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Binary Man: Add Food To Metro's Mix?

Binary Man is torn: He loves Metro's tough-guy attitude in sticking with its total ban on food and drink in Washington's train system through all these years. On the other hand, having grown up riding New York City's subways, he also relishes the pleasure of eating lunch while reading the paper and riding to his next destination.

In the end, Binary Man's antipathy toward rats wins out. Metro is hardly rodent-free, but it's a far sight better on that count than some of the country's more permissive transit systems. Keeping food out of Metro has worked just fine. So what's Metro doing proposing to set up retail kiosks--including food sales--at a dozen of its train stations?

The somewhat schizoid proposal would not involve lifting Metro's ban on food and drink. Rather, retailers would be permitted to sell food, but passengers wouldn't be allowed to consume it. Binary Man's "Does Not Compute" error code is flashing madly.

Sadly, Metro's approach to retail seems strictly focused on the bottom line, with little regard for the important role that transit retail can play in adding to the urban amenities that attract residents and visitors to the city. Metro management wants to find a single "master licensee" who would operate kiosks at all twelve of the stations involved in the plan. That would create a dull and counterproductive sameness utterly in conflict with what people cherish about urban retail--the distinctive character and unique offerings of non-chain, locally-owned stores.

The advantages of retail within the system are obvious: Just take a look at where New York City subway passengers congregate during off-hours on the system's platforms--you'll find people hanging out at or near the newsstands and other retail kiosks on the platforms, a way to gain an extra measure of safety as well as diversion. Retail in the subways provides extra eyes, helping to keep the peace nearly as effectively as police patrols might.

(Metro's proposal would put retail kiosks at these stations: Anacostia, Fort Totten, Gallery Place-Chinatown and Metro Center in the District; King Street, Rosslyn, Vienna/Fairfax-GMU and West Falls Church in Virginia; and Branch Avenue, Glenmont, New Carrollton and Shady Grove in Maryland. The list seems skimpy and not terribly logical; there's a whole lot more foot traffic at several Red and Orange/Blue Line stations in the District and northern Virginia than at some of the stations on this list.)

There is some evidence that underground retail can thrive even in systems that don't allow passengers to eat or drink. San Francisco's BART system and Chicago's subways are supposedly food- and drink-free, yet they've found success with transit retail.

But the essential flaw in the proposal is the idea that although the kiosks could sell food, the actual eating of said food would still be banned within the Metro system. Metro's proposal says kiosks would be permitted to offer "food items packaged to discourage consumption in the Metrorail system; e.g., take-home dinners."

Binary Man pronounces himself stumped: What sense does that possibly make? Who would buy a sandwich in a train station for the express purpose of not eating it anytime soon? If you're on your way out of the station, surely the food offerings once you ascend to street level will be vastly superior. If you're on your way into the station, what hungry commuter is going to buy a snack and then say to himself, "Oh! I must not consume this fine gyro sandwich because it would violate longstanding Metro policy!"

A recent story in the Examiner newspaper reminds us that Metro has gotten very slack in its enforcement of its zero tolerance rules about food and drink. An astonishingly low number of citations--52 in an entire year--were handed out to riders who broke the food ban.

Could Metro be easing away from the no-food policy it has had since its birth? Metro officials deny any such intent. They seem to believe that food can be sold not to be eaten, at least, not anytime soon. Binary Man does not buy this. If you sell it, they will eat it.

But Binary Man wants to be able to buy stuff in the train station. He would buy shoelaces. He would buy an umbrella. He might buy a hat. He would buy, you'll pardon the expression, a newspaper. This does not yet sound like a business plan. The nagging fact is that the things it makes the most sense to buy down under are food and drink.

So Binary Man says, sure, open the way for retail in the train stations, and see if someone smart comes up with stuff to sell. But hold the line on the no-food policy--let folks have their water, but no gum, no hot dogs and no sodas. This is, after all, Washington, not New York, and for reasons Binary Man will never really comprehend, people here like places to be clean and tidy. Go figure.

By Marc Fisher |  May 8, 2009; 8:32 AM ET  | Category:  Binary Man , City life , Food , Metro , Transportation
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I assume that if this happens that the no food/drink policy will be dead but I wanted to point out that it is conceivable that people will grab a nosh on their way OUT of the station on their way back to their offices.

Posted by: Cossackathon | May 8, 2009 9:50 AM

I agree - no food or drink. Although I do recall watching one idiot eat soup on the Red Line once. I was mesmerized. Not sure how much he swallowed, but if you can eat soup by osmosis, then he got a good meal.

It might be nice to be able to pick up batteries, flowers, maybe a book. Who knows. Can they do vending WITHOUT food?

Posted by: mwcob | May 8, 2009 10:20 AM

I think this makes total sense. People can grab food and eat it when they're off Metro. What is so hard to understand? There are already vendors right outside Foggy Bottom, I don't see how this is very different.

Posted by: VT2003 | May 8, 2009 10:23 AM

Many of the proposed stations currently do not have any convience stores or restaurants within a block or two of the station, so I can definately see the benefit of having kiosks selling newspapers, magazines, umbrellas, sunglasses, tylenol, bandaids, bottled drinks, packaged sandwiches, granola bars, etc. Most of the stations are also towards the ends of the lines, where many people transfer to or from a bus. This allows someone to not have to go out of their way to pick up a magazine for the train ride. I could definately see myself taking my usual bus to Glenmont metro, stopping to grab a red bull in the morning and then downing it prior to entering the system.

And I don't think you will really see an increase in the current amount of eating on metro. There are plenty of stations downtown where there are food vendors selling things right outside a station entrance or there is a starbucks 20 feet from a station entrance. What is currently preventing someone who purchases items at these places from eating or drinking on the train?

I do think that food items should only be sold outside of the fairgates. This should also help to keep the number of people that break the rule down.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | May 8, 2009 10:24 AM

One should only be allowed to consume alcoholic beverages prepared in a blender w/ tequila or rum while riding Metro. No other food or bevarages should be allowed.

Grab a drink on the way to work. Or on the way home!

Posted by: sheepherder | May 8, 2009 10:28 AM

Actually, I think most of the station choices are logical. They include the primary transfer stations (Metro Center, Gallery Place - Chinatown, Rosslyn). Fort Totten is also a transfer station. I'd add L'enfant Plaza to the list. And both West Falls Church and Vienna have lots of bus connections (and the nearest retail is enough of a walk that people who connect to buses don't use it and people who live nearby tend to go home and get their cars). If there were, say, an On the Fly truck at Vienna Station, I think it would get great business from the people who live in the nearby condos and townhouses.

I'd like to see a real newstand (newspapers, magazines, crossword puzzle books that don't assume we're so dumb we can only do easy crosswords), some convenience items (batteries, tape, and pantyhose are things I commonly quickly run into a store for). Flowers and maybe greeting cards would be nice, too.

Posted by: xenophilia | May 8, 2009 10:29 AM

Why is the argument all about food? I agree with the others that vendors selling magazines, newspapers, umbrellas, batteries, bandaids, aspirin and the like would be very convenient. Please keep the no-food policy and don't sell food. Duh.

Posted by: Diner65 | May 8, 2009 10:38 AM

I have now ridden the Metro 5 days a week for 8-1/2 years from Union Station to Farragut North and there is no question that more and more people are eating and drinking on the train and leaving empty paper bags, soda bottles and whatever behind. Perhaps it was the notorious "french fry" incident with a female student some years ago that made Metro gunshy about policing eating and drinking, but to this rider they seem to have all but given up.

Posted by: purdyjack | May 8, 2009 10:49 AM

The carpets (why the heck are there carpets) smell like a hermit crab tank already. Food isn't going to make it any less unsanitary. And if you really have never seen a rat or roach on Metro, it's because you're a day-tripper who doesn't ride late enough. They're there. They're big.

So bring on the food, tear out the carpets and let me have my breakfast in peace. Low blood sugar on the rails certainly isn't making Metro riders any saner to deal with.

Posted by: TboneRex | May 8, 2009 10:59 AM

I would hate to see the same lack of variety that we see in our sidewalk vendors in DC. It would be great to have different offerings.

I think allowing consumption on the train would be necessary for success. The best option might be to require that food and drink offerings be of a more portable nature--sandwiches OK, but bowls of soup, not so much. Drinks would have to have lids, etc.

BUT, metro would have to put trash cans back into the stations or else the system would be even more cluttered with garbage than it already is. I can just see the empty soda cans rolling around the trains.

Posted by: greatscott47 | May 8, 2009 11:10 AM

A morning cup of coffee or an evening beer while waiting for my train sounds very civilized to me.

Posted by: keith10 | May 8, 2009 12:29 PM

I'd rather see more enforcement of the no-good rule on Metro than a complete cave in. The seats and carpet are just not compatible with eating and drinking. Like not smoking, not eating and drinking is something we can do to make our commutes a little more civilized.

And please lower the volume on those iPods, people.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | May 8, 2009 7:20 PM

I greatly appreciate Metro's no-eating and no-drinking rules. I don't want to smell, see, or hear someone consuming food or drink nor to step in, sit on, or bush against its remnants or residues. The idea is just offensive.

Selling other retail items is completely agreeable, but food and drink? No.

Posted by: sixems | May 10, 2009 7:53 AM

it's win-win for Metro. they get the money from the food kiosks and the money from the phenomenal number of tickets they will issue for eating on the Metro.

Posted by: LauraElkins | May 11, 2009 10:37 AM

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