A few weeks ago, I took a trip to London and saw some very cool things! While I was there, I took the Underground most of the time and figured that I would make a quick list for anybody who ever wants to visit Washington, DC and is familiar with London.
First things first: some terminology. In London, the system is the Underground. In DC, the system is Metro. The long name of the system is WMATA, or Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Nobody actually calls it WMATA though, Metro would be the proper term.
Metro and Bus
Like the London Oyster card, the DC Metro uses a contactless card called Smartrip. Put it close to the reader, and the gates will open, allowing you to enter the system. Paper farecards were accepted until 2016, and were largely replaced because the maintenance of the machines to process the paper farecards became prohibitively expensive. Fares are based off of time(rush-hour or non-rush) and distance traveled.
Metro buses also accept the Smartrip card, making it easy to pay for the buses and trains. The convenient part about using a Smartrip card on the bus is that you get free two-hour transfers between buses, which can be useful if you need to travel on more than one bus.
A number of other local jurisdictions also have their own bus services. This includes Arlington Transit, Fairfax Connector, Alexandria Dash, Ride On, and DC Circulator. As far as I am aware, all of the other local bus services also take Smartrip cards as payment.
If you’re comfortable taking a bus, it is definitely a plausible way to travel around, but may be slow and not always direct.
You can pick up a Smartrip card at any Metro station(go to the fare machines). Cards can also be topped up there, or if you’re on a bus you can use the card reader on the bus to add more money to the card. If you need to do this, you probably want to wait until everybody else has boarded the bus. Press the button to add more money(left side of reader), tap Smartrip, insert money, and tap Smartrip again to have the fare loaded.
Other Metro Thoughts
The DC Metro is not as dense or have trains as often as the Underground, but it does have a few advantages. Like London, the trains display the last line on the route that they are going to. For example, the Silver line has two endpoints: Largo Town Center and Wiehle-Reston East. You need to know which direction you are going in order to get on the correct train. On the new 7000-series cars, the announcer on the train is a computerized voice; the earlier cars have the engineer making the announcements, which can be notoriously unclear.
Like London, each platform has an LED board showing the next train coming into the station. This board shows the line that the train is for(Green/Yellow/Blue/Orange/Silver/Red), the station it is going to, and how many cars the train has. There is a push to hopefully have all 8-car trains, however there are still many 6-car trains on the Metro, so those trains will be a little shorter. Since the Metro makes large use of having multiple lines share the same physical tracks, depending on where you are going you may not need to get on the same color train. For example, to get between Rosslyn and Smithsonian stations, you can take either the Orange line going to New Carrolton, the Blue line to Largo Town Center, or the Silver line to Largo Town Center.
The DC Metro is nicer than London in at least two respects: the accessibility of the stations, and the transfer from one line to another. On the accessibility side, all of the Metro trains are on straight platforms and have no steps up(or down!) into the cars. This also makes it very easy to use if you are disabled. If you need an elevator though, if the elevator at the station you are going to is broken you can get a bus transfer from another station; listen for station announcements or check the Metro website. Transferring from one line to another is also very easy, since the trains go to the same station, and at most you have one escalator to go up(or down). Why the Underground stations are very cramped and have a ton of stairs and turns between the stations is a mystery to me.
If you’re visiting DC as a tourist, you’re probably planning on going to the museums. The good news is that for the most part, all of the museums are situated around the national mall. This means that they are walkable, although you may walk a lot! Some places you probably want to want to take the Metro to so that you’re not walking a large distance. Unlike London, where the crosswalk is a separate stage in the light cycle, for the most part US traffic light cycles have you crossing with traffic at the same time. This makes it difficult for traffic to turn left or right, and so sometimes the cycle will allow pedestrians or traffic to go first. The indicators for if you can walk are also nice and clear, with either a walking man or a hand telling you to stop. When the hand comes up, nearly all of the walking indicators also have a separate display counting down the seconds that you have left until the light will change. This is very useful so that you can see how long you have until you need to clear the intersection, and is one thing that I missed when I was in London.
I don’t really have a conclusion, this is just some information for people who may be interested. There’s much more information that I could put here, but this post is long enough as-is. Have fun!
> Why the Underground stations are very cramped and have a ton of stairs and turns between the stations is a mystery to me.
Mostly because most of the system was built before the second World War – the oldest parts are from 1863, and you can’t fault them for not anticipating back then how many people would use it 150 years onwards – and also because digging tube lines in London is incredibly difficult because there is a lot of underground infrastructure already there, as well as foundations for some very old buildings. To give you an idea: for Crossrail, the latest underground rail line, they had to bore a tunnel between a tunnel of the Northern line and an escalator shaft, with only a few centimetres of clearances between them.
Newer stations, such as those on the Jubilee Line extension (built in the 90s) are much bigger. For example: this is Canary Wharf: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canary_Wharf_tube_station#/media/File:Canary_Wharf_concourse_and_concourse_roof.jpg