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
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