Seemingly Little Things Make D.C. Transit Too Difficult

Confused on Metro

[quote_right][feature_box title=”TDM TAKEAWAY” title_color=”fff” header_color=”369″]Putting customers first is a marketing truism, but many transit systems still need to get better at it.[/feature_box][/quote_right]

I recently flew down to Washington D.C. to attend a friend’s wedding in Rockville, Maryland. With trains, planes, and automobiles involved, surely, I thought, there would be something to write about.

My flights were thankfully uneventful. With nothing more than a carry-on, electronic check-in at Albany International Airport was a breeze. The machines were easy to use and took no time at all. The line through security moved fairly quickly too, despite the now-familiar ritual of removing outerwear and shoes and passing through the body scanner.

Finding the Metro was easy once I landed in Washington, thanks to a helpful airport attendant who pointed me in the right direction and good signage that took me the rest of the way. Having googled the Metro map on the plane, I walked confidently toward the station figuring I needed to take the Red Line to my destination, Grosvenor. Plus, I thought, I’ve navigated subway systems before in New York City, Paris, London, and Montreal, how hard could it be?

I was therefore surprised by what I encountered at the Metro station. First, I couldn’t find a Metro map to confirm my route, so I inquired at the ticket window. The attendant – in quick, somewhat-garbled speech and an unfriendly tone – told me I needed to catch the Yellow Line then transfer to the Red, and added that the fare would be $6.55 – pointing at the fare machine.

Annoyed by his manner and puzzled by the transfer, which I had missed on my smartphone, I asked him to repeat his directions. This was partly to confirm I got the information right and partly out of a misguided belief that if he was asked to say it again, he would speak slowly, clearly, and courteously. Did I mention this was a misguided belief? Getting nowhere with the attendant, I headed to the fare machine.

Holy smokes! I couldn’t believe what I saw.


This was the mother of all fare machines. I had never seen anything so massive, complicated, and unfriendly. It contained so much information, I just stood there trying to absorb it all. The numbers on the machine implied that just three steps were required to purchase a ticket, but let me share with you how it actually worked:

Step 1: Select the kind of fare to purchase – pass, single-fare card, or multiple-fare card. Okay, easy enough.

Step 2: Enter your fare amount. But how do you know your fare?

Step 3: Find your stop from the list of 91 on the machine (at least they are in alphabetical order).

Step 4: Look in the appropriate column to the right of your station to determine whether you are traveling at peak or off-peak hours. But how do you know what peak hours are?

Step 5: Search for peak versus off-peak hours on the machine.

Step 6: Once you’ve found that, return to the list of stations, find yours, and identify the appropriate fare.

Step 7: With fare in mind, come to an electronic window that displays “$20.00” and use the levers (left for dollars, right for cents) to manually adjust the price in the window to your fare. First, when have you ever seen levers on a machine? Second, when have you ever had to input the cost of your fare?

Step 8: Still with me? I was losing it at this point. I just stepped back and stared at the machine again, incredulous that there could possibly be more to do. The unfriendly ticket agent came over, breaking my daze, and pointed to the next step: Entering the method of payment. I used a credit card that was readily accepted (sure, they make taking the money easy) and my ticket was finally issued!

Contrast this vending machine with those of Portland, Oregon’s TriMet light rail.


Now I haven’t actually used this machine, but just look at it – the simplicity, the clear indication of the three steps involved reinforced by the color scheme. This at least looks user-friendly. (I would, however, not include the system map on the fare machine. I think it’s better to have transit riders consult the system map first, then purchase tickets once they know where they are going. This should help prevent holdups at the fare machine.)

Ticket in hand, I finally headed on my way and, of course, only after passing through the automatic gate to the tracks did I see a Metro map and could finally confirm the Yellow to Red Line connection.

If you think I am exaggerating in relating my experience, check out YouTube, where you’ll find clips of people either venting their frustrations with the fare machines or offering a friendly “how to” on navigating the D.C. Metro. Interestingly, in one “how to,” a woman first tries to explain the fare machine and only later introduces the system map. Go figure?

Here’s one example:

Over the course of the weekend, I used the Metro a couple more times – to return from the National Mall and to head back to the airport to catch my flight home. These experiences were good. I was very pleased that each train arrived in a matter of minutes, even on a Sunday, and that I always found a seat.

Still, the information provided on the trains themselves could have been better. The outside of each train is marked by its color and final or near-final destination, such as “Red – Grosvenor,” so you can feel confident you are getting on the right train. Inside the trains, there are electronic signs hanging from the ceiling by each set of doors. These simply give the color of the train, such as “Red.”

How much more helpful would it have been if, instead, these signs announced the approaching stop and, even better, with audio too. I suggest this because 1.) the conductor’s announcement of the stops is incomprehensible (this, by the way, is not a problem exclusive to D.C.), and 2.) all the stops on the Metro (to be fair, at least the ones I experienced on the Yellow and Red lines), all look alike. (Thankfully, the new advertising screens I noticed at some stops are adding variety.)

Frankly, as the transit agency of our nation’s capital – a city drawing millions of tourists each year – I expected much better from Metro.

First encounters matter. If we want people to choose options like trains and buses, we need to make using them easy and pleasant from start to finish. This starts with good maps, directional signage, user-friendly fare vending machines, and good communication during the course of the trip. And let’s not underestimate the human touch – the value of friendly and helpful transit staff in leaving the patron with a positive impression even when, despite the best planning, things fail.

Photo by Aaron Webb

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16 Comments or Mentions

15 Comment(s)


At least WMATA’s problems are a simple fix, hypothetically. Make the fare machines the best they can be, and most of your problems are solved. The second problem is getting rid of the surly workforce, but that’s endemic to the DC area. You’re not going to find too many service employees anywhere in the area who aren’t rude, but that’s a tough nut to crack. These people are poorly paid (relative to the cost of living, etc.), poorly trained, and poorly managed (zero expectations from above). Spending a few days in a midwest city shows the stark contrast between attitudes in service employees relative to DC.

Now, come out to the Bay Area and try to ride transit here. Multiple large agencies (and tons of small ones) keep you from being able to make anything close to the kind of simple trip decisions you can make in DC. Between BART, CalTrain, MUNI, and VTA (that’s just the fixed rail options), the Bay Area is the most confusing in North America. There’s no magic “nice fare machine” that can fix things here.

So, I totally agree with your pitch! I was a resident of DC for 10 years and saw the acceptance of “good enough” for too long. But, as they always say, “it could be worse.” Thank goodness it isn’t!

Monique Wahba

Thanks for sharing your views and experiences. Yes, the service issue is tough to tackle. I agree that it varies depending on where you are in the country. That “good enough” attitude is frustrating. I believe that as consumers and tax payers we need to demand more of our transit systems so they truly work for us. In that vein, looks like my next stop should be San Francisco!


I agree that Metro isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty obvious you have to transfer if you are going to Grosvenor from anywhere that isn’t on the Red line — like National Airport which is Blue and Yellow. Some trains do have eletronic signs inside that show the station, as well as the direction you get off. Plus there are big signs on the walls so you can see where you are as you are arriving.

Something else is that the train cars and stations are almost always universally clean and don’t have people walking around trying to get money from you or preaching, like happens in New York.

You’re right about the station attendants not being friendly though!

Alex S

Friendly service from the station managers can be hit or miss. While trying to address a metrocard issue one called me rude and I wanted to launch her butt into the Potomac (was totally unprofessional on their part and I wasn’t doing anything remotely rude, other than riding the metro).

Alex B.

No, WMATA’s fare machines aren’t easy to use. However, there are two reasons for that.

One is the machines themselves. They’re old and not intuitive. Good news: they will soon be replaced. Same thing about train announcements: those, too, will soon be automated and displayed visually in the new railcars coming in the next few years.

The other reason is a lot trickier: the fare machines are confusing because WMATA’s fare policy itself is confusing and complex. It’s confusing for a reason – the fare policy (fares based on time of day and distance traveled) is codified into the Agency’s financial planning. It can’t easily be changed.

All of that is to say: it’s not just as simple as saying ‘we need to make it more customer friendly.’ We do! But solving the problem also involves political negotiations for who funds the system. It’s a very challenging task.

Kia Toye

There’s a diffence between user friendly & stupid proof. Lady you & the guy in the you tube video need stupid proof. At the top of the machines it says in big black letters “See kiosk or map for fare”. The machines are user friendly & it only take 3 steps if you read the whole display before you start. #somepeopleexpecttomuch

John Harland

That is the the response of every incompetent interface designer because they cannot think outside their own paradigm or empathise with the user.

It is also a matter of not listening. The writer has mentioned that the map was not visiible and the kiosk clerk was unhelpful.

User research has also shown that is only a small range of personality types who will read the whole of a page, or the whole of a set of instructions before acting because the cultural norm is that the instructions will be in proper sequence and able to be followed one-by-one.

Jurassic Carl

Ahh, the angry, miserable subway and bus workers in DC.. My favorite was the WMATA bus driver who punched out McGruff the Crime Dog– just for fun.

As for the fares, the peak fare and paper card system is a pain in the butt.

Maybe they will start selling Smarttrip cards in every station (and not just a select one or two) and let you add a set amount of money and let the machines worry about the insanely ridiculously complex peak fare pricing. (Honestly, only the resident transit wonks at the Greater Greater Washington blog can do that kind of math in their heads.)

OR, maybe they will start selling 1, 2, or 3 day passes for tourists (OR monthly passes for residents). The only people who don’t get aggravated by Metro are cushy Federal employees who just get a buttload of money on SmartTrip cards and don’t even think about the cost of Metro.

Will any of this happen in DC? HAHAHAHAHA NO! It’s DC! Get real,folks.

Monique Wahba

Thanks everyone for chiming in. As one person commented, this IS a relatively easy fix, replacing the fare machines, better signage, etc. Easy to implement and relatively low cost. I think one of the problems might be that the folks who are making the big decisions about our transit systems do not use them. They drive to work or to their transit board meetings. And if you don’t use the system, you won’t be aware of these details that make the difference between a good transit system and a great one.


I’m sure there’s room for improvement in the fare machines in the DC metro. But comparing them to Portland’s is unreasonable. Portland has one fare for all the stops within a much smaller system, so it can design a much simpler system. It’s a bit like complaining that the map of New York is more complicated than a map of Buffalo.

Monique Wahba

Sure the system can be more complex (this is why I recommend that the system map be separate from the fare machine) but
the fare machine can still be simple. It should have three easy steps: 1) select destination, 2) select peak or off peak, and 3) pay fare (once machine has indicated amount). Simpler still if fare cards are involved: 1) select type of fare card (e.g. weekly or monthly) or choose amount of money to fill or refill your card, and 2) pay. If it’s any more complicated, the transit agency should rethink the system.

Steve O

These kinds of problems are endemic in transit. Most public transit agencies see themselves as providing logistics: moving buses and trains from A to B at certain times. They do not perceive themselves as providers of a service first, with logistics being the means of providing the service (hence meaningless bus numbers). And it’s virtually impossible to get the managers/executives of the system to see the problems, because they are insiders.

It’s extremely difficult for people to put themselves in the mindset of a complete newbie, but that’s what they have to do if they want to make the system easily usable for all. As @Kia demonstrates above, if you already know how to use something, it’s easy. I had a similar newbie experience at the Staten Island Ferry once.

So, thanks, Monique, for providing that first-time user experience. Hopefully someone with actual oversight will read this.

Monique Wahba

Great points, Steve. I also liked your piece on the Staten Island Ferry. To an earlier response to my blog I would say that just because we can get used to a bad system (fare machine, poor communication, etc) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand better. Further, not everyone gets used to a bad system. As my friend said, “I live here. I always have to ask for help with the fare machines. I feel like a freakin’ moron.” Believe me, she’s no moron and I’m sure expresses the frustrations of other Metro users. I vote for simple and stress-free!


I’m glad it’s not just me. I have riden subways all over the world (some in foreign languages) and the Dc metro was hardest to figure out…and wow, the prices are ridiculous. I felt like such a moron so I just left and walked. Everything was so expensive and confusing I will never visit again.

Monique Wahba

Thanks, Chris. You underscore the whole point. If the system isn’t user-friendly, folks who have other options, those coveted “choice riders,” (don’t get me started on that term) will choose not to ride it! We need transit systems that respect the riders. I too have traveled abroad and know we can do better.



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