The DC Metro: It’s Not Baltimore (Baltimore has a metro?)

After kicking and screaming along the DC beltway, I decided to try my commute with the MARC train and DC metro. I’m not new to public transportation. When I moved to Baltimore for graduate school, I sold my Honda Civic and navigated Baltimore’s best and worst neighborhoods using the local bus system (sometimes I pretended to be a Hopkins student and caught a free ride on their shuttle), Light Rail, Metro Subway, and the Charm City Circulator.

More often than not, however, walking was more reliable than public transportation, but either way, I survived without ever being stabbed, robbed, or raped (although I was often harassed by men).  But that’s because I had a series of rules, which I rarely broke:

  1. Do not look anyone in the eye
  2. Do not talk to strangers
  3. Do not respond even to a “hello” – you do not want to initiate dialogue or let your guard down
  4. Always walk like you know where you’re going
  5. Always wear a frown (what I like to call the “don’t fuck with me; I’ll kill you” face)
  6. Never accept help
  7. Always be aware of your surroundings and stay away from “suspicious” characters
  8. Always leave yourself extra time and have a back-up plan – public transportation is anything but “reliable”

What do I consider suspicious? Am I too dependent on stereotypes? When it comes to my safety, I don’t care. If anything makes me uncomfortable, I remove myself from the situation. For example, one time an older gentleman sat next to me on the Baltimore metro and started talking to me even though I had my headphones on and every other seat was empty. He wasn’t threatening me, but I didn’t want to be bothered, and he was making me uncomfortable. I simply acknowledged him, stood up, and walked to another train. He didn’t follow me.

Believe me, this isn’t the worst situation I’ve ever experienced taking Baltimore transportation. But I believe these rules, however silly they may seem, have kept me safe. So when I woke one Tuesday at 5 a.m. to catch the 6:30 MARC train from Baltimore to DC, I went in with the same mentality. But when it came to navigating DC, rather than “saving” me, these rules actually had another effect.

Taking the train was rather easy, and when I arrived at Union Station, I was surprised by how packed it was at 7:45 a.m. If this had been my old job, I wouldn’t even be awake yet. Of course, I only lived one mile away as opposed to 37. I bought my SmarTrip card a month in advance in anticipation of this day.

First things first, you have to understand the Baltimore transit system. It only costs $1.60 to go one-way on any form of public transportation. Instead of a SmarTrip card, they have a Charm Card, which you can add funds to online, but then must activate it at a separate fare box at the metro station. It can take up to three business days for it to process. Baltimore also offers day, weekly, and monthly passes. The monthly pass only costs $64, which I used to think was a lot because I got the student discount rate of $39, but now somewhat understanding how the DC metro works, this seems small. I’ve estimated that taking the DC metro twice a day during rush hour will cost me $146 per month in addition to the monthly $175 unlimited train pass (this is only from the Baltimore Camden line to DC; if I take the Baltimore Penn line, for example, my pass would not work and I would need to buy a $7 one-way ticket).

Okay, let’s get back to where we were. I am walking down the DC metro escalator to Union Station.

Rule #4 Always look like you know where you’re going

I pull out my SmarTrip card. Now in Baltimore, to access the metro with your Charm Card, you must press it against the pass entrance. A red light will beep and turn green, and then you can enter. When your card doesn’t have enough funds, it will stay red and won’t let you through.

So at the DC metro, I hover my card over the pass entrance. It stays red. Great, I think, it’s not activated. I try again and still no sound or green light. Meanwhile, a line forms behind me. It feels like 10 minutes although it’s only a few seconds. When I finally look up, I realize the gate has been open the whole time. I walk through. Nice, Tracy, I wonder if it charged me six entrance fees for that. Of course, I later learn the DC metro only charges upon exit.

Rule #7 Always be aware of your surroundings and stay away from “suspicious” characters

Once I’m at the station, I notice in my peripheral vision a man who appears to be homeless with ragged clothing and a plastic bag of clothes on the floor. I forget what it’s like to take public transportation, I think, and then move myself farther from the man.

When the train arrives, I end up in line right behind him, although it’s not a “him.” She’s actually dressed in a winter pea coat and carries two shopping bags onto the train with her. Suspicious, I’m sure.

Rule #4 Always look like you know where you’re going

I actually had to get off the train at metro center for a morning event. When I enter the station again around noon, I follow the crowd down the escalator. It isn’t until I reach the bottom do I realize I am on the wrong platform. Unlike the Baltimore metro, this station’s trains separate the platform into two. But instead of turning around and heading back up the escalators, I keep walking.

Once I make it to the other end of the platform, I go back up the escalators, and then come down on the other side. Crisis averted and luckily, no trains arrived in that time. When I tell my boyfriend this, he just laughs. “You are too prideful to even admit when you’re lost.” No comment.

Rule #8 Always leave yourself extra time and have a back-up plan – public transportation is anything but “reliable”

Everyone has warned me about “delays” on the red line. I think what they fail to forget is that I’m used to Baltimore public transportation, where sometimes there’s not even a delay – the bus or metro just doesn’t show.

In taking the train back to Bethesda, they were doing construction on one of the tracks so it was running on a single-track system. It turned out to be a 20 minute delay. I didn’t even notice the time. At minimum, I waited 15 minutes for every Baltimore line. Even a 10-minute delay seems like a blessing.

I’ve decided even the extra hour commute is worth not dealing with rush hour traffic along the beltway. I can read my book, work on my blog, catch up on television shows, and sleep. Even my blood sugar seems happier. After the stress of rush hour driving, it usually rose to 155 even though I hadn’t eaten anything, but with public transportation, I actually save insulin and money. I turn my insulin pump off for the 2.5 hour commute, and it stays stable. Plus, I get exercise from transferring between stations and walking the 1.1 mile to and from the train station.

And maybe, just maybe, I can learn to let my guard down a bit and say “hello” and “thank you” every now and then. But then I would just be emulating that “charm city” bit. One thing I like about DC travelers – they keep to themselves.

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