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Don't Block the Metro Box

I got an intriguing e-mail today from fellow blogger Jeff Gates, who is on a personal quest to bring the "Don't Block the Box" mentality to Metro.

You've seen this for years in city intersections, where there are signs urging drivers not to block the box, i.e the intersection, so that traffic can move through town. Gates sees a similar problem by Metro doors, where passengers tend to stand rather than moving to the center of cars so more passengers can get on. I've never talked to Gates before, but he seems pretty knowledgeable on this. (He even uses the word egress.)

Check out his blog on it and the picture he includes of what he wants Metro doorways to look like.

By Washington Post Editors  |  July 3, 2006; 11:29 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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I don't think the problem can be isolated from the poor seating layout. One major reason why people don't move into the center of the car is that they are afraid that they will be unable to worm past all the other people to exit. "Not blocking the box" won't make a difference with respect to that problem because the narrow aisle will remain.

The other reason I've heard for why people won't move in is that the full floor-to-ceiling poles are located near the doors. Short people have trouble reaching the rails mounted at ceiling level, and I think most people feel that holding onto the seatback bars doesn't help you balance. I'd like to see Metro use the metal straps that New York used to use (which have the added advantage of moving as you shift your weight as the train moves). I'd also like to see them introduce the padded leaning bars that are used on the London Underground--basically, in places where there is no seat along the car's wall, the Tube has a little padded butt-rest that is roughly at the height of the average person's butt. You lean against it, sort of like half-sitting but in a standing position, to help keep your balance when standing. It helps if you're carrying baggage en route to Paddington or Heathrow, for example. Given how Metro cars here in DC tend to slam to a stop or jerk into the station, Metro needs to be able to reassure skittish people that they will be able to maintain their balance even if they move away from the doors.

Posted by: Rich | July 3, 2006 2:02 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it's that people are afraid they won't be able to get off, but they have that "me. me! ME!!!" attitude and refuse to think about someone other than themselves-and they want to be first of the train so they can be first to the escaltor so they can be the first through the see where this is going. I see it at Shady Grove everyday. People blocking the doors so they can get off, the all out SPRINT to the escaltor...its disgusting.

Posted by: Gaithersburg | July 3, 2006 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Sometimes you have to sprint to make a bus. What's so wrong with that? (Besides the official Metro line about not running in the stations, because, *please*.)

Posted by: h3 | July 3, 2006 4:04 PM | Report abuse

I just spent a year riding buses in Baltimore in the absence of a car. I found the same problem there -- people huddling at the front of the bus, making it difficult for riders to enter. That happened without there being that floor-to-ceiling pole on metro cars. What's the deal?? It looked as if the huddled riders wanted to intimidate other riders. Only a few drivers requested that they move back. (And this was during the day; I'm newly retired and avoided buses during business rush hours.)

Posted by: Former Baltimorean | July 3, 2006 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Part of the problem with trying to hold on to the high horizontal bars at the "center" of the train lies in the fact that they were designed for tall people with no bags. That doesn't fit most commuters or people travelling to the airport or Union Station. Try holding on to the horizontal bar with a big shoulder bag on one shoulder and a purse with a shoulder strap on the other and you'll see that it is all too easy to inadvertently hit the seated passenger next to you.

Bench seating would have helped with this problem, as it would have moved the seated passengers back along the walls, but Metro chose not to use it. Many people with bags prefer to hold on to the vertical poles for just that reason--it gives them stability and enables them to avoid hitting others with their bags. Of course, the horizontal poles simply are too high for short people.

Also, the move to the center instruction assumes that you are young and able-bodied and capable of getting easily to the door when you arrive at your stop. That's just not the case for senior citizens, who move more slowly and who depend on grasping those vertical poles by the doors to get out of the door safely, etc. That's one reason I worry about proposals to remove the screens and vertical poles by the doors. I've seen too many old and frail people rely on being able to grasp those poles as they gingerly make their way out the door.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | July 3, 2006 4:41 PM | Report abuse

I agree with h3. It's kind of an American me-first-and-only-me trait that seems to make it very hard for us to think in terms of community. Americans, more than most others in the industrialized world, seem to have a problem grasping the equation that says: "if I sacrifice a little personally for a big gain for the rest of the people around me, and if everybody does the same, in the end we all come out ahead". It requires thinking all the way beyond your own nose.

It's the same mentality that has over half of America still driving SUVs even though catastrophic climate change driven by fossil fuel burning is already happening. It's the "well, my little contribution isn't much..." thinking.

Posted by: Mark | July 3, 2006 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Longtime Metro Rider: here's where your argument falls apart. I don't tend to see gangs of short, elderly people blocking train doors. The people who tend to stand right next to the door are people who are able-bodied. If anything, I see the smaller and older people moving to the middle or into a corner, because they don't want to get hit by the stampede.

Last Monday, I actually had to yell at a bunch of people because everyone stepped onto the train and just stopped, with total lack of regard for the hordes of disgruntled riders still on the platform. I had to literally bully my way onto the train (in uniform, no less) and there was easily room for ten people in the eisle.

Posted by: jw | July 3, 2006 5:17 PM | Report abuse


You misunderstand. I was making several points, perhaps I should have numbered them to separate them.

In addressing the issue of vertical poles and shields, I never said that elderly people stand by the door. I said that they rely on them to exit. You made a jump from that to assume I meant they too were "dorkers." Nope. Different point, related to something brought up in the other blog. In fact, I was referring to the fact that older people rise from the senior seats near the door and grasp the vertical poles in order to exit safely. Go back and read the comments at the blog to which Mr. Ginsberg linked, someone commented on the doorway poles and shields. Metro has been studying the option of removing those altogether; my comment about the elderly presupposed knowledge of those proposals. I think there was press coverage of those issues in the spring or summer of 2005.

Not only do I see elderly people totter as they hold on to those vertical poles, I've actually talked to my elderly and increasingly frail mother about her worry that the vertical poles near the doors will be removed in order to ease congestion. Funny that you jumped to the conclusion that she and people such as she are "dorkers," but no, she and they are not.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | July 3, 2006 5:50 PM | Report abuse

I see what caused the confusion: I wrote that "Also, the move to the center instruction assumes that you are young and able-bodied and capable of getting easily to the door when you arrive at your stop." I didn't make it clear I had switched to addressing problems for people SITTING in the senior seats near the door. No wonder you were confused. I should have added a transitional sentence to say, "Many seniors I know prefer to sit near the door in the senior seats. They are too slow and unsteady to rise and always make their way to the door from the seats in the center of the train."

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | July 3, 2006 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I remember there being no shields and poles by the doors when Metro first opened. As a result, the subway floor tended to buckle with the weight of riders standing by the door. This kept some of the doors from operating properly and Metro started a campaign to try to get people to stand away from the doors. Finally they reinforced the area by the doors, adding the poles, which helped keep the floors from buckling.

As for the "Don't Block the Box" campaign, I'd be against it. With the exit platforms sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left, I had the happy coincidence of working at the last stop in Washington with a right hand exit and the first stop in Virginia with an exit on that side. I was able to step on, stay within the "box" and step off when the door opened behind me, without blocking anyone.

I think people just need to be more considerate and also to remember that we have many tourists who aren't used to the metro. Using your voice to politely ask people to move is perfectly acceptable.

Posted by: Another Longtime Metro User | July 3, 2006 7:17 PM | Report abuse

I'm a daily MARC commuter from Baltimore. Innumerable mornings I (and a dozen or more other MARC commuters) have had to push past an extreme dorker (leaning against the shield with feet at least half-way to the other shield) at Union Station (center platform) just to get on a car with plenty of room, only to have the dorker almost literally knock people out of the way to get off at Judiciary Square or Gallery Place (side platforms).

This is not symptomatic of "me first" in getting off the subway. It is an antisocial "I don't give a damn, this is my space until I decide to give it up" attitude. I've even seen Metro police officers and other Metro employees display this type of antisocial attitude. I have NEVER seen a Metro employee say anthing to any dorker, let alone the extreme type of dorker described above.

Posted by: Mike in Baltimore | July 3, 2006 11:52 PM | Report abuse

Steven, thanks for posting a link to my blog post. Obviously, we all have strong opinions on what's causing the problem and ways to solve it.

We can't change human nature. No amount of education will motivate "dorkers" to be more responsible. Ok, maybe some subtle social pressure might --my reason for suggesting a common-sense rule (don't block the exit) be made visible with a visual and a simple phrase.

I agree that making the aisle wider would really help. I used to commute with two young children in a double stroller (back-to-back, not side-by-side). Try maneuvering that in a Metro car. Offering seats to those who need them would also help the elderly and others who need to sit down (you might be surprised to know that my "in depth research" during the time I commuted with my children showed that 90% of the people who offered me a seat were men).

The bottom line: seeing Metro make needed changes like these more quickly. It's disheartening to hear of plans for fixes scheduled for two years out.

Posted by: Jeff | July 4, 2006 8:18 AM | Report abuse

I agree that it is difficult to change human behavior. People either are considerate and aware of and responsive to the needs of others or they are not.

Of course, it might be a mistake to call every dorker "inconsiderate" (someone riding from Foggy Bottom (center platform) to Metro Center (center platform) can park him/herself by the door entered through and never block someone else's entry or exit. The two stations in between both have side platforms.) I have to admit, I sometimes do that when I ride from a doctor's appointment to Metro Center.

For longer rides, I don't dork, but, as a relatively short and not very aggressive person, although I don't stand directly in front of the door, I hover somewhat near one of the two ends of the train, if possible, rather than moving all the way to the center. I don't like the idea of not being able to hold on to a vertical pole and dislike trying to shove my way past bigger people while juggling my handbag and a big tote bag. I understand why others might find annoying my hovering at the ends of the train cars rather than moving at the way in, but at least I do move somewhat away from the doors, out of the box. I do wish Metro cars had wider aisles and bench seating. I suppose when Metro decided in the late 1960s or early 1970s on its design, it just wasn't anticipating the number of standees that it ended up having.

Although well intended, the problem with the "don't block the box" suggestion is enforcement. I agree with Mike from Baltimore that rarely do you see Metro employees or police say anything about inconsiderate or antisocial passengers. They might speak up about a safety matter but I've never heard one speak up in an effort to make the ride more pleasant or tolerable for any customer. The "quality" of the Metro riding experience just doesn't seem to be within their purview.

If you look at the number of people who flout the unspoken or spelled out rules on Metro or within stations (sitting with their feet up on seats, sprawling across two seats, drinking or eating), you can predict that a certain number of people are going to ignore the suggestion not to block the box. But maybe it is worth a try.

New, side issue: A far more pressing problem, if you will, is the crowded platforms. Some of them, such as the one at Pentagon City, feel downright dangerous at times. That station clearly was not designed with the number of users it eventually got in mind. Even Metro Center can be a problem; I had the frightening experience last week of riding down an escalator only to realize as I got to the bottom that there was no way to move ahead. And passengers behind me on the escalator were starting to press against me. I ended up letting out a yell and pushing my way forward through the gaggle of people standing right ahead of me on the platform. Definitely unsafe.

Posted by: Longtime Metro Rider | July 4, 2006 9:13 AM | Report abuse

1)put the handbag IN the totebag, stupid!
2)if you have a backpack- in spite of the name- once on the train either carry it at your side or set it on the floor between your feet. Bump me too many times with it on your back, and you may chase it- under a train.
3)briefly forget your fetish for the overhead railings once the train is stopped... still... motionless- how about letting go then? You can still- zealously- keep your precious spot, but at least there's now a possibility of your moving (just) out of the way if you're not welded to the pole.

Posted by: Vic Hugo | July 6, 2006 1:17 PM | Report abuse

It's one thing to stop in the door if there's no one behind you trying to get on, but don't stop there at all if others are trying to get in. Everyone deserves at least the chance/choice of squeezing on.

Also, you can create some "social pressure" by using the new annoying voice and the quick, unforgiving doors to your advantage. Just give the "dorker" a little push when you hear the voice. Likely, they're ignoring everybody and will be easy to tip out of the train.

Posted by: Justin | July 6, 2006 3:42 PM | Report abuse

It's an interesting idea, though from the pics I've seen of the new layout Metro wants to try, some of the new cars won't have that box anymore. The plexiglass partitions will be gone, replaced by railing along the wall where the ads/Metro maps currently reside, as will the obnoxiously placed floor-to-ceiling poles, with additional vertical poles attached to each seat (people seem to forget these exist, though in relatively small numbers, in Metro cars).

Plus look at how well the "don't block the box" campaign is working these days. Seems like I see at least one intersection downtown all blocked up on my way home from work.

Posted by: Mike B. | July 6, 2006 3:59 PM | Report abuse

One problem not addressed by his plan is the overcrowding that occurs especially when trains are running slow/late. We need that space!! Some passengers have to make connections and can't continue to wait for the next train indefinitely.

Posted by: Barbara A. | July 7, 2006 5:39 PM | Report abuse

I have to say as someone who barely grazes 5 feet, that I need those verticle poles. I would move further into the train but I do not want to be lurching around trying to hang onto someone's seat. Any redesign of the cars should take into consideration that a lot of people cannot reach the overhead poles.

Posted by: Shorty | July 7, 2006 10:42 PM | Report abuse

I've wondered if this plan might makes sense:

Each Metro train has three doors (actually, three on each side, but only three can be used at any given station).

Designate the middle door of each Metro train car to be the "exit" door and the other two doors at the ends to be the "entrance" doors.

Currently (with all the doors being used to both enter and exit the trains) when the stations are crowded, the people trying to get onto the train push in close to the train doors and this forces the people exiting to walk through a gauntlet. The people exiting the train have to walk single-file, thus slowing the exit at exactly the time it needs to quickest.

If the middle doors were the designated exit, people exiting the train would be able get off walking side-by-side two at a time because the people entering the train wouldn't be crowding them.

Furthermore, people on the train would tend to move toward the middle doors while the train is between stations. There would be a flow of people on each train car from the outer doors towards the middle.

It makes sense to designate two "enter" doors and only one "exit" door per train car because the people waiting at the station platform can't tell where exactly the entry doors will be (it depends on exactly where the train stops). The people on the train can always see where the exit door is.

Posted by: Frank | September 27, 2006 11:57 AM | Report abuse

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