New York City’s Subway system, run by the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), is the largest rapid transit system in the United States.
With service 24 hours per day and an extensive network of 421 stations, virtually all of Manhattan and most of the outer boroughs are within a quick walk of the system – which, despite its name, is not entirely underground.
At a fraction of the size of New York’s Subway, the Washington D.C. Metrorail system (Metro for short) is run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Compared to the massive and mighty Subway, the Metro might seem like an also-ran, but this second-largest rapid transit system in the United States has some advantages over the Big Apple’s system, most of them technological.
1. Newer, Cleaner, Smoother. Construction of D.C.’s Metro began in the 1970s, so it is a relatively youthful 40 years of age compared to New York’s 100-year-old system. This translates into cleaner, newer stations, more comfortable trains, and a smoother ride. Metro’s station design, with its high curved ceilings, have been criticized for being too dark and gloomy. But compared to New York’s dirtier, cramped stations, the Washington Metro’s austerity is museum-like.
2. Electronic Fare Cards. The Metro was the first transit system in the United States to utilize contactless smart cards for fare payment. Known in the D.C. system as SmarTrip cards, these media are a huge improvement over paper fare cards (not to mention tokens) due to their ease and speed of use. Riders of the D.C. Metro can zip through turnstiles without ever removing these SmartTrip cards from their wallets. It should be noted that NYC is currently implementing a similar “radio-frequency identification” payment method, currently available in a limited number of stations.
3. Real-Time Train Information. Technology has been an incredible boon to public transit, perhaps most notably when it comes to real-time location-based information. Commuters love and demand real-time transit info, which takes the guesswork out of using transit. Real-time train/bus information has been shown to reduce both perceived and actual wait times (according to Kari Watkins of Georgia Tech University) and encourage transit ridership. New York’s MTA has only provided this information to a limited number of its Subway lines, and upgrading the remainder of the system will reportedly take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, WMATA provides real-time information regarding arrival times at all of its Metro stations, and allows developers to create apps using the agency’s open data.
4. Mobile Phone Service. Thirty-six stations, or just 13 percent, of New York City’s underground Subway stations currently have cell-phone antennas providing mobile service. The MTA plans on providing cell-phone service to the remaining stations over the next four years. Washington’s Metro system is more connected. WMATA reports that “Verizon Wireless cell phones work in most stations. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile cell phones work in selected areas.” Good enough for a game of Words With Friends, if not an in-depth phone conversation.
5. Accessibility. Built over a century ago, New York’s Subway is accessed primarily via street level stairways leading underground. It’s no surprise then that 80 percent of the system today remains inaccessible by wheelchair. Until the MTA upgrades the system (a likely costly endeavor), riders can either use an app to find accessible stations or use the bus (which, according to the MTA, is 100 percent accessible). In Washington D.C., meanwhile, all of the city’s Metrorail stations and rail cars are handicapped accessible. Furthermore, all of the station entrances utilize escalators rather than stairs, catering to the needs of the old and young alike. Just make sure you stand on the right, and walk on the left.
Washington’s Metro system is not without its critics, of course. The Twitter account Unsuck DC Metro (as well as the folded FixWMATA) was designed to shed light on the Metro’s failings and shortcomings. While the public attention has been good at correcting some of WMATA’s problems, Greater Greater Washington‘s David Alpert has said that he doesn’t buy the methods of that site’s content creator. Public shaming, according to Alpert, will do nothing to correct problems stemming from underfunding or union rules, and separate them from those arising from mismanagement or incompetence.
So call this a voice in the storm of haters and flamers, pointing out some ways in which the Metro does a pretty good job. Even better, in some ways, than New York City.
Splash photo by the author. Story photo by Hernan Seoane on Flickr.