Washington, D.C.'s Metro remains a great manifestation of liberalism today. Although it was created at the zenith of the Great Society, and although its union workforce gains overly generous pensions and maintains ridiculous job security, it is Metro's management of its passengers—its attempt to save passengers from their own idiocy—that earns it this title.
Metro riders receive all kinds of helpful announcements: They’re told to cover their mouths while they cough, pick up their newspapers when they’re done reading them, not to leave their cellphones behind, wash their hands regularly, not to sit on the escalator stairs or stand too close to the edge of the platform, that inclement weather can make floors slippery, and to stand clear of the closing train doors. Repeatedly.
Despite the best efforts of the sybarites at the Cato Institute we have largely become a non-smoking society. In Washington, D.C., smoking hasn’t been allowed in public places since 2006. So people know not to smoke indoors in Washington, D.C.
However, one entity still feels obliged to provide constant reminders that smoking is not allowed on its premises—the Washington Metro. Despite the fact that smoking has never been permitted in the Metro, and I have never witnessed (or heard of) anyone doing in a Metro train, during any given commute riders can expect to hear at least one announcement reminding them that smoking is prohibited on Metro.
Metro also feels obliged to give a welcome to new riders—every five minutes or so, by my estimation—and to provide them a quick tutorial (train doors do not function like elevator doors, stand to the right on escalators). To make sure all new riders understand these tips, they even run a few variations of the announcement.
Metro also thanks its riders—a lot—and also asks them to keep an eye out for unattended packages and to report anything unusual either to a station attendant or to Metro police, whose ten-digit phone number Metro helpfully provides.
And, just to make sure its announcements are heard, Metro prefaces them with two loud chimes.
In short, Metro bombards riders with announcements, ranging from the banal, the irrelevant, to the redundant, from the moment they step into a station until they walk out.
I admit, despite the helpful announcements, I have made mistakes: I have left my cell phone in a train, and I’ve coughed in a crowded train without covering.
The various announcements warning me not to do these things did me no good, of course, because like every other sentient being who’s not on the train for the very first time, I long ago stopped paying attention to whatever comes out of Metro’s speakers. While I may occasionally miss the occasional tidbit of useful information (which is rare, since Metro is notoriously slow to give riders info on derailments and other tidbits that are actually useful to a commuter), I’m not sure there’s a brain out there that would not react to the high concentration of banality emanating from Metro’s loudspeakers by shutting it out entirely.
It’s not just the information they give us that tells us what they think of us—it’s also the information they’d rather not give us. Metro procrastinated in providing riders with arrival times online because the previous head of Metro fretted that it would lead to riders running and hurting themselves in an effort to catch trains.
Metro delayed providing such information for buses until just recently, in fact. The initial objection came from the unions, which didn’t want its drivers monitored with the GPS equipment necessary to provide riders such realtime information. When that objection was overcome and the necessary software was built, Metro took it offline when it wasn’t 100 percent accurate. While the contractor worked out the bugs it quietly put a link to the software online, where it was discovered by an enterprising blogger. Once Metro found out that people were still using the (mostly) reliable software, it demanded that its contractor remove the link at once.
It’s illustrative to see what other subway systems do with announcements; in the half-dozen I’ve been through in the last couple of years they say virtually nothing. On trains I rarely heard anything more than the name of the next stop, and in New York City they warn to “stand clear of the closing doors.” In Barcelona and Copenhagen, where people still smoke like fiends and very few places are off limits for smoking, neither city’s subway system feels obligated to remind people not to smoke aboard a train or at a stop. It’s just common sense that smoking’s not allowed there.
One time, while in Barcelona, I did hear another announcement—a warning that the incoming train had broken down and that there would be a delay. Everyone listened and reacted because it was unusual: Silence is the rule there, not the exception. Let us know when a subway breaks down but otherwise leave us in peace.
Ike Brannon is a writer in Washington, D.C.