commuter railroads. This is something I have written about from time to time in my own blog. Even though these are “suburban systems,” this lack of vision damages the overall transportation system in the region.

The real problem, as you point out is the car configuration, which includes both the “ass screens” and the poles.

Regarding mens voices, I’m partial to the guy with the New York accent, who says “Stand clear of the closing doors, please” in NYC subways.

Posted by: Richard Layman on July 9, 2006 7:24 PM

Comments are now closed for this post. But there are a few other entries which might provoke an opinion or two.

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