Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Some things about riding transit are pretty simple, like pulling the yellow cord just before you stop when you need to get off of a bus. But at what point does something that seems so obvious to one person actually become something they wouldn’t know if they were new or visiting from out of town?

I like explaining facts about how to use transit to folks who aren’t that familiar with it, so I asked my fellow GGWash contributors to help me assemble a list of basics for getting around the Washington region by bus, Metrorail, and Capital Bikeshare.

Here’s what we came up with:

Metrobus and and other local bus systems

1. If you’re paying with SmarTrip, hold your card down rather than swiping when you board. When you want to get off, pull the yellow cord.

This might seem way too simple for people who have ridden the bus around here, but there are places where you swipe your card quickly rather than hold it down, and to some people, the yellow cords are a mystery.

It’s also worth noting that sometimes, when buses are bunching—that’s when one or more is running late and they’re in very close together on their routes—the first one may pass you, especially if it’s already full. Also, buses sometimes bypass a stop and stop farther down the block at crowded intersections, like 7th and H Street NW.

2. Think about where you exit

According to contributor Alex Cox, you should exit through the rear door and leave the front for people boarding. He says this, along with moving into the standing area at the back of the bus so the front isn’t overcrowded, “are two practices that could make riding the bus a lot more pleasant and efficient if they were widely adopted. Also, stepping off the bus to let people off (if you're standing in front of the rear door).”

It is worth noting, though, that sometimes you can’t get off the bus at the back because there’s something blocking it, like a car. And other times, it’s helpful to get off at the front because you’ll be closer to a street corner, Metro entrance, or bikeshare station.

3. If you’re paying with cash or you need to add money to your SmarTrip card, let others get on first.

This way, says Joe Fox, “the bus will (likely) get moving if you're the only one still at the farebox, rather than a whole line behind you.


1. Where you are on the platform matters

Sam Norton notes that during busy times, you might consider going to the end of the platform where the front of the train will be. “A lot of stations now have markers saying where the six-car trains end,” he points out.

Travis Maiers also chimes in with the reminder that “there’s usually more space in the 7th or 8th car of an 8-car train. Check the PIDS (Passenger Information Displays) as you make your way onto the platform and if you want a better chance at a seat and see a green 8, head down the platform. This is an especially good strategy when Metro is trying to recover from rush hour single tracking or a train malfunction.”

Joanne Pierce mentions that she finds a lot of people and tourists stand right in the middle of the platform (and in groups) and impede the flow of foot traffic. “If there are a lot of people waiting for the next train and it isn't yours, stand near the back wall.” Joanne also says she has noticed that tourists will take cues from the regular riders on how to behave when waiting for a train.

Finally, the part of the platform you use is likely to dictate where you exit a station, and that can make a big difference in how close to your destination you are once you leave Metro. For example, let’s say you’re going to Trader Joe’s off of U Street from the Metro: if you use the western exit at 13th Street, you’ll be much closer than if you leave from the eastern exit at 10th.

Here, at Metro Center, where passengers leave the station makes a big difference in where they come out at ground level. Those who walk toward the camera end up at 13th and G, while those walking away from it come out at 11th and G. Image by Jonathan Neeley.

2. Move as close to the middle of the train as you can when you board. Also, consider getting off to let people board.

“Metro cars often get crowded because a lot of people are using them at the same time, obviously,” says staff editor Jonathan Neeley. “But they also often feel more crowded than they actually are because people insist on standing right by the doors rather than moving toward the middle. But all that space near the doors evaporates pretty quickly when everyone has to crowd into it, and I've never seen someone not be able to get out of the railcar before their stop.”

I will note that if you’re a smaller person, like me, it can be difficult to get through people in order to get to the middle of the car or to get out.

Matt Johnson has also been crushed, and has this to say about sitting down: “Never sit in the aisle seat of a Metro car if the window seat is unoccupied. If you don't want the window seat because you're getting off soon, then you should vacate your seat when the train has standing passengers or move into the window seat anyway. Allowing one standee to sit allows one more standee on the train.”

Steven Yates and Matt mention that it’s a good idea to step out of the train at busy stations to let people in if you’re standing by the door. I’ll add a qualifier to this: it’s a nice thing to do if you’re sure you’ll be able to get back on the train, but it does carry the risk of being left on the platform. If there’s space, you might just want to stand to the side of the doors, out of the way of leaving passengers.

3. Be careful with your belongings, and don’t try to hold doors open

“If you have a backpack or a purse,” sys Joanne, “take it off and put it between your feet once you get on the train! They can take away standing room from other passengers and anytime you turn you risk hitting someone with your stuff.If you're worried about theft, zip it up first or keep an eye on it but don't leave it hanging on your shoulders.”

“I've had my backpack closed in the doors on two occasions because the people in front of me stopped dead in their tracks when there was plenty of room for them to move up,” says contributor Brent Bolin, again reminding users to move inside and be mindful of the placement of your bags.

Stephen Hudson also mentions, “I think a ton of Metrorail customers still seem to be unaware that you can't hold train doors open like elevators. (I've been among the angry mob at least twice).”

4. Before you get onto a Metro train, much like when you board the bus, consider reloading your card online

Bryan Rodda also says that everyone should register their SmarTrip card with WMATA, as they offer balance protection in case your card is ever lost or stolen.  Also be sure to look at the fare table before loading your card if you don’t plan on doing auto reload and if you don’t use the system that often, notes Canaan Merchant.

Some people did raise concerns about giving credit card information to WMATA. If that’s a concern for you, it’s possible that, like mine, your workplace offers a commuter pass that acts like a debit card. If so, you could use that to auto-reload a pass.

5. Make sure you tap your card and that you see the screen change with the amount on your card, even if the gates are already open

Most of the time, you will tap your card and the orange gates will open to let you in. Sometimes, you may walk right behind someone and you’ll still need to tap your card even though the gates will already be open. Make a mental note of the amount of money on your card, especially if you’re getting close to being at $0 so you can explain yourself if you somehow tap your card, get in through an already open gate, and then have trouble leaving at your destination station.

Capital Bikeshare

1. Consider purchasing an annual membership so that you get a key fob in the mail

This way, when you walk up to stations, all you have to worry about is whether there are enough bikes at your dock and if your dock has enough spaces. You stick your fob in, hear it beep and see it turn green, then pull the bike out. If you have to pay at the station, you might miss out on the last bike, plus it just takes longer.

It's nice to simply walk up, swipe, and ride off, without needing to deal with the payment machine. Image by mariordo59 licensed under Creative Commons.

2. Know where your nearest docks are on both ends of your trip

Because you may not be able to get a bike or dock it at your prefered station, knowing that there’s another nearby can be a life and time saver. Also, not every station is reasonably close to another station, so be ready to switch modes if need be.

Jim Titus adds this about one particularly busy CaBi station: “At Union Station, it’s first come first serve for the bikes in the morning.  In the afternoon, when more than one person is waiting for a dock, you discuss which train you are taking and people who will be waiting at the station anyway will generally tell the person whose train is about to leave to take the dock,” Jim says.

3. Make sure you push your bike all the way in and see a green light and hear a chime when returning Capital Bikeshare bikes

Even if you’re miles away from a bike, you could be held liable for using it if you don’t check it back in properly. Even if you are an annual member, you are still liable for charges that come from having a bike over 30 minutes.

While these are the basics of unspoken bus, Metro and bikeshare rules, we know you have so many more. Please be sure to share them in the comments, along with any other questions you have about using transit here in the Metro area.

Kristen Jeffers is a writer and advocate whose site The Black Urbanist shares her thoughts on land use and mobility from the perspective of a black Southern femme person, and helps other black urbanists worldwide share their story and find connections. She's a native North Carolinian, and after trying out Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood, she's returned to DC’s Park View neighborhood and plans to stay for a bit.