8 lessons about great transit I learned riding the Paris Métro
Paris has one of the world’s great subway systems. Beyond its truly impressive coverage and service quality, here are eight wonderful details about how it operates that US systems would do well to mimic.
Door knobs on a Paris metro train.
1. Door knobs speed trains
In DC and in many US subway systems, when trains pull into stations passengers wait for the train operator to open the doors. That adds a few seconds to every stop while the train idles on the platform, doors shut. Waiting passengers tap their feet and cross their arms.
All those seconds, at every station, every trip, all day, add up. The result is not only less happy riders, but also slower trains that come less frequently and carry fewer people than the system’s theoretical maximum.
In Paris, those delays don’t happen. Each door has a manual knob or button that passengers can push to enter or exit at their own pace. For safety, the doors are all locked while the train is moving quickly. But as it comes to a halt the doors unlock, and passengers can immediately open the doors to exit trains.
Here’s a video, showing how the whole operation makes exiting a train noticeably faster than on WMATA:
WMATA did have automatic doors up until 2008, which were faster than the operator-controlled doors of today. But that was eight years ago, and there’s no indication they’ll be fixed any time soon.
Why do WMATA station platforms have so few seats? Especially at side platform stations, why not just line the entire platform with one long bench?
Check out Paris’ Chatelet station, where that’s exactly the layout:
Most Paris stations aren’t like Chatelet. Frankly, with sub-five-minute headways most of the time, a lot of seating isn’t as crucial there as it is in DC. But there’s been many a day I’ve stood for 15 minutes in a WMATA station wishing it had this feature.
3. Flip-up seats add capacity
The first row of seats inside Paris’ train doors flip up. On sparsely-populated trains, riders can sit in the seats comfortably. On especially crowded ones, riders can stand, creating more space on the train.
Yes, riders in Paris sitting on these seats do seem to usually get up and create more space when the train gets crowded. It seems to be part of Paris transit etiquette, like standing on the left on DC escalators. Not everyone does it, but enough do to make a difference.
This arrangement also makes it easier for people in wheelchairs to ride without blocking the aisle.
4. Open gangways really do work
US transit systems are slowly beginning to catch on to the benefits of longer open-gangway trains. If passengers can move from front to back of trains without getting off, that makes trains less crowded and boosts capacity.
All new or recently refurbished lines in Paris have open gangways. And they’re wonderful.
5. Great late night service is possible with only two tracks
Paris’ metro lacks express tracks just like DC’s, and it runs basically comparable hours to WMATA. It’s also decades older than Metrorail. It must have at least similar maintenance needs, and no more time in the day to accomplish them.
Yet somehow Paris manages to run frequent trains late into the night.
A train every 4 minutes at 10:21 pm.
I have no idea how they do it. When do maintenance workers do their work? How do they keep up tracks with trains coming every four minutes?
I wish I knew. If you know, send Mr. Wiedefeld an explanatory note.
And though a bridge over the Seine is a special place, Paris’ els have nice aesthetic touches elsewhere too.
7. Wayfinding can be beautiful
“If you can make something pretty, why not make it pretty?” My wife and I kept coming back to that thought as we explored Paris. These signs, telling riders which direction their metro train is headed are one example of why.
In DC we already put location-specific bus maps and neighborhood maps inside every Metro station. Why not unique maps for destinations to which infrequent riders often travel, like airports and stadiums?
What details like these have you noticed on other countries’ transit systems, that you’d like to see imported to the US?
Closing Metro lines for months could work, but only if the region provides transit alternatives
WMATA may shut down entire rail lines for months in order to catch up on maintenance more quickly (though, officials noted, no decisions have been made yet). If a shutdown does happen, Metro must thoroughly prepare, communicate, and provide riders who rely on Metro with reasonable alternatives.
Special event bus shuttles. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.
A months-long shutdown may make sense
For years, WMATA has been struggling to perform maintenance at nights and on weekends. There’s so much work to do that they can’t complete it all.
A months-long shutdown would theoretically put an end to that, or at least significantly reduce the need for weekend track work. It would let WMATA catch up on all its maintenance needs for a line in one fell swoop. We’d be trading a few months of pain for years of happiness.
WMATA GM Paul Wiedefeld says he is indeed considering the idea. He adds, “In the last few years, we’ve been trying to do this [maintenance] in a sort of piecemeal way, and basically we’ve alienated everyone.”
He’s right. Working at night and on weekends is fine when you’re just doing preventative maintenance. But after years of increasingly terrible weekend service, it’s become clear that model won’t work with WMATA’s need for major rebuilding. With no end to the rebuilding in sight, it’s time to try something new.
This is getting old. Photo by the author.
Closing an entire line end to end may not prove necessary. You can rebuild the Virginia section of a line without closing the Maryland section, for example. And closing the core is much harder than closing outer sections. But closing long segments of a line, say four or five stations long, may well make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if a whole line needs work, maybe shutting it down completely is the way to go.
Whether or not WMATA has the equipment and work crew capacity to do such a big job is an open question. But if so, or if it can expand as needed to do so, it may not be a terrible idea.
Leaving riders without options wouldn’t be acceptable
So yes, it’s very possible that closing major segments of Metro lines for months would be the best way to get this painful decade of rebuilding behind us.
But we absolutely cannot simply shut down Metro and hope for the best. Metrorail is not an optional service for the Washington region. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on it every day, including many who don’t have access to cars. Telecommuting saved us for one day, but can’t work for months on end.
If this is really going to happen, WMATA and the affected jurisdictions would have to work together to provide transit alternatives. We’d need special bus shuttles to replace the shuttered Metro line, temporary bus lanes to make longer-distance bus travel fast enough to be practical, greatly expanded transportation demand management, and more. We’d need a comprehensive transportation management plan.
Such a plan might look something like what Matt Johnson suggested in 2013, when WMATA considered closing part of the Red Line for six weeks. That shutdown hasn’t happened, but many of the same ideas would be necessary anywhere.
It wouldn’t be easy, and it would require sacrifice from everyone, including drivers who don’t use Metro. It’s impossible to stop running a transit line that carries a hundred thousand passengers without making life hard. Substitute buses absolutely would not be as good as Metrorail, not for transit riders and not for car drivers who have to share road space.
But the current situation is hard too.
WMATA will need to study this concept in detail. Then they’ll need to share their detailed findings with the public. What are the real options, what are the trade-offs, how much time and money would this save, and what will the Metro system look like when it’s over? If Metro expects the public to buy this idea, they’ll need to be forthright.
But it’s possible. WMATA could do this and it might be successful, if and only if they take the time and money to plan, prepare, and do it correctly.
WMATA’s PlanItMetro blog has released a trove of data on Metro station use. Here’s one snippet: All 91 stations, ranked by the average number of riders who entered the faregates each weekday in February, 2016.
Telecommuting saved us on Wednesday, but that won’t work every day
Traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been during Wednesday’s Metro shutdown. Telecommuters were a big reason why. That’s fine for a one-time event, but it won’t work every day.
Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
We don’t know exactly how many people telecommuted during the Metro shutdown, but the number was surely gigantic. Anecdotal evidence suggests there could have been hundreds of thousands of normal commuters who simply didn’t travel into their offices.
Obviously when you remove tens or hundreds of thousands of commuters from the daily rush, that helps a lot with traffic.
But it’s one thing for so many people to telecommute all at once because of a freak one-time event. It would be quite another to see those levels of telecommuting over and over, work day after work day.
When it’s just one day, you can reschedule your meetings, live without your physical files, and put off working with specialized equipment. For just one day it’s easy to focus on email and other things you can do from home.
But at some point, office workers have to go in to their offices. As technology improves, the day-to-day telecommuting rate may well increase, but at least for now it’s not going to be possible for so many people to make telecommuting an everyday option.
Workers can avoid rush hour travel in large numbers for a freak event, but not everyday. If our city didn’t have Metro, the daily commute would rapidly become much worse than what happened on Wednesday.
Say goodbye to Metro railcar number 1013. Along with other 1973-vintage 1000-series railcars, it’s headed to the scrapyard. More aren’t far behind.
Metro railcar 1013 at a scrap yard in Baltimore. Photo by MJofLakeland1 on Flickr.
As new 7000-series railcars enter Metro service, WMATA is now beginning to retire its oldest railcars. So far the agency has scrapped four cars, with more scheduled to head out the door beginning this March.
In the past if WMATA had to permanently take a railcar out of service, they’d either keep it for parts or backup, or it would end up in any number of weird places. That happened rarely for most of WMATA’s first four decades.
That’s now changing. With the impending mass retirement of 400 decades-old 1000-and-4000-series cars, WMATA needed a process to handle getting rid of so many cars at once.
See Metro Center when it was still under construction
In the mid 1970s, Metro’s first stations were under construction and on track for their 1976 opening day. This historic photo shows Metro Center station while it was under construction, circa 1975.
Metro Center circa 1975. Photo source unknown.
In the photo, the basic form of the station is in place. The vault is done, the track bed looks good, and the station’s lights are on. But there’s clearly a lot of work left to do, including most of the finishing touches.
It’s an interesting 40-year-old look at one of our region’s most important transit hubs.
This map shows the real-time location for every WMATA bus and train in the Washington region. It’s a cool way to see how much transit is out there, and where it’s running right this second.
Every WMATA bus and train. Image from TRAVIC.
The map is called TRAVIC and was produced by the University of Freiburg. The Washington map was made using using open data from WMATA.
Although the Washington map shows only WMATA transit, the same website includes maps for dozens of cities all over the world. You can compare what transit is like in diverse places, from Albuquerque to Paris.
Left: Albuquerque. Right: Paris. Images from TRAVIC.
Metro’s inefficient info displays worsen train crowding
By prioritizing elevator information rather than train arrivals on its platform displays, WMATA forces riders to make bad decisions. The result: inefficient use of sparse train capacity.
Not the best use of this technology.
Picture yourself in this scenario
Imagine you’re descending into a Red Line station. You hear a train approaching and rush to the platform. The train pulls up and you see that it’s full.
You glance over at the real-time train arrival display, hoping there will be another train a minute or two behind. If so, you’ll wait for it rather than crowd on now. Maybe you’ll have just enough time to move down the platform to a less crowded spot.
Alas, the display is cycling through elevator outages on the Orange Line in Virginia. Who knows how long until the next train arrives. You’d better crowd on now.
Prioritizing less important info results in badly informed riders
Scenarios like that play out thousands of times every day all over the Metrorail system. It happens because Metro’s PIDs, the Passenger Information Displays that show how long until the next train arrives, are programmed to also cycle through each elevator outage in the entire system.
Cycling through elevator outages often takes a long time, making it difficult for riders to get the real-time train arrival information that the displays were invented to show.
In turn, badly-informed riders can’t use the system efficiently, and exacerbate overcrowding. Without good information, riders push onto full trains when an empty one is a minute behind, and rush into the nearest door rather than move down the platform to a less crowded one.
WMATA displays elevator outages on the PIDs because it’s crucial information for a small minority of riders: the wheelchair bound, and others who can’t use escalators or stairs.
For those groups, having plenty of advanced notice about which elevators are out is absolutely necessary. Removing that information from stations would therefore be an unacceptable trade-off.
But that information doesn’t have to be on the same screens as train arrival information. In fact, trying to display multiple elevator outages on the PIDs, where there’s only enough room to scroll through them one by one, is a remarkably bad way to provide that information.
A better way, in Chicago. Photo by Matt’ Johnson on Flickr.
Displaying elevator outages on the PIDs requires riders who need that information to wait and watch an entire cycle, even if a train they could take is on the platform now.
It would be far more efficient to display that info on a separate screen that can show several outages at once, like the larger more advanced screens at station manager kiosks.
Or even a low-tech dry erase board, the preferred solution for Chicago’s CTA.
By trying to satisfy two entirely different sets of needs with one limited screen that runs on decades-old technology, WMATA isn’t getting as much out of the PIDs as it could.
By 2019 it will have taken 34 years to build the Silver Line
Given how much Metrorail can transform a community, it’s little wonder communities want it to reach them. But planning and building new Metro lines is so politically and technically complex that it takes decades. Consider the Silver Line:
Slide from WMATA.
This slide showing a timeline of Silver Line planning and construction comes from a presentation WMATA planners Allison Davis and Kristen Haldeman gave at StreetsCamp this past Saturday.
The timeline begins in 1985, when the idea of a Metro line to Dulles Airport went from vague concept to serious planning initiative following a study that determined it would be feasible.
Planning (yellow on the timeline) and environmental work (green) took the next 21 years, until 2006. It took another 3 years for officials to finalize funding (blue) before construction (purple) could begin in 2009.
By the time the last segments open in 2019, it will have been 34 years.
Worth the wait, no doubt. But there’s bad news for other communities:
Silver Ln was the easiest possible line to build. Only in VA, above ground & we already had right-of-way. Still took decades. #streetscamp
Plopping a rail line down the middle of a gargantuan suburban highway with a capacious median is easy compared to putting one virtually anywhere else. Almost any other potential Metrorail expansion imaginable will be harder to plan, fund, and build.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. But it’s definitely going to be hard.