DC Public Transpo for Dummies?
June 1, 2023 1:23 PM   Subscribe

As mentioned in previous questions, my kid will be doing a summer internship in DC, living in Foggy Bottom and working in the Rayburn office building. What do you DC people wish we knew about public transportation in DC?

Kid will likely be commuting to/from the office each morning/evening, and then will also need to use public transportation for weekends and other personal travel. We're familiar with none of it, and while we can certainly google, I bet actual locals can tell us more and better ways of doing it.

I see the earlier question from today re: a Metro app, but at this point we're not even there yet -- like, what's the story on bus vs. Metro? Is there a good/bad way to pay the fares? Basically, we know nothing, so fill us in, please.

(Also please note this is not a parenting question; the answers I'm seeking do not include "Have Kid figure it out himself." Thank you.)
posted by BlahLaLa to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Stand on the right on the escalators! Stand on the right! Stand! On! The! Right!
posted by babelfish at 1:38 PM on June 1 [25 favorites]

Best answer: He will need a SmarTrip card. His employers may well provide one. They can be used on buses as well as the Metro.

A lot of the downtown Metro stops are very close together, so rather than change trains to get to the nearest stop, it's often perfectly possible to walk from the one next-furthest away.

That being the case, it's nice to have sneakers or comfortable shoes to commute in, and change into dress shoes at the office.

When taking the escalator up or down from a Metro stop: stand on the right, walk on the left. If you stand on the left you will be subject to Commuter Rage.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:39 PM on June 1 [4 favorites]

Best answer: oh-- there's a citywide bikeshare scheme, as well as e-scooters if Kid is accustomed to either of those.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:40 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

Most critical: On escalators, stand on the right, walk on the left. Everything else is details.

The details: It's a straight shot on the Metro from Foggy Bottom to Capitol South on the metro, and will be much faster than taking the bus for commuting. That said, he should definitely take the bus for other travels when it's more convenient.

The Metro is generally quite safe; my tween rides it regularly alone. Still, there has been an increase in crime. Be aware of your surroundings and if you're uncomfortable, move.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:41 PM on June 1 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, get a SmarTrip card. If the congress critter's office doesn't provide a physical card and if kid has an iPhone, he can add a SmarTrip card to his Apple Wallet and pay for the subway that way (best / fastest / least likely to be lost IMO).

It looks like he can either:
1. Take the Orange/Blue/Silver line train from Foggy Bottom/GWU metro stop to Capitol South, then it's a 10 minute walk to the office building
2. Take the 32 or 36 bus line from the same location to Independence Ave SE & New Jersey Ave SE. This will be a little bit longer ride but less walking and maybe climactically different? But also prone to disruption more from street traffic, obviously.

Please stand on the right.

If it hasn't already been covered, when using non-public transit options (or even mapping to somewhere outside of work) make sure to always specify the street address with the quadrant! H St NW is very different to (and far from) H St NE.

I was never a metro-based commuter, but found Google and Apple maps both suitable for giving transit directions and never felt the need for those specialized apps.
posted by Maecenas at 1:48 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Metro closes earlier at night than you think it should (12 a.m. Sunday-Thursday and 1 a.m. Friday/Saturday) so it's definitely worth checking when the last train is leaving from whatever station is nearby.

Trains can be up to 15 minutes apart non-rush hour (and depending on what line) so that's worth keeping in mind if he needs to be somewhere at a certain time. This especially can be an issue when having to change lines.

They announce this all the time, but the doors to the trains are manually controlled so they're not going to automatically open like elevator doors. That's usually not a huge issue but can be an adjustment.

The escalator thing can't be emphasized enough. No one is kidding about that.
posted by edencosmic at 1:48 PM on June 1 [5 favorites]

The metro lines radiate out from the center of the city -- a quick look at the map will show you what I mean. If you want to go across town, it's often better/faster to take a bus than metro. It's useful to become familiar with both systems and routes.
posted by OrangeDisk at 1:56 PM on June 1

Good news: our system is very easy to navigate! Metro is not the most reliable in terms of regular arrival times, and it breaks down a lot, but it's easy to understand the map, and the stations all display when the trains are arriving as well as if there are any station closures or delays.

6 car train = front car will be least crowded. 8 car train = back car will be least crowded.

The only weird quirk is that you must swipe your SmarTrip card when you get on and when you get off the Metro.

Bus vs. metro: bus coverage is much better than Metro coverage and the bus can get you almost anywhere you want to go in and around DC. Mastering our transit system means being totally comfortable using the bus and transferring Metro to bus or vice versa. The only drawback is that buses get very overcrowded if it's rainy. I don't know if he's already found housing but a good way to save on housing is being willing to commute via bus instead of Metro; it opens up some "cheaper" neighborhoods (for a...certain value of cheaper).

I recommend the Transit app (a perennial MeFi favorite) for arrival times. I have the paid version but the free version is fine for everyday use. It also includes some other local transit like the Circulator bus (run by the city government) and Ride On (run by Montgomery County) that aren't part of Metro but where you can use SmarTrip.
posted by capricorn at 1:57 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]

SmarTrip cards can be bought at any Metrorail station at kiosks. They cost $10 and come with $8 of fare on them, and you can add money to them at the kiosk, or online after you register your card. (You can also add a SmarTrip to your phone, but I haven't done that as of yet so can't speak to it). You tap in and tap out because distances matter to the amount the fare is. Take sure to note how much your trip is going to cost, because if you go negative, you won't be able to tap out easily (you'll have to talk to an attendant to let you out).
posted by General Malaise at 1:58 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Re: metro not running past midnight, many bus routes DO run later and can provide another option for getting home.
posted by capricorn at 1:59 PM on June 1 [4 favorites]

(Sorry to threadsit, I now see in your OP that he has found housing so ignore that part!)
posted by capricorn at 2:01 PM on June 1

Best answer: If Kid will be riding the Metro every weekday morning and evening (i.e. 10 trips a week) during rush hours (defined on the Metro as 5am-9:30am and 3pm-7pm) then a $72 Monthly Pass is likely to save him money, as:

- Peak fare for Foggy Bottom - Capitol Hill one way is $2.25, so for his commuting it will be $2.25 * 2 * 5 = $22.50 a week
- If we assume 4 weeks in a month (it's actually a bit more), that's $22.50 * 4 = $90

Just the weekday work trips alone pay for the pass already, as he would be paying $90 if he paid for the trips "à la carte" vs. $72 for the Monthly Pass.

- Monthly Passes are priced according to the fare level of the trips you want them to cover. In other words, a $72 Monthly Pass gives you unlimited trips up to $2.25 in cost. For any single trip that is more than $2.25, you have to pay the fare difference (so if the trip is $3.00, you have to pay an incremental $0.75)

- Because all weekend Metro trips -- regardless of length -- are now $2.00, all weekend trips would be covered/free with a $72 monthly pass

- All monthly passes include unlimited Metrobus trips (just be careful because Metrobus are WMATA-operated buses. Other buses, such as the DC Circulator or Ride On, are not WMATA-operated and are not covered.)
posted by andrewesque at 2:05 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

what's the story on bus vs. Metro?

One usually avoids depending on a shuddering, noisy, often-late maybe-never Metrobus if a Metrorail alternative is available. Unfortunately, the Metro (which always means the below- or above-ground Metro trains) doesn't go everywhere, maybe not to where struggling interns are able to secure summer housing.
posted by Rash at 2:20 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

If kid is a morning person walking from Foggy Bottom to Capitol is a good way of getting exercise and getting familiar with the area. By afternoon it's gonna be too hot.
posted by mareli at 2:22 PM on June 1 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: These answers are so helpful! I'd love to know more about the e-scooters if anyone has anything to add about that. My kid is *definitely* the kind of person who'd rather just grab a scooter.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:44 PM on June 1

Best answer: SmarTrip cards are the only way to pay fares on Metrorail. You can pay cash on Metrobus, but it requires exact change ($2 for regular routes); if you already have a SmarTrip card (because you also want to use Metrorail) then you can also just pay your bus fare with it, which is much more convenient. They also give you a transfer discount if you go from bus to train or train to bus, and are the only way to get a (legal*) free transfer onto a different bus.

Two conveniences/practicalities: (1) while it is technically possible to add fare to a SmarTrip card on the bus (you hit a button on the reader before tapping your card, add your cash, and then tap again) I've never been successful at it. One time the reader ate my $20 and I had to get a claim form from the driver. Another time the driver saw that I was going to add fare and said not to bother. (2) if you register your SmarTrip card online (create an account, then enter numbers off the back of the card) you can add value with a credit card online. You can also save a credit card number and set it to top itself off by a set amount when the balance drops below a given value.

If he uses a smartphone with a wallet function (or an Apple Watch) he can transfer a registered card to the smartphone wallet or even register an entirely new card. I now just use my Apple Watch for this so I don't have to dig in my pocket for my phone or my wallet, but I see people use their phones pretty regularly. I was able to set a low balance alert within the Wallet settings on my watch, and it's possible to add fare using a credit card with ApplePay.

Other ways of getting around: there are multiple micromobility companies operating in DC. Capital Bikeshare has docks all over town. You can pay by the ride or get a membership plan that includes unlimited rides on pedal-powered bikes and discounts on electric-assist bikes. If you get an e-bike from Capital Bikeshare you're not required to return it to a dock, but you'll pay extra for parking it not at a dock and they've recently added an extra charge for people who don't properly lock the bike at the end of a trip. There are a couple other brands with e-bikes or scooters that work on a point to point rental (pay to unlock and pay by the minute). I've never used any of them but Capital Bikeshare, because I'm old and cranky and hate it when people block the sidewalks, but if he's already used one or more of the brands somewhere else he'll be familiar with how they work. DC has a law that you're supposed to lock your bike or scooter to something at the end of every trip, but it's not enforced and people defeat the lock detection so they can just dump their ride wherever. Encourage him not to do that, because bikes or scooters that block sidewalks are an accessibility issue.

Lyft and Uber are also here. They're a great way to spend every dollar you earn if you're making minimum wage (or less) so they shouldn't be relied on every day. They're useful for getting home if everything else is broken or he's out past Metro's bedtime, but if the idea is that he needs to learn to manage his money he should not plan to rely on them.

From personal experience: his best bet is Metrorail, because between the train and the bus the train has at least 6 times the capacity and it also doesn't get caught in downtown traffic. If the trains are completely broken, I think the 30s buses might be the best bet, but they definitely get caught in traffic. Personally if the train weren't an option and it wasn't raining, I'd probably take a bike instead of the bus. E-bikes enable you to get around without too much sweat.

* Bus fare collection isn't enforced in DC. The DC council wants to make buses completely fare-free (it's an equity thing and also smart transportation policy), but the mayor hates the idea and nobody's figured out where the funding will come from. If your kid rides the bus he will see people get on without paying, and there are basically no consequences for this. For that matter, he'll probably see people jump over Metrorail fare gates or just force them open. Technically Metro Transit Police can write tickets for fare evasion; in practice they are currently not bothering. The corresponding lack of revenue is not really a solved problem right now, but you also probably don't want to encourage your kid, who is here to work for the government, to get into the habit of not paying for his rides.
posted by fedward at 2:48 PM on June 1 [5 favorites]

I think the logistics are pretty much covered, so a few other assorted notes:
-Metro status updates are here, and will tell you if there are any major issues or delays to be aware of. There's also a decent next train/bus tracker on the site.
-The "train doors do not reopen" thing is no joke, trying to squeeze in through closing doors is absolutely not worth the hassle
-Let people get off the train/bus before you try to get on
-Some Metro stations have different platforms for trains going in different directions; make sure to check you're on the right one
-There's a no eating/drinking rule on Metro, although this is something less than universally obeyed
-As people have mentioned, you have to swipe out on Metro. You do NOT have to do this for buses
-SmarTrip also works for DC Circulator and a number of close-in Virginia and Maryland transit systems, which is handy

Also, everyone who takes transit is going to have lots of opinions and advice, but lest all of that start to read as overwhelming, I'll just reiterate that public transit here is REALLY easy to figure out, there will always be someone willing to help anyone looking lost and it will be totally fine.

(On preview, re: scooters, they are very widely available, and at risk of starting an argument I will just personally say that while I know there are frequently no great options, I would really encourage trying not to ride on the sidewalk whenever possible, particularly in crowded areas of the city.)
posted by eponym at 2:50 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If he's like me when I was 20, I'd recommend having both a physical SmartPass and the phone version in case one or the other gets lost or misplaced.

If you/he are Covid averse, very few people on public transit are still using masks. I personally use a good N95 on them.

Riding a bike on the sidewalk is legal in some places but not others. If he's going to do so, be careful of pedestrians and where the legal limits are.
Is it legal to ride on the sidewalk?
While not recommended safe cycling practice in
most instances, DC code states that cyclists are
allowed to ride on the sidewalk as long as they are
outside the central business district (CBD). The
CBD is bounded by 2nd Street NE and SE, D Street
SE and SW, 14th Street SW and NW, Constitution
Ave NW, 23rd Street NW, and Massachusetts Ave
NW. Within the CBD, bicycling is allowed on lands
under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service
including places like Lafayette Park, Farragut
Square Park, the National Mall and Dupont Circle.
However, if cyclists do ride on the sidewalk they
must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians.
posted by Candleman at 2:56 PM on June 1

What everyone above said.

In addition, they may want to carry a five or $10 dollar bill, since that seems to be the only thing "exit fare" machines inside the turnstiles take to top up if you are short fare on exiting.

(Fares are time of day and distance based).

The outside machines are way more flexible, card, and more cash denominations.

Get an app that has an offline metro map, in case they are in a cell deadzone.

Google maps transit directions are very useful, but i would always cross check what it says with the actual services routes & timetables.
posted by TheAdamist at 3:01 PM on June 1

Lots of good advice above. If I were him I would be commuting by Metro, not bus.

There are indeed scooters and bikes that can be rented as well.

There is also really bad traffic, especially during rush hour, and people who are not respectful of bike and scooter riders. He needs to wear a helmet. He needs to obey traffic laws. He needs to try to avoid some of the big/busy streets. He needs to be mindful of pedestrians. One of my coworkers died commuting by bike in downtown DC. Another was hit badly and had to permanently wear a leg brace. Ghost bikes are a thing here.
posted by gudrun at 4:12 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

"I'll just reiterate that public transit here is REALLY easy to figure out, there will always be someone willing to help anyone looking lost and it will be totally fine."


When I visit, I personally get off at DCA and go to the metro station with no preparation--I just follow the transit directions that google maps gives me, and follow the instructions on the fare machines, and it's fine. Maps and signage are really good.

Also: not saying it's perfect or even that this feeling is entirely rational, but: I LOVE THE DC METRO SO MUCH. I hope your kid will to!

(I'm just a now-and-then visitor these days, but I used it as a lot as a teen.)
posted by bfields at 4:25 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

DC Circulator ($1/ride; accepts SmarTrip; yellow line into Foggy Bottom) schedule
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:56 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

Probably redundant but: the fare machines at the metro stations are kind of confusing (imo) so just in case he's moving there right before his internship starts, I'd recommend going into a station before his first commute to set up his smartTrip card and get familiar with things.

Also, in case he's never really used public transportation before: it's usually on time, but, you know, not always. So plan accordingly.

If he has a seat and there are people standing who are old, disabled, pregnant, etc., he should get up.
posted by trig at 8:04 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Metro stations have a locked hidden bathroom free and available to the public. Just ask the station manager on duty (sitting in the glass kiosk near the entrance!) The bathrooms are generally very clean and nice.

DC has a lot of rats right now. I don’t mind them but you’ll see them outside at night, just a heads up!

I was just at an outdoor movie near the Washington Monument and there hundreds of people zipping around the Mall on scooters and bikes. They’re everywhere!

Foggy Bottom is a great place for him to live as a summer intern. So glad that worked out! I live in the suburbs of DC: I’ll be away for much of the summer but I’m glad to be someone local for him to contact just in case. You can send me a MeMail if interested!
posted by smorgasbord at 8:20 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really recommend buying a SmartTrip card, then creating an account online/set up their phone's wallet app to use the card on their phone as the way to swipe in and swipe out of the metrorail system. It's SO much easier than having to remember to carry your card every time. There is a bit of a trick to it - make sure you place your phone so the reader reads it from the top back of the phone rather than the middle back. It took me a few times to get the hang of it, but I would never go back to a card! If they are riding every day, then the monthly pass is definitely a much better deal, potentially even for a partial month's stay. If not, then the auto replenish with a credit card feature is super duper convenient.

It's a straight shot from Foggy Bottom to Capitol South, and then an easy walk to Rayburn. Note that they can use either silver, blue, or orange trains to get to/from the two stations, so it should be a super convenient and fast commute.

- Do not stand on the left on escalators. Can't be emphasized enough.
- Make sure they know to protect their work access card on the metro - don't let it hang out for everyone to see.
- Just a reminder that there are metal detectors to go through when you enter the Rayburn building, so calculate a bit extra time to get inside the first few days until they know what the lines look like at the start of the day.
- There are some nice restaurants near Capitol South, and Foggy Bottom is right there by Georgetown. Should be a very safe and convenient routine for them this summer.

I have 3 interns this summer at my NGO (#129/130/131 since we started our internship program), and we try hard to make it a good experience for them. There is so much to see and to learn, and we love our interns. I hope your kid's Hill internship is great, and welcome to D.C.!
posted by gemmy at 9:00 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

While that's a pretty reasonable commute for DC, between bad weather, Metro delays, bus delays, car accidents, motorcades, "threats of suspicious activity", and/or the presence of (foreign) dignitaries, delays are always a possibility. Thus, it is a good idea to become familiar with multiple ways to approach the AM and PM commute, and to plan for extra time just in case.
posted by oceano at 9:09 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

So much good advice above! One other recommendation that would mean a lot: encourage him to merge kindly and graciously on the escalators. I have watched so many young people in suits elbow their way into standing one step higher on the escalator and it makes my blood boil.

Offering the next spot in the churn to the person right next to you - with eye contact and smile - FEELS good, and getting a smile back makes the whole gorram day better. Smiling and nodding/greeting WMATA workers is also a nice moment to have, and there are often staff out and about in the system. Transit workers make cities run.

In the same vein, the guards at Rayburn are literally protecting his life: exchanging greetings and learning their names is a simple way to show appreciation and respect.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 1:38 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]

IMO, if he doesn't get the monthly unlimited pass, you can literally just buy a smart trip on your phone like right now and add money to it.
posted by sandmanwv at 4:33 AM on June 2

Best answer: When we lived there our best public transport resource was Is Metro on Fire?. Because there is an actual need for that site.
posted by Snowishberlin at 6:40 AM on June 2

Best answer: Because nobody seems to have mentioned it yet on this thread... DC is VERY hot in the summer. Are you sick of hearing about how hot DC is on your threads about clothing? Sorry! It fucken hot! Also humid and disgusting. Metro trains are air conditioned and (underground) stations have a cooling system. He may find he would really rather not scooter or bike.
posted by babelfish at 7:58 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yup, I would definitely not suggest biking or scootering as a way to get to and from work, but they can be nice for a quick evening out or on weekends if you don't mind getting sweaty.

One other important navigation tip - the city is mostly easy to navigate due to the use of numbers and letters to name the streets and the largely grid design. But a few things to be aware of - there's no J Street, for one. But more importantly, with the numbered streets, there's two of them. 20th Street NE is quite far from 20th Street NW. You have to pay attention to the quadrant after the street name to be sure where it is.
posted by Candleman at 8:23 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

I see people on scooters and e-bikes wearing suits, so I think maybe the battery assist makes enough of a difference to make it work. As far as using the various scooter brands (Lime, Lyft, Spin, and Veo): if he's got data service on his phone and his own credit card, he can wait to download apps until he actually sees devices in the wild, and then just register on the spot. Lime at least used to be in the Uber app in addition to its own app, but I don't know if that's still true. I only learned about the existence of Veo (a new licensee this year) when I saw their scooters on the street.

As for quadrants: for a lot of people the default will be NW and the quadrant will be unstated when giving an address. If you're putting something into a mapping app for directions, you need to be very sure that you're entering the address including the quadrant, especially on Capital Hill, where a block number may indeed exist in multiple quadrants. Google Maps tries to autocomplete quadrants but sometimes it guesses wrong. For a very specific example, our house is on a street that exists in both NE and NW, and if you type our address into Google Maps it prefers NE (even though the street is discontinuous in NE and there is no corresponding address in that quadrant).

Another rule it took me years to catch and memorize: odd and even house numbers are on different sides of the street in different quadrants. The actual rule is that odd numbers will be on the right as the numbers get higher (and they get higher as you go away from the origin point [the Capitol]): in NW, odd numbers will be on the westbound and northbound sides of the street; in SE they'll be on the eastbound and southbound sides of the street.
posted by fedward at 9:01 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]

One usually avoids depending on a shuddering, noisy, often-late maybe-never Metrobus if a Metrorail alternative is available. Unfortunately, the Metro (which always means the below- or above-ground Metro trains) doesn't go everywhere, maybe not to where struggling interns are able to secure summer housing.

Regular Metrobus rider here - while this was the case in the past, it really is not now. I use WMATA's Next Arrivals tool to see when buses are coming and, on the routes I use regularly (31, 33, 42, 43, N4 and the S buses) it is typically accurate, with buses running on or pretty close to on schedule, especially during peak hours.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:37 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

Someone mentioned it above but I want to raise my voice in support of the DC Circulator. It doesn’t look like it has stops in Foggy Bottom so I don’t know how useful it will be re: commuting but it is like using the bus on easy mode. It is a big red bus (though it may be rainbow for pride - hard to miss), it supposedly comes every 10 minutes and it’s $1.
posted by kat518 at 11:05 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

Best answer: An obvious-but-somehow-also-not tip that I think I learned on metafilter: on a hot day, especially in professional clothes, WALK ON THE SHADY SIDE OF THE STREET. Staying on the sunny side makes the hear significantly worse; 99% of the time there's no good reason NOT to cross. I'm now baffled by the number of people I see sweating bullets in the direct sunlight every day of the summer.

Not exactly transit-related, but for anyone taking transit, walking is a part of the equation, so I think it counts.
posted by mosst at 10:56 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: You guys have been so helpful! Thank you!

I was gonna ask one last question, now that we're here: Why the heck does it take so long for the Metro doors to open after the train arrives at the station!??! But I googled the answer and now I know! LOL.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:43 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

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