Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Our busted Metro escalators produce the squeaky, strange music of city life

January 5, 2012 - 10:37 AM
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Hear the city's groaning. (Photo: flickr/tvol)

Have you ever stopped and really listened to the Metro escalators? Perhaps it's time to start.

Our Metro escalators inspire a lot of emotions in WMATA's riders. Derision, shame, frustration, despair, exhaustion. The news never seems all too good. Did you hear that some Dupont Metro escalators will be out for two-thirds of this year? The escalators have earned many critics. But a set of transit romantics have tapped a new emotion relating to the escalators — appreciation. And not even for the fully functional escalators, no. These people like the half-functional groan that our escalators emit as they bring us in and out of the Metro stations. Each escalator, you'll notice, produces its own unsettling symphony of shrieks, hums, and squeaks, years of life giving way to a mechanical moan.

One person compares the sound to a trumpeter of urban life. Post writer Chris Richards thinks of jazz. He later alludes to whales mating. These clever ideas all emanated from Richards' original story on Metro's "secret music" last year. Are escalators like, as the following podcast suggests, fine wines and better with age? Listen here:

99% Invisible-43- The Accidental Music of Imperfect Escalators by Roman Mars

Roman Mars of Oakland, California produces a podcast called 99% Invisible and released a recent episode called, "The Accidental Music of Imperfect Escalators," featured above. These short episodes play weekly on 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and feature a quirky appreciation for design and modern life that's refreshing and fun to hear.

When Mars looks at our technology, he sees the evolution of mass production as the creator of the imperfections. These flaws influence the quality of the technology and are a large part of what makes the products "comfortable, that make them lovable, that make them yours." The podcast creator fully acknowledges that such escalator appreciation may be overromanticizing, and that's a fair enough charge. Who cares about the gross screeches if you're part of the swarm of daily commuters fighting through a stressful rush hour?

But I like the spirit, and given the struggling state of Metro's escalators going into 2012, we should keep it in mind. Don't imagine the agonized shriek to be WMATA's failure; treat the sound as post-modern music signaling your arrival into a new era of urbanism ... or something like that, I guess. I've personally begun to tune out the sounds of the escalators during my own commutes, which may be a mistake. When I travel through Petworth, Columbia Heights, Rosslyn, Federal Triangle, and any other spot in the transit system, I find myself focusing on speed. I practically run down the escalators, my attention on time and schedule. My perception zeroes in on the little visual details surrounding me but not the aural ones. Is this our transportation equivalent of stopping and smelling the roses? Stop and hear the busted escalator huff and puff along? I'll listen and see what I hear. Do the escalator sounds truly differ from escalator to escalator? Do they change over time? I then imagine what our WMATA escalators would sound like if they were completely fixed, and such silence now seems strange.

To do so, of course, the Metro escalators do need to be working at all. Fingers crossed on that.

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