Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Should D.C.'s Metro feature 'quiet cars' like Chicago's?

June 30, 2011 - 08:06 AM
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Shh! It's the quiet car. (Photo: flickr/wheat_in_your_hair)

What's the idea? Transit authorities all over the country have long pondered the idea of "quiet cars," places where riders can go for some peace and quiet away from blaring music, chatter, and other ambient distractions that some D.C. commuters may have encountered. Just this morning, I sat on the Green Line overhearing virtually every beat to the song of the guy sitting next to me.

The big quiet-car city of 2011 happens to be Chicago, where every train line now features quiet cars during rush hour. The city has been experimenting for months, and rolled out the initiative to all of the Metra's 11 lines on June 6 after a deliberate, thoughtful test of one line that yielded positive feedback. The transit authority there has even employed mimes as part of their education outreach to the public. Mimes! (Apparently this is nothing new either – Boston tried it in 2010 as you can read in "A Day in the Life of a Public Transit Mime" but that's for another post.) Given the recession, I imagine the Midwestern mimes are more than thrilled for any work, but still ... is this possibility of the quiet car for real? And more importantly, would D.C. benefit from adopting a similar policy? D.C.'s already got a rather quiet set of Metro cars as is, but the idea could still have some merit, especially depending on what happens in Chicago. We've already seen quiet cars on the MARC train and other commuter lines, but what would it be like to add them on everyday lines like the El or D.C.'s Metro?

Let's consider the pros, cons, and most practically, the complications:

Pros: No noise! The biggest pro is in the idea's name itself. In theory, the heralded quiet car is brilliant and descends from the world of long-distance trains and the more intense commutes they require. In the days of old and of Amtrak, dividing the cars by purpose makes sense. Oh, you're going to the dining car? But of course. On long trips, people would make use of quiet cars for reading and work, sure, but also sleeping. The ease of traveling from one car to another was also natural on trains like that, allowing travelers to transition from eating cars to sleeping cars to regular old chatty cars.

Imagine all the productivity and meditation you might achieve on a quiet car in Washington D.C. You could have your first report written before even arriving at work or tally up a grocery list in a distraction-free zone ... right? Chicagoans are bound to outpace us with their new, mime-backed project.

Cons: Who wants to be on a quiet car? Everyone likes a little liveliness. Sure, it's good for commuters to have choices, but a quiet car goes against the philosophy of The Commute: humanity, miserably packed together in an experience that inevitably shortens our lives. When was a commute ever chill and relaxing? Never. Furthermore, adding a quiet car to any of D.C.'s Metro trains would cost Metro even more money when they're bleeding and probably should be spending it on all that maintenance, expansion, and more transit police.

Besides, how will you ever hook up with your Metro missed connections if no one says anything?

You could also argue from the other side here – that in D.C., the Metro is dead, full of silent businesspeople who don't say anything. On some lines, every car is the quiet car.

The Complications: Chicago's bold to try rolling out quiet cars, and here's why: People hate rules. They don't play by them virtually ever, and it'll end up costing countless thousands of mime dollars trying to change commuter behavior. Don't believe me? Consider the amount of food that litters the Metro despite its ban. Consider the various times you seen people freely playing music. Metro has launched countless advertisements discouraging these behaviors, and still they persist (thought to be fair, less than in New York City's subway, where some of the behaviors are not banned). Could people really be shepherded into the appropriate quiet cars and stay quiet? Perhaps solo commuters ... but it's still going to be difficult to quarantine and enforce.

Commuting, after all, is a noisy process, and during rush hour, people cram into these trains. Our city can't even get people to stand on the right side of the escalator. Tourists deluge our transit. To succeed, a quiet-car initiative would have to include constant education, incentive, and enforcement for the commuter population. And really, D.C. commutes may be miserable enough and seem long, but 30 to 45 minutes is not enough to create a culture of the quiet car like a six-hour Amtrak voyage.

Good luck to Chicago in their transit experiment. Would you like to see quiet cars tried in the District?

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