I’m from San Diego. We have a trolley but almost everybody drives everywhere. I grew up in Colorado, another car-based society. I am definitely not a mass transit native. The first time I rode the D.C. Metro during a family vacation at the age of 16 I was flabbergasted at how easy it was, and I felt so cosmopolitan riding the rails.
I know that for people who live in a city where mass transport is a normal part of life, riding the subway can be a slog. It can feel like starry-eyed tourists just slow down the normal process of commuting. Those of us who don’t use this kind of transit on a daily basis ought to keep that in mind and try to mindful about making this process as smooth as possible for everyone.
Riding the metro is a very cheap way to move around cities quickly. For destinations too far to walk, cab fares can add up, and fast. Even if you’ve never taken the metro, tube, subway, or L train before, don’t let the map that looks like a plate of spaghetti intimidate you. Before traveling, find out if the transport system will use tickets or reloadable cards. Then when you get to the station, buy a few. You can always get more tickets or reload your card later when you get the hang of the system.
Since my first awestruck teen-aged ride in Washington D.C., I’ve ridden the metro many, many times in Paris, New York City, Rome, Boston, London, Madrid, and Mexico City. There are many rules-of-thumb that are universal across country borders.
1. Be courteous and confident
The primary rule of riding the metro is to let people off before you try to get on. This is obvious but lots of first-timers panic, trying to shove their way on the second the doors open. Not only is this inconvenient for people descending from the train, but once they get out there will be more room to get on. Easy! However, don’t wait too long. Follow the flow and force a spot for yourself on the train if the doors are about to close. If you are too meek, you might get left behind (or worse, separated from your group).
2. Have your ticket (or pass card) ready
There is nothing that will reveal a newbie quicker than approaching the turnstile and then fumbling in your pocket, purse, or wallet for your ticket or card. The flow of traffic is king in the stations. Make sure you don’t obstruct it, and please step to the side if you need a second to locate your ticket.
3. Avoid unnecessary transfers
While it might look “closer” on the metro map to hope from train A to train B to train C, remember that those maps are not to scale. You will be shocked how much walking it can take just to get from one metro line to another in the underground station. Sometimes it’s a quick flight of stairs and one walkway, sometimes it will feel like you’ve logged miles before you even see the next train. Adding in more stops to eliminate a transfer will definitely save your feet, and often breaks even time-wise.
4. Know your traincar etiquette
4A. Avoid unnecessary eye contact, chitchat, or staring. If you’re thrilled to be in a new city, that is so wonderful. It is a thrilling feeling! But locals are not there on the train as accessories to your new life experience. They may or may not want to talk to you or even make eye contact. Please respect their personal space and privacy.
4B. Give up your seat in these scenarios: elderly/disabled, mom with child, or if you are in a folding seat during crowded rush hour. There is nothing worse than a healthy, fit youngster on holiday hogging a seat, especially a reserved seat right by the door. Don’t be “that guy!”
5. Pay attention
Make sure to read signs lest you hop on an express in NYC and go all the way uptown like I did. Some trains have special cars for women only, my husband got kicked off one of these in Mexico City! Like most situations in which people are packed elbow-to-elbow, there will occasionally be pickpockets on the train. Be vigilant and keep your hand on your purse or backpack. Oh yeah, and make sure not to miss your stop!
6. Don’t get overwhelmed
This certainly ties in with #5 above. If you miss your stop, you can always get off at the next one and hop back on the train going the other direction. If you need to regroup yourself, just step to the side or find a little corner to get your bearings step to the side and regroup if you need to. If you miss your train, another one will come; don’t fret!
7. Stand right, walk left
This is especially important in cities where escalators are wide enough to accommodate two bodies, but is good practice everywhere (all escalators in general, IMO). Sometimes, people are in a hurry. And sometimes there are only escalators and no stairs. It is simply good manners to keep a walkway clear for those who run late (hand-raising emoji) to zoom up to street level as soon as humanly possible.
Bonus tip: Download a high-res image of the metro map onto your smart phone so you don’t have to fumble with a paper map in your pocket. Try not to stare at it as you move timidly through the tunnels; you will slow down people behind you who have their daily commute down to the minute. Study it while you’re in the train and lock in the direction of your transfer before you get off the car.
Subway natives, please add useful tips in the comments! Any questions? Class dismissed!
All photos by Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.