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Who's More Patient?

Are drivers more patient during travel delays than train riders?

I was speaking with Metro Transit Police Chief Polly Hanson and some of her officers last week to answer some reader letters. In an aside, she said she thought drivers stuck in traffic tended to be more tolerant of the delays than Metrorail riders. We talked a little about why that might be. (She wasn't endorsing delays of any sort.)

I'll offer some thoughts, and I'd like to hear yours about whether there is a difference and if so, why.

Information is key. In the car, you're in your own space, with a source of information and entertainment. Sometimes, I hear from drivers who are frustrated not only by the delays but also by the lack of information about them on the radio. They don't like sitting in slow traffic, but it's somehow more tolerable if they know what's going on and have a clue about how long it might last.

When a Metro train stops, many people are counting the seconds until the train operator uses the speaker. Sometimes the operator says nothing. Sometimes the operator says, "There's a train directly ahead of us," which usually means a delay of under a minute. Sometimes it's a delay caused by single-tracking around a problem, and the minutes can start to add up.

Drivers -- even people who commute a really long way -- learn to expect the traffic to slow or stop in certain areas. While they don't like it, they build in the expectation. Trains aren't supposed to stop anywhere but stations, and riders build in an expectation of constant progress.

Even in slow or stopped traffic, the driver still controls the steering wheel. Eventually, there will be something to do with it. Should I try to work over a couple of lanes and bail out at the next exit? Should I stay on this road but move over a lane to get around the problem? What's that guy in the next lane going to do? Some train riders have their Ipods, some brought a book, but none has any control over where the train is going.

Many factors can affect a commuter's frustration level: Is the journey to work or from work? If there enough time built into the trip to account for some delay? Is the scheduled time of arrival inflexible? But generally, the internal clock doesn't start ticking quite as quickly during a road delay as it does during a train delay.

By Robert Thomson  |  March 5, 2007; 7:59 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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One reason I find train disruptions so much more frustrating is my perception that train travel shouldn't be nearly as difficult. Roads can be disrupted by bad drivers, spilled loads, animals in the roadway, poor surface conditions, or many other factors. I know I'm over-simplifying this, but trains shouldn't have to deal with bad drivers or debris. For the most part, they have two stages, stop and forward. They set their own schedule and know who exactly will be on the tracks and when. Many of the Metro delays seem to be the result of equipment or Metro employees that have failed.

Posted by: Centreville | March 5, 2007 9:03 AM | Report abuse

I think part of it is that the reason many take the train is to avoid the car traffic -- to have the waiting spill onto teh rails is sort of like getting kicked when you're down. There's also the visual aspect, in a train you generally don't see what's causing the stop (trains ahead, etc) whereas in a car you can see the cars packed around/ahead of yours.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 5, 2007 9:04 AM | Report abuse

You hit the nail on the head, Mr. Thomson. A driver EXPECTS delays. A rider DOES NOT. You can't bail out of a stopped train and find a side route. The now infamous "smoke in the tunnel" incident last week ahd me up in arms. I am a single father of 2 children who has to pick up from daycare before a specific time or ridiculous charges by the minute are added and possible contact being made to the county.

What was I, stuck in Farrgut West with little to no detail of what was going on, to do? Hop in a DC cab and travel to Herndon/Monroe Park and ride with a possible $50 fare? Try to catch a commuter bus that would put me a few miles within reach of my car but with no way other than feet to get there?

The delays that riders share are more centered around the "helpless" feeling I have. I put my faith, my job and my kids on the line every time I step onto the Metro. They have let me down countless times.

Posted by: Sterling Park | March 5, 2007 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Great post. One reason I don't use Metro as much are the delays. I'm getting claustrophobic sitting in a stopped Metro car and it's not any easier not knowing why. I feel more in control in a car. Lately when it's been bad, I pull over and take a break and even walk around a bit. Works great for my blood pressure. Don't feel like I can do this with a stopped Metro. I feel like a prisoner instead - I am at their mercy.

Posted by: Bob | March 5, 2007 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Trains are worse because if youre frustrated in the car you can always heave a cup of coffee or ice at the other drivers.

Posted by: Stick | March 5, 2007 9:50 AM | Report abuse

My commute from Falls Church to DC takes 50 minutes door to door by metro. If I drove, I could make it in less time on most days, but every now and then it would take longer. When metro is predictable, it's worth the extra time. When metro is not predictable, it takes away the one benefit and reminds me that I could be in my car instead of walking in the cold and standing in a crowded train.

Posted by: Falls Church Commuter | March 5, 2007 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure if I would say drivers or riders are more patient - I metro to work & there are often delays, but there rarely seems to be anyone who gets all that frustrated. There will usually be a collective groan, but that's about it.

That being said, I totally agree that being in control & able to find out what's going on is huge. So many times we'll be stopped in a tunnel or at a station ("holding at this station for 5 minutes") with absolutely no indication of what's going on up ahead. My favorite is "a police incident", b/c hey, is this like a terrorist thing we should be worried about (although I can see not wanting to panic a whole trainload of people) or something more minor? Usually the most we'll get is "there is a delay up ahead". Well, what's causing the delay? Trains just backed up? Derailment? Sick person/police incident? How long will it be? 5 minutes? 2 hours? We just want information, Metro!

Posted by: Liz | March 5, 2007 10:33 AM | Report abuse

What makes me most mad about Metro is their unwillingness to post information about delays OUTSIDE the fare gates. I am lucky enough to have a two stop communte -- so if there's a major Metro incident it makes sense for me to walk or take a taxi. It never fails to infuriate me when I make my way down the escalators and through the fare gates at Woodely Park or Farragut North only to see a mass of humanity clogging the platforms. And the injury added to the insult is that I'm still charged $1.35 when I turn around and make my way back up to the street.

PS -- and I do subscribe to the e-mail/pager incident alert system but find that it is remarkably inaccurate.

Posted by: Tell me about it | March 5, 2007 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Metro delays are intolerable because the whole point of a Metro system is to avoid traffic and to rely reliably and on time. People understand the uncertainty and risk of being our onthe roads, but these factors are not supposed to exist on the subway.

Posted by: bkp | March 5, 2007 11:30 AM | Report abuse

To me, the best thing about driving is the options you have. I can have my coffee (or stop for it), I can change my route to dodge traffic or just for the variation, I can control the temperature in my car to my comfort, and my seat is always available and never crowded. All of these things make it so much easier to stay cool and patient when delays do occur.

Posted by: 23112 | March 5, 2007 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I think that it boils down to the issue of control. In your car, as you mentioned, you are at the steering wheel. In the train, it is out of your hands. Especially if you are inside a stopped train--you can't even get out of the situation.

Posted by: Deb | March 5, 2007 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I quit a job, got a new one, and limited the area in which I purchased my home based exclusively on my desire to use public transportation. I just cannot take traffic. It's completely absurd to me. I'd much rather kick back on a bus or metro and relax with a book, some tunes, or even nothing at all than sit in a car moving forward inch by inch.

Posted by: Eric | March 5, 2007 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Quick follow up:

It is specifically the lack of control that allows me to relax more on the metro or bus than in a car. I get a little aggravated if there's a long delay, but I don't have to constantly evaluate the road ahead, think about alternate routes, try to make that light, worry about getting into an accident, etc. No, I like to let go and let someone else get me there.

Posted by: Eric | March 5, 2007 12:29 PM | Report abuse

To summarize and echo the posters above, Metro delays are more frustrating because Metro operates in a controlled environment, where people give up some measure of autonomy (destination choice, departure time) in order to gaine some measure of convenience (not having to deal with other autonomous folk and their colorful interpretations of traffic laws, propensity to get into accidents, etc., that lead to delays). After having given up that autonomy, it's tough when Metro then denies you some of the convenience it promises.

So there's the difference in frustration. But the amount of patience then exercised depends on the individuals involved.

Posted by: Lindemann | March 5, 2007 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Face it.

The reason people are more annoyed by Metro delays is that Metro is ordinarily so much more reliable than driving in rush hour. If they drive, they know they're going to be delayed, it isn't anything out of the ordinary.

Posted by: TransitRider | March 5, 2007 1:22 PM | Report abuse

"Face it.

The reason people are more annoyed by Metro delays is that Metro is ordinarily so much more reliable than driving in rush hour. If they drive, they know they're going to be delayed, it isn't anything out of the ordinary."

That's actually a great point, though I'd revise it; Metroing/busing and driving are equally reliable in opposite respects. You KNOW traffic's gonna probably suck, and are pleasantly surprised when it doesn't. You likewise know the metro/bus will probably be on time and take between x and y amount of time to get you to your destination. You're unpleasantly surprised when things are running late.

Oh, and I have to say, the "NextBus" pilot they are running is absolutely amazing. My line (F4) is one of the routes that it is being tested on, and it is incredibly accurate. I don't think I've missed a bus or waited more than 5 minutes since the feature was introduced. I just open the NextBus page on and go about my business. The page auto-refreshes every minute or so, and I just sip my coffee and leave when there's 5 - 10 minutes left until the next bus will arrive. I seriously hope this becomes a permanent, system wide offering.

Posted by: Eric | March 5, 2007 1:39 PM | Report abuse

If you drive you expect delays.

If you take Metro you don't expect delays (at least weekdays).

Since I always have a book, I just read and enjoy the extra few minutes before work (I don't usually allow my schedule to be so tight I can't give up 10 or 15 minutes).

If I drove all I can do is sit there and listen to the radio, which I find far less relaxing.

Posted by: Reader | March 5, 2007 1:40 PM | Report abuse

23112 got into this a bit. It's about control. If I'm stuck on K Street in my car, I have at least some control - turn down 19th St., go around Washington Circle and over to M St., head towards the Whitehurst, take 66, etc. I can change the radio station, get the temperature to where I'd like it, can use the phone, etc. There is the expectation that there could be a delay, so we can find ways to deal with the pain of it. On Metro, I am jammed into a ridiculously uncomfortable space, with people shoving, barking at eachother rudely, smacking into me with their bags or newspapers. It's inevitably either miserably hot or uncomfortably cold, which isn't what I want to deal with when I've just slogged through rain/unshoveled snow/80 degree heat at 830am. So when there's a problem, it's incredibly frustrating, because there's no way out, and there's no logic to the fact that, as someone pointed out, all that train has to do is stop and start without screwing up, and they cant get that right. And they want to charge me even MORE money to do that.

Posted by: DC_Mike | March 5, 2007 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I guess after years of "jam dodging," I just found that no route saves you may be moving more when you take that alternate route, but in the end, on average, you never get anywhere any faster. It's all an illusion that helps you deal with the some of the worst traffic in the nation.

Plus, I look at it from a 'usefulness' perspective. Time on the bus or metro can be spent productively (reading, doing puzzles, writing, etc); when driving, productivity is impossible, so that part of your day is utterly lost.

And then, of course, there is the environmental aspect.

Posted by: Eric | March 5, 2007 2:17 PM | Report abuse

I agree those metro alert emails are pointless. I used to get the initial notice of the delay and the followup saying the dealy was cleared at the same time. I unsubscribed altogether because no useful and TIMELY informationwas ever given.

Metro is frustrating more so than traffic because you're held against your will on a stopped train with 100 other agitated strangers. You can't see ahead of you or behind you, and like others have said, the lack of precise and complete information on what's going on to cause the delay so that contigency planning can take place renders many people helpless. Getting angry at feeling impotent is normal. Realizing you have no choice but to endure it is sadistic.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | March 5, 2007 2:24 PM | Report abuse

I also have to take issue with the idea that drivers are more patient. I get infuriated during traffic jams, and only mildly annoyed during Metro delays, mostly because I always bring work to do on the metro and therefore don't feel like I'm completely wasting my time. (Of course, recognizing this aspect of my personality is one reason I've structured my life to avoid a car commute.) That said, traffic jams do not tend to cause more people to squeeze into your car and deprive you of a seat.

While we're dreaming about increased Metro resources (i.e. displaying expected delays outside the stations) let's display next train arrival times too. If it's late at night, and I know it's going to be 12 minutes till the next train, I can go have a coffee, run into the drugstore, whatever. As it is I'm stuck waiting on the platform thinking "damn, should've run that errand after all..."

Posted by: Erica | March 5, 2007 2:49 PM | Report abuse

I'd agree with just about all of the other comments already posted and add another--being stuck in a Metro delay is physically uncomfortable. Jerky movements, perhaps you're standing, and delays can cause platforms and cars to become overcrowded.

Posted by: mizbinkley | March 5, 2007 3:07 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Anonymous | March 5, 2007 3:09 PM | Report abuse


Oh, that reminds me, the announcements! Announcements that provide important delay info, great! Constant reminders to move in, thank us for our patience, whatever, annoying!

Posted by: mizbinkley | March 5, 2007 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Hey, they can't even spell Centreville right on their busses, do you really think they're going to care??? No, not until it gets so bad and nobody is riding it will they scratch their head and say "What happened?"

That's the nature of big business today is not to serve the customer but to serve the bottom line. In all of this, their first thought is how to make more money. My first thought would be, how do we increase ridership and make it enjoyable for everyone? That would be the smart way to think because then the bottom line speaks for itself at that point. If your customer service sucks, your business will suffer but a lot of business don't get that, not just Metro.

Posted by: Another Centreville | March 5, 2007 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Yes, the fact that you are sitting in a train in a tunnel (unless on an above ground portion of the system) is what most distinguishes delays affecting Metro riders from those affecting drivers. There probably isn't a rider who remembers the Sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway who didn't think of that the first time he or she got on a Metro train after 9/11. Or shake his or her head after hearing the news of the London Underground attack. Metro seems oblivious to that distinction, however, or to the very idea that people may feel anxious or uncomfortable on packed trains stuck in tunnels. Some train operators are good about keeping riders informed of the reasons of the delays. Others are thoughtless and seem as if they couldn't care less about what we know and when we know it.

Posted by: Tunnels versus roads | March 5, 2007 3:42 PM | Report abuse

The most I ever used the METRO was about three times a week. I've had a few delayed trains and once I was forced to disembark and take a bus. The problems I experienced were always minor compared to the inconvenience of driving and parking. In DC we live with many ineffective bureaucracies but I love the METRO!

Posted by: Mel | March 5, 2007 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Erika, I agree that if I could get work done, or anything productive, Metro would be more relaxing. After two years on the Orange line though, I can say that during delays, I never had the space around me to even open a book. I usually had somebody's shoulder in my face and spent the time just trying to avoid awkward eye contact with the other miserable passengers around me. The only break in the non-action was when somebody tried to pack themselves into an already overcrowed train and screamed at the onboard folks to move to the center, as though the center of the car contains an infinite amount of space. Then there's the guy talking on his cell phone to his young bride about what they could cook with their pork chops tonight. Goodbye Metro, I started driving two months ago and love it.

Posted by: Centreville | March 5, 2007 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I've done both commutes for a few years and was more tolerant of delays on metro. The reason is that you are "actively" commuting when driving and "passively" commuting when metroing. It's frustrating when traffic is preventing you from accomplishing what you are trying to do (drive). With metro, your involvement in the process is to stand/sit and maintain a minimal level of consciousness. Delays just mean you daydream a little longer.

Posted by: IR | March 5, 2007 4:37 PM | Report abuse

At least in a car, you can provide someone with a pretty good guess of when you're going to be there. In Metro's case, you may or may not be able to make the call to let them know you'll be late; if you do, then you still may not be able to tell the person you're calling when you'll be there.

Posted by: Jarrod. | March 6, 2007 9:04 AM | Report abuse

From all the postings about this subject, I see one word repeated over and over again--"Me, me, me, me, me, me." No one wants travel delays caused by others, whether it's on Metro or the Beltway. I say get over it--there are always going to be inconveniences whether you chose to drive or take Metro. I say the best of the two is Metro and the hell with driving!

Posted by: Del Ray Alexandria, Va | March 7, 2007 9:21 AM | Report abuse

"In Metro's case, you may or may not be able to make the call to let them know you'll be late"

Switch to Verizon. The service works in about 90% of the metro and even when it's tough to get a call out because of low signal, you can almost always get a text out. And baring "smoke in the tunnel" or "a train derailment" your delay on metro is probably not going to be more than 5-10 minutes. With traffic jams it's tough to know just how far that jam goes on for.

Posted by: Laura | March 7, 2007 3:37 PM | Report abuse

"With traffic jams it's tough to know just how far that jam goes on for."

Nope, XM214 has traffic going all the time, 103.5-FM has it going every eight minutes or so. I can always find the traffic reports somewhere then plan an alternate route such as what happened on I-66 Monday. I got home 70 minutes before my roommate who was coming in from the same area. On Metro however, they give you a blank response, keep you in the dark, charge you for going a different route, wont let you off the train and when you are finally off the train may have to deal with a surly station manager who likes to throw his weight around because he's tired of sitting.

I would switch to Verizon but their pesky black holes along the Beltway and I-95 along with several parts of I-66 and the Fairfax County Parkway were just too much to deal with in the dropped calls.

Posted by: Jarrod | March 8, 2007 9:10 AM | Report abuse

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