How to Navigate the D.C. Metro

Older metro stations feature a beautiful, high-ceilinged brutalist design.

Despite a cold and wet start, spring has arrived. Soon we’ll have an inpouring of visitors arriving to attend annual, can’t-miss festivals the the District is known for. Who’s excited for the Cherry Blossom Festival? How about Passport DC? Food & Wine Festival at the National Harbor? Or DC101’s Chili Cookoff?

While these festivals and events might be great for the local economy, for long-time District residents, this is just one more thing to worry about. In addition to putting up with peak-of-peak fares, delayed trains, endless track work and out-of-service elevators, they’ll have to brace themselves for navigating around groups of confused visitors wandering about Metro stations, impeding the fast-paced, weekday (even weekends) commuter traffic flow. I seem to be painting a rather jaded picture of the typical commute. The sad part is, I’m exaggerating only a little. The system has encountered serious technical setbacks in the past three years and we’ve yet to see it really rebound. But don’t be discouraged. The Metro, which is made up of five lines and dozens of bus routes, is responsible for nearly 800,000 trips per weekday and still the most convenient way to check out the city’s famous spots.

Its twentieth century, brutalist design is an experience in itself. You’ll marvel at how deep underground some stations go as you take the escalators up, for it can feel like riding the stairway to a bright, sparkly outerverse. And although not officially sanctioned, the massive commuter volume inspires dozens of talented street musicians from all genres to set up shop in front of busy station entrances. Their music creates a unique ambience for passengers, and they get to have an audience (plus decent tips.)

Stop and check out the street music at busy metro entrances. Great live music performances by talented musicians -- what could be better than that?

So if you’re planning to make a trip here and want to know more about the Washington Metro rail system, here’s a guide to give you an idea of what to expect.

The first step — figuring out which line to take — should be easy. Although the Metro is the second busiest rail system in the country after the New York Subway, it’s only been around since the mid seventies and still expanding. A Silver Line is currently in the first phase of construction, and will primarily service Dulles airport and Tysons Corner in the state of Virginia. The Maryland Transit Administration has a Purple line in the works to improve service to the suburbs, but that won’t be built for another 10 years. For now, we just have to worry about five existing lines:

Red Line takes you through famous neighbourhoods (Dupont Circle, Bethesda, Brookland, Tenleytown) and areas in heart of the city. Notable sightseeing stops include Woodley Park (National Zoo,) Metro Center (also transfers to Blue & Orange lines,) Chinatown (also transfers to Yellow & Green lines) and Union Station (Capitol Hill neighbourhood and Amtrak, MARC & VRE service.)

Orange Line runs from New Carrollton, Md. to Fairfax, Va. The most notable stops are: the Smithsonian, where you have easy access to famous monuments, memorials and museums; and Foggy Bottom-GWU, which is walking distance to the Kennedy Center, Watergate and the State Department. On weekends, Eastern Market is worth a visit. A local favourite situated in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood, the market sells all kinds of lovely fresh produce, food, art, crafts and antiques.

Blue Line shares a good part of its track with Orange and a few stops with Yellow. It runs from Springfield, Va., to Largo in Maryland. Notable stops are Pentagon and King Street/Old Town (food, shopping & nightlife.) Farragut West and McPherson Sq. stops (shared with Orange) are equidistance to the White House and historical LaFayette Square. It’s the only line that runs to Arlington Cemetery, where the country’s military personnel and politicians (including John F. Kennedy) are buried.

Green Line provides trains to residents of Prince George’s County, Md. from both ends in to the District. It starts at Branch Ave. (town of Suitland) and ends in Greenbelt. Places of interest that can be accessed on this line are: Yards Park (Navy Yard-Ballpark stop,) University of Maryland (College Park-U of Md. station,) U-Street (shopping & nightlife) and Mt. Vernon Square (convention center and historic neighborhood.)

Yellow Line shares its District route with Green and its Va. route with Blue. Running from Fort Totten to Huntington in Va., you’ll wanna hop on to this track if you’re heading to the Ronald Reagan airport from downtown D.C.

Dashed lines are part of an enhanced service known as Rush+. Unless you live here, you probably don’t need to worry about this. Getting on to the right train is way more important. When you are on a line that shares a track with a different line, but you’re getting off at a stop that isn’t shared by both lines, it could end up being a very inconvenient detour that costs extra time and money if you hopped on to the wrong train.

And you don’t want that, since it already costs quite a pretty penny to ride the Metro, especially during rush hour. In order to figure out fare costs, check price schedules that are on the ticket machines, just above eye level. Initially, they tend to be confusing because there are two types:

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The Washington Post online has a really handy fare calculator that not only tell you the price of a one-way trip, but also monthly and annual costs for regular riders. Notice the one dollar surcharge per trip if you buy paper farecards. The SmarTrip card doesn’t have this surcharge, are reloadable and cost five dollars each. You can also register the card to salvage balances in case you lose your card. Very worth getting one if you live here. Visitors can take a look at some of the other available short-term passes on the WMATA website.

SmarTrip card.

Should you have questions, ask a station manager for advice before you navigate the turnstiles. Getting past barriers in a commuter train station seems like the most basic thing in the world and shouldn’t need to be explained, but it never fails to surprise me how EACH time I ride the train, someone is ALWAYS fumbling about at the turnstile in exasperation, unable to get through. If you’re not sailing through, the reasons are simple:

  • You’re jamming your paper farecard into the slot too fast. Slip the ticket in more gently and allow the turnstile to swallow your card on its own.
  • Your card might be facing the wrong side. Flip it over, turn it the other way or both.
  • You’re sliding your SmarTrip over the sensor too quickly. Patience. Place your card directly on to the sensor till it reads and deducts the fare amount. Personally, I quickly wave my card over the sensor twice. That works too.
  • You paid the wrong fare. Don’t fight with the turnstile. Just go to the exit fare booth and pay the balance. PLEASE don’t try and slip through after the person ahead of you.
  • This reason is less common, but there could be something wrong with your card (paper or SmarTrip.) Have the station manager issue you a new card.

There’s a little screen just above the SmarTrip sensor that tells you why you’re being denied entry. Most people forget to look at this screen and keep doing the same thing over and over in the attempt to exit. With thousands and thousands of riders passing through the turnstiles at rush hour, it can be pretty agitating when lines get held up. Have a heart for the locals that have to do this every. single. day. Check this little screen first. You might be able to troubleshoot and avoid losing your place in line.

Once you’re through, navigation is made easy with signs, maps and electronic indicators, so make use of them. Refer to the signs by the escalators to help determine which side of the platform you should be on. Study the Metro map and remember the name of your stop so you don’t miss it. The electronic boards on the platform tells you of delays, track work, and when the next trains are arriving. When the round lights at the edge of a platform begin to flash, that means a train is approaching — soon you’ll be on your way.

When the train has come to a complete stop, embarking and disembarking a Metro train requires basic global commuter etiquette. Let passengers off before you board. Door chimes sound out to indicate opening (“ding ding”) and closing (“ding dong ding dong.”) How long they stay open depends on traffic volume. Don’t force a door open at any point. When you hear the recorded voice of Va. resident Randi Miller ordering you to “step back,” on the overhead PA system, you should listen.

It’s good to also adhere to a few other basic rules. No food or drink is allowed on the trains. You can bring them on board, but make sure it’s covered. Don’t crowd the doors. It isn’t always possible when traveller volume is high, but moving to the center of the carriage helps. Leave the seats near the door for disabled, pregnant and elderly folk. I don’t need to explain this one.

If you have prams (strollers,) luggage, shopping carts or any big items, you’ll instinctively situate yourself closer to the door, since it’ll be hard to sit in the middle of the train and block the entire aisle by leaving your belongings next to the seat. Bicycles are allowed, but with some restriction: they are prohibited between 7-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. on weekdays, July 4th and special events when large crowds are anticipated. There should only be two bikes per carriage, but I’ve seen three in one car before. (Locals breaking rules, tsk tsk.) You also have to use elevators for your bikes, NOT the escalators, and there’s a reason for that.

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You’ll notice that Metro passengers usually keep right on the escalators. The left is meant for people who are in a hurry and need to move faster. Bikes, with their wide handlebars will only hinder this pace on narrow escalators. At stations near the city center, local commuters get pretty impatient if they’re held up by anything, or anyone.

But as a visitor, you shouldn’t be spending time figuring out how to cart a bike within an underground rail system. Capital Bikeshare is a great option if you want to bike certain distances around the city. Many Bikeshare stations are favourably located right near Metro exits and charged by the hour. Pick one up, ride it around, and when you’re done bring it back to the closest Bikeshare station; it doesn’t even have to be the same one you got it from.

If you follow these tips, I assure you that navigating the Metrorail isn’t overwhelming at all. Pay attention to signs, keep up with the pace and enjoy your visit!

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