Podcast Ep.5 All Aboard the DC Metro

Visitors love riding the DC Metro, but those without a lot of public transit experience have a lot of questions about how it works. In this episode of the Trip Hacks DC Podcast, Rob is joined by Matt Johnson, a transportation professional and DC Metro expert. Matt tweets from @tracktwentynine and posts the popular “whichWMATA” Metro photo contest on Greater Greater Washington. Rob and Matt tackle some of the most frequently asked questions that Washington, DC visitors have about riding Metro.

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Show notes:

If you’re looking for instructional videos about riding Metro, check out the Metro Tips & Hacks playlist on the Trip Hacks DC YouTube channel. For this episode Rob collected the most frequently asked questions that people have posted in the comments of those videos.

Q1: Why doesn’t WMATA have flat fares like New York City?

This is a question that both locals and visitors ask. Metro fares are based on two factors: how far you travel and whether it’s rush hour or not. In January 2019 rides can cost as little as $2.00 or as much as $6.00 . On the other hand, in New York City one ride costs $2.75 no matter how far you go or what time it is.

Matt explains that it makes sense to change people traveling longer distances higher fares. No one expects a taxi ride to the airport to cost the same price as a taxi ride a mile down the street. Matt also points out the often-overlooked fact that the New York City Subway is much older than DC Metro. If New York City had the technology to charge distance-based fares they probably would! It wasn’t that long ago that you used token coins to pay for NYC Subway rides!

Q2: Why doesn’t Metro run 24/7?

There are very few subways in the world that run 24-hour service. New York City is one of them, but Washington, DC is much less of a 24-hour city than New York. Matt explains that Metro closes every night for the same reason the restaurants in your hometown close every night – there aren’t enough customers to make it worthwhile. The overnight hours are when Metro does maintenance and track construction projects. And even though trains aren’t running, there are several 24-hour bus routes that help pick up the slack.

Q3: Which unlimited Metro pass is best?

In January 2019 visitors have their choice of several unlimited ride passes: a 1-day pass for $14.75; a 7-day unlimited pass for $60.00 and a 7-day “short trip” pass for $38.50.

The “short trip” pass only covers rides up to $3.85, which Rob and Matt agree is enough to pay for almost any trip a visitor would want to take. Matt also notes that even if you take a more expensive ride, as long as you loaded extra money onto your SmarTrip card, you only have to pass the difference between your fare and $3.85. If you take a $4.00 ride, the pass covers $3.85 and then an extra 15-cents will be deducted from your card.

The 1-day pass includes Metrobus, whereas the 7-day passes do not. However, none of the options include Circulator bus, a popular bus for visitors as it has a very useful National Mall route.

Rob explains that he typically doesn’t recommend passes for visitors as it’s usually easier just to load money onto a SmarTrip card and pay for each ride a la cart.

Q4: When is Metro going to go to Dulles airport and BWI?

In 2019 the only DC airport with a Metro station at the terminal is Washington Reagan National Airport. However, the Silver Line to Dulles will open in a few years and travelers will get a one-seat ride to downtown DC. Matt notes that even once it opens it’s still going to be a very long ride into the city because there are so many stops in between. It will be better than the current setup where you have to catch a bus to the end of the Silver line, but it won’t be a quick trip.

Metro to BWI is unlikely to ever happen. There is already train service to the airport from Union Station (either on Amtrak or the Maryland Commuter train called MARC). BWI is also the farthest of the 3 airports from DC, so extending Metro out there would be very expensive and not especially practical.

Q5: Why doesn’t Metro go to Georgetown?

The myth is that Georgetown residents fought against a Metro station in the 1960s because they thought it would bring crime to the neighborhood. Matt explains that a Metro never seriously considered a station in Georgetown. The station would have to be extremely deep to tunnel under the Potomac River. In the 1960s Georgetown was a residential and industrial area and not a destination like it is today. Matt points out that if we were building Metro brand new today Georgetown would probably have a station.

Rob and Matt both recommend The Great Society Subway by Zachary Schrag for anyone interested in learning more about the detailed history of Metro.

Q6: Why do so many locals complain about Metro?

Locals complain about transit no matter where they live. Matt points out that visitors use Metro to go to museums and sites and other fun places, while locals use it to get to and from work. Even though it works fine most of the time, when it doesn’t work it’s a frustrating experience, especially when you want to get home after a long day of work. Plus, human nature is to remember negative experiences more vividly than positive ones. Is Metro perfect? No. Matt explains that even despite the problems, it’s a system that has been generally great for the city.

About Trip Hacks DC

Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation's Capital.

Everyone wants to get the most out of travel experience; we know that planning a trip can be fun but sometimes stressful. The tips and travel hacks offered here will help you make the most of your trip and avoid missing out on the best things the city has to offer. Our trip planning e-book is the perfect resource for every first-time Washington, DC visitor.

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