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A “Good Tourists” Story. No, Really! Scout’s Honor!

I’d like to share a story that ends happily.

I live in Washington, D.C., about three blocks from the Air and Space Museum. I love my city and adore my neighborhood, but as you can imagine tourist season is often very trying. DC visitors tend to be unfamiliar with urban environments and transit, and therefore cause unnecessary delays on the Metro system by blocking escalators*, eating and drinking (which is illegal), or letting their children run amok on the trains. They come to an abrupt halt almost anywhere, throwing subway platforms into chaos, or whine audibly any time they have to walk further than two blocks. It’s frustrating, but I understand that our city is dependent on tourist revenue, and that one should always be hospitable. I try to be gracious and offer directions and other advice when asked.

Few things strike dread into the heart of Washington commuters like seeing a large tour group, especially one full of young people, on the Metro during rush hour. I feel for the organizer – it is almost impossible to herd 20 people onto an already overstuffed train, especially if they are young and/or not familiar with transit. But why they can’t schedule their travel for when the trains are less crowded is utterly beyond me. It’s easier for the tour group, fares are lower, and, hey, it’s much more pleasant for the locals. But I digress.

So imagine how I felt one summer evening when I boarded the Metro at 5:30, tired from a long and hectic day, only to be met by an impossibly large group of Boy Scouts. They were chattering and bouncing around the train like meth-infused popcorn. Most locals see train time as quiet time (my friends and I call it the Metro Cone of Silence), so everyone let out a communal sigh and dug in for a difficult ride.

But then, something wonderful happened. One of the chaperones, in a calm, cheerful voice, said, “Boys, the folks on this train have been working all day and they’re tired. Let’s simmer down and let them rest.” Amazingly, the boys immediately settled down, and a few passengers broke into spontaneous applause. It really made my day, and reminded me that most tourists don’t mean to be annoying, they just need a polite reminder to respect local customs. Therefore, I nominate that chaperone for E-Heaven.

*There is a custom on our Metro system to stand right, and walk left on escalators. Therefore, if you need to speed up to catch your train, you can, and if you prefer to stand and ride, you can. It’s a lovely system until a tourist family blocks the escalator, you politely ask them to stand aside in deference to local custom, and they give you a gum-smacking tirade about how city people are in too much of a hurry. Sir, not really, it’s that you are on vacation and I am not. Sigh. To be fair, most people cheerfully move aside when you say, “Excuse me, would you mind standing to the right? It’s a local custom, sort of like not travelling in the passing lane.”   0125-11

{ 76 comments… add one }
  • Enna March 18, 2011, 5:47 am

    On the London Underground they have signs on escalators saying “Please Stand to The Right” and it is the same with the corridors to the different platforms. Are there no such signs in DC? Most of the time when I’ve had to use the “rush lane” a simple “excuse me” works I’ve never had anyone complain but if I did I would point to the sign and say “that’s so people who are in a hurry can get by, it’s also health and safety so the escalotrs don’t get too clogged and stop.” The last bit is a bit of lie but hey it makes people think.

    Also if people are contregating around the escoloators you could politely point out ot them that it is dangerous doing so, or say “excuse me” loudly as you walk buy them and hopefully they see they are blocking up a gangway. Why not ask a member of staff to enlighten them? How is eating illegal? I’m a Diabetic and if my blood sugars go too low I need to eat something. Also if you’ve had a long day and need to eat something you need to eat regardless of having Diabetes or not. Saying that I do take all my rubbish with me.

  • karmabottle March 18, 2011, 5:50 am

    Well said, OP Shannon. Of course your story was quite clear the first time provided readers use logic and basic* English language skills to process the tone of your message.

    *Beginner level, no precise skills required

  • Katie March 18, 2011, 8:10 am

    Actually, I’m a little bit with AS as well. Shannon, I really do understand your annoyance when you just want to get home and people are in the way. And basic rudeness is basic rudeness, no matter where you go. But haven’t you ever been a tourist before? Most tourists really do their best not to annoy the locals and to follow custom – but while you acknowledge that, it doesn’t sounds like you truly believe it. It’s horrible to be in that situation as a tourist – you’re lost, you’re confused and it’s not easy to get your bearings with hoards of people stalking past and glaring, especially since you’re not sure where you can actually step back to and not be in people’s way. A few weeks ago I was in a large city (don’t live there but visit regularly for work, so I know it pretty well) and watched two tourists deperately trying to get out of people’s way so they could consult their map. We could see they just couldn’t spot a quieter place! (We did go help them or they would’ve been there all day! They were actually only a few minutes walk from where they wanted to be but were convinced they’d never find it.) It made me remember how hard it is to find a place in an unfamiliar area without just keeping your nose stuck in a map and not looking around.

    I find it really interesting that the London rule is also stand right, walk left. I’m Australian and as someone pointed out earlier we’re generally stand left, walk right. I agree that it’s probably because we drive on the left and pass on the right – just instinctive. So I figured that England would be the same, since they also drive on the left!

  • Shannon March 18, 2011, 2:47 pm

    @Katie. Respectfully, I’ve been a tourist, I’ve lived on four continents, I’ve been to places where I not only don’t speak the language, but the alphabet is totally different. I’ve been that dumbfounded doofus in the streets of Quito. Also, did I at any point say I was “stalking past and glaring” at any tourists, or that I condone that behavior?

    I think having a giggle at the tourists doesn’t have to come from a place of contempt. It’s a way of shrugging off the inconveniences and downsides of living in a very popular vacation spot, and finding it funny instead of frustrating.

  • Shannon March 18, 2011, 3:21 pm

    @Enna. In a word, “rats.” Eating and drinking on Metro is against the law because crumbs, scraps, etc get everywhere, and that attracts rats. It’s been noted that Metro has very few rodent issues compared to subway systems that permit food, such as New York’s.

    Unfortunately, the rule isn’t enforced as much as it should be. And asking a station manager to disperse crowds would be rather hopeless. While some are very efficient, far too many sit in their booths and snarl at anyone who approaches.

  • DaisyChain March 18, 2011, 3:26 pm

    OP, we must have been on the same exact car because I witnessed that scene! Small world! It was pretty heart-warming to see three things you don’t always find in this city: responsible chaperons, respectful kids, and positive acknowledgement from other passengers.

    That said, I’ve noticed an increase in this sort of behavior over the past few years. Maybe I’m just more aware of it, or maybe courtesy really is on the rise. Either way, I appreciate it!

    As to the tourist/local debate: I remember reading a Dr. Gridlock piece in the Washington Post a few years back which addressed the subject. Tourists were complaining DC is a rude city (no argument here) and locals were griping about the usual stuff. The gist of the article (like so many of the above comments) was “hey, Washingtonians, be nicer to the tourists. They’ve come from all over the world to see OUR city, and we’re all their unofficial hosts. And tourists: enjoy your time here but realize that this is not only the nation’s capitol, but a place where people do live. And we are trying to get to work, and run our errands, and running late for this or that. Just be aware of your surroundings.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

    It just summed up the issue from both perspectives and echoed a sentiment so often mentioned on this site: the door swings both ways.

    ….Well, not the metro doors. 😉

  • Michelle March 18, 2011, 4:19 pm

    Hahahahaha! Shannon, you are my hero! Both for your great story, and your even more fabulous replies to the other posters–Kudos! 🙂

  • kingshearte March 18, 2011, 8:22 pm

    Oh my god, I WISH the escalator rules were in place in my city. Drives me absolutely crazy. Not only do people stand abreast or right in the middle of the escalator so there’s no room on either side, but sometimes it seems like there’s a big conspiracy just to piss me off, and half a dozen or so people will all stand on one side of the escalator — problem is, one will stand on the right, the next on the left, the next on the right, and so on. I don’t care which side you pick, but reach a consensus, people! If the person in front of you is on one side, for the love of whatever, please also stand on that side!

  • Miss Raven March 18, 2011, 10:24 pm

    That sounds heavenly! In Chicago, where the busses and the El run throughout the entire city, this is more or less only a problem downtown. Where I work. And, with a few exceptions (higher-ups in office buildings whose monthly parking passes are part of their benefits package), people downtown take the CTA to work.

    In the summer, it’s truly awful. The city has been cutting back on the number of busses per route and the number of trains per hour, so things have gotten crowded. What seems to happen is that taking the CTA has become such a big tourist attraction (what??) that tour groups get on the El for the thrill of taking the El. And also, because it’s only $2 a pop instead of the $20+ for things that are actually tourist attractions. You have a quiet crowd just trying to get to work and all of a sudden the bus or train car is full to the brim with teenagers in matching t-shirts or adults in sun-hats with lanyards. And they’re loud. And numerous. Some have been so awful that I’ve gotten off the bus to wait for another, or if I’m close enough, just walk to work.

    I think the worst, though, is when I’ve been on my feet for 8 or 10 hours and am soooo looking forward to a shot at getting a seat on the bus on the way home, plugging in my headphones and just unwinding… and after 15 minutes the bus pulls up, packed with a tour group full of impossibly noisy high school kids who are taking up all the seats, while the tired commuters squish together on their feet like sardines.

    Which is when you just want to yell at the chaperones to chaperone! Would that all chaperones were as awesome as the troop leader in this story. Would make things much more harmonious for the locals. … Sorry for the rant!

  • Mel March 19, 2011, 3:15 am

    This is a wonderful story! I hope there are more leaders like that in the world! We have a similar custom here, only you stand on the left and walk on the right, and it irritates me to no end when people stand next to each other, blocking the way for everyone behind them. It would be great if it was formally specified, eg in signs and guides.

  • kingsrings March 19, 2011, 3:04 pm

    What is it about being on vacation that makes some people turn into misbehaving lunatics?? Being so loud, obnoxious, rude. It’s like they think that nobody is around, so they can sing, etc., without regard to anyone. I have seen countless examples of this kind of behavior, and it leaves me shaking my head. It’s even worse when a group of people, such as a family, is doing it, because then it’s obviously a bigger annoyance and disruption. Just glad that I come from a normal family that believes in good behavior and manners year round!

  • Enna March 20, 2011, 3:25 pm

    @ Shannon – I would say rats has more to do with people leaving rubbish and have eaten food around but thanks for enlightening me anyway. The fact that there are few rodent issues but officals don’t enforce it as much as they should sort of got me wondering though. If I’m ever there I will try not to eat but if I do go hypo can I eat? I have to say when I go hypo I tend to eat and be careful I don’t leave crumbs (I go into hoover mode and don’t wast a single gram sugar in my cereal bar!)

  • Kate March 20, 2011, 9:08 pm

    Local custom? You live in DC, not Botswana. Stand to the right, walk to the left. Everyone everywhere should know that. It’s like saying “covering your mouth when you cough is our local custom”.

  • Leah March 20, 2011, 11:37 pm

    People who live in the country don’t have escalators OR trains. How the heck are they supposed to know your rules? I haven’t been on either one for over 40 years.

    I would consider it rude for someone to jostle past me on an escalator, as that would cause me to be at risk of falling and breaking a hip.
    Children should be held by the hand on escalators, necessitating two people on the step…
    I’m sorry if my kids keeping my grandchild safe slows you down for half a minute, but he outranks a stranger.

  • Barb March 21, 2011, 7:44 am

    Leah, while I don’t know what escalators were like 40 years ago, most modern escalators installed in train and subway stations have more than enough room for one person to pass another without jostling. I have used metro systems with similar customs on three continents for several years now and have never seen anyone else or have been personally jostled badly enough to cause a fall. Unless the person standing is already an obstruction by standing too close to the center of the step the people walking past wouldn’t touch them. Many stations are also equipped with elevators for those with physical limitations that would cause escalators to be too risky. It is also very simple to discover transit etiquette through observation as customs such as using an escalator should be readily apparent. That some tourists are either too overwhelmed or self-involved to take note of such things is the breach of etiquette in the post.

    If one is traveling with children so young as to need their hands held it would be advisable to use elevators. As you said, a few minutes delay is not as important as the child’s well-being. If those are not available most diligent parents I have seen in stations with this tradition place the children on the step in front of them while still holding their hand or, if the child is very young, holding the child in their arms. This is not only courteous by allowing others to pass, it is often safer as the child will not be tripped over by a person rushing for a train who might not notice a tiny person who is several feet below eye level. I have seen parents hold their children side-by-side on the same step of course, but in shopping centers where the flow of people is markedly different than in a station. Doing the same behavior as one would do in a department store at my local station would be hazardous for both the child and fellow commuters.

    While your grandchild may outrank strangers (who usually happen to be other people’s grandchildren) in your eyes, it would benefit him/her in the long run to treat strangers with the kindness and consideration we would like to see practiced in public spaces. Many of the submissions to this site were probably instigated by parents and grandparents allowing their children and grandchildren to bend rules of etiquette when it was otherwise inconvenient for them as their comfort outranked others.

  • BusyBee March 21, 2011, 8:36 am

    Good idea for DC to limit eating on the subways. Maybe other cities should follow suit, so we can avoid situations like this one: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1367706/Women-fight-subway-spaghetti.html

  • AS March 21, 2011, 9:16 am

    @Shanon, I do agree with the basic points that you make in your post (I said that in my earlier comment too) – tourists can do weird things that locals don’t do. But I don’t agree with the “stereotyping” of DC tourists that you seem to be doing.
    When I visit DC, I don’t know all the streets as well as you or any other locals know. Hence I’ll have to check the map (BTW, some of my friends who have lived there for several years have to check the map too if we want to visit some area they are not familiar with!). To check the map, we have to stop somewhere . Stopping immediately after exiting the escalator is my pet peeve, but you seem to be hinting that people should just keep walking, and never stop, lest they bother the locals! Also, I have seen random people stop after exiting the escalator to TEXT! (Never tried to check if they are locals or tourists, but they could very well be locals!).

    The story about the scouts was nice. But you seemed to spend a lot of time complaining about tourists. It is rude for them to eat in the train, because as far as I remember, it is posted inside the compartments and they are just ignoring the posts. But not everyone knows the “stay on right if you want to stand, and left if you want to walk” rule on the escalators. But in my limited experience, just saying an “excuse me” usually works, and the people move (BTW I have been a tourist because I don’t live there, but I have also had official appointments).

    It is essential for tourists to be cognizant about the locals. We have seen quite a few examples on this site where tourists act rude and loud. I think DC tourists are not any different. But you seem to be nit-picking on all the things, that I’d assume comes as a package with a tourist city, and blaming tourists for not knowing everything that the locals know (like standing on the right side of escalators, stopping presumably to check maps, etc.).

    BTW, talking of DC, I have seen some drivers going way under the speed limit on the beltway in the left most lane during rush hours. Apparently most of them are not tourists but locals who travel the same route every day. Hence, don’t blame all your woes on the tourists; you never know when the locals are the offenders.

  • The Elf March 21, 2011, 9:43 am

    DaisyChain, I remember reading (and applauding) that Dr. Gridlock article. He should reprint it at the start of every tourist season.

  • The Elf March 21, 2011, 9:53 am

    Enna, if you had a real hypoglycemic emergency, I doubt you’d get arrested for eating on the Metro. If you got the hairy eyeball you could always apologize and blame your illness. I think most people understand the need for a diabetic to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. However, I honestly can’t imagine much need for “emergency eating”. Eat before you get on or after you get off the system. Most Metro rides aren’t longer than 45 minutes and your typical tourist ride from hotel to attraction or restaurant is a lot shorter; surely you know your body and how diabetes effects it to plan around that? It would be a different story if there was some track problem, weather delays, or a bomb threat and your 45 minute ride turned into a three hour one.

    Leah, the custom for people with young kids is to either take the elevator (if it is working), or have the kid stand in front or behind you on the Metro escalator. It’s perfectly safe.

  • Geri Matos March 22, 2011, 7:49 am

    I visited DC last Spring and being a tourist there I did take heed not to eat or drink or make unnecessary trash within the stations. The one thing I disagree about is the escalators. At Roslyn train station the escalators can be steep to enter the train station. I have a slight case of Vertigo and was feeling dizzy just looking at the escalator. My husband wanted to stand beside me for support and we did not expect hoards of commuters to be wanting to -rush- down the escalator past hundreds of other people. It made me feel uncomfortable for my safety and my son was also feeling a bit uneasy. He’s 11 years old and we felt it was rude of commuters to want to almost ‘push’ past us. My comment was ‘If people know they have to get to work at a certain time, why not leave their homes a few minutes earlier’.

    I had no idea what rush hour was like in the Metro. It was hot, crowded and ridiculous. After experiencing the rush times, we had a good idea of when they were and the next days left 10 minutes later..What a difference!

    Please give tourists a break. We don’t know your city or your rules and if you’re concerned about being late for work , give yourself enough time to get there so that you don’t put other people at risk on a busy, steep escalator.

  • Shannon March 22, 2011, 9:07 am

    @Geri – I do give tourists as many breaks as I can – but here’s the thing: we’re all very pressed for time during rush hour as the Metro can be full of delays (sick passengers, broken switches, single-tracking, etc). We can’t account for every single thing that can go wrong during a commute. Moreover, due to crowding, we often have to wait for multiple trains to go by before we can board. So we shave time where we can, such as by walking on escalators. Additionally, people who commute have a routine (you almost have to go into a trance to get from Point A to Point B while preserving sanity), and upsetting that routine can be weird and annoying.

    I too would get vertigo when I (briefly) lived in Rosslyn. That is why I used the (well-marked) elevator right by the escalators whenever possible. Sure, sometimes I had to stand in line, but that meant “leaving a few minutes earlier.”

    I think this is where common sense comes into play – if you’re pootling around the museums for the day, and you’re on vacation anyhow, why not sleep a little later and dodge rush hour entirely? I mean, would you drive around Times Square during rush hour and be surprised when there’s traffic? I’m frankly confused as to why you thought rush hour on the main transit system in a major metropolitan area would be anything OTHER than “hot, crowded and ridiculous.”

    It all goes back to my assertion that too many outsiders view DC as an assortment of museums and monuments, not as a vibrant and hectic city in its own right. That leads to the notion that if we’re just trying to get to our jobs like everyone else in every other large city, then, well, we’re jerks in too much of a hurry.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t think it comes down to some sort of arcane, specific knowledge about a city. Like most things, it all comes down to common sense: if everyone does something the same way, follow their example. Avoid rush hour if you don’t have a specific timetable. Ask questions. And a sheepish, “I have NO IDEA what I’m doing! Help?” is far more charming and wins more sympathy than chiding locals because they don’t do things the same way that you would do them.

  • Jillybean March 22, 2011, 9:31 am

    @Geri – yikes! I have occasional bouts of vertigo, and I’ve been on those escalators at Rosslyn. The very thought made me a little queasy.

  • Leah March 22, 2011, 11:28 pm

    It does sound as though escalators are wider these days than in my youth, but how wide are they?
    I looked and what I found is a step of either 24, 32, or 40 inches. (There is an additional space next to the balustrade panels.)
    Are the ones being spoken of the 40 inch wide step? I can see creating two lanes with those.
    Also are there elevators in the same places there are escalators, or must the escalators be used?

  • The Elf March 23, 2011, 7:18 am

    It’s wide enough for an average sized person to pass another average sized person without touching them. I’ve never taken a measuring stick to the escalator so I’m not sure exactly how wide they are. In my lifetime of using Metro, including 12 years of commuting downtown with it, my walking on the left side has never resulted in someone being hurt on the right side. There have been some escalator accidents, but they are usually caused by mechanical failures (such as the infamous incident at L’Enfant Plaza after the Rally To Restore Sanity) or by kids horseplaying or by more garden variety clumsiness than can happen anywhere.

    Geri, Rosslyn is a particularly long one. So’s Dupont Circle, Wheaton, etc. We have the longest escalators in the Western Hemisphere. People have had panic attacks on those escalators. If the elevator is working you can always use that. There are elevators at each station and between platforms for the disabled, and no one minds if non-disabled people use them so long as people that really need them aren’t prevented from using them. I have a friend who does this. Sometimes he turns around on the escalator and rides backwards so that he’s looking up instead of down. I guess that helps, though I would think it just as bad. Or, just hold tight on to the handrail. As to why I don’t leave any earlier…. Because my commute is 1 1/2 hours long, door to door, and I like both sleeping and spending time with my family much more than standing on escalators. Because sometimes delays are unavoidable (and other times because I was just plain late.) Because sometimes I have a business meeting in a different part of DC and my bosses are making last minute revisions to the briefing and in order to make the meeting on time I have to run. The list goes on. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m used to those steep escalators and see no reason not to walk.

    Surely you saw how crowded the stations are at rush hour? Now imagine those people all standing and not walking and you can imagine the back-up just to get into or out of the station. At Union Station, which is where MARC, VRE, and AMTRAK connect to the Metro system, the escalator closest to the train connections can get so backed-up as to create overcowding on the Metro platform, which prevents the next train from unloading efficiently. If this compounds, you have a big safety issue. This usually happens when – you guessed it – people are unable to “flow” as quickly through the station exit due to people standing on the escalator, a broken escalator, or broken faregates. It’s actually one of the reasons I stopped riding the commuter rail and switched to Metro exclusively – Union Station is a total nightmare at rush hour.

    I do give tourists a break in that I understand that they may not know the custom. I’m sure there’s lots of little things in their towns and cities that I don’t know about! This is why I (politely!) educate them by asking them to please stand on the right. I’m sorry you don’t like the custom, but it is the way we do things, it is not rude, and it is safe.

  • Leah March 27, 2011, 11:41 am

    Thank you, The Elf.
    They sound like the 40 inch wide steps. It does make sense then to have two lanes on the escalator of that width. I was envisioning the much smaller ones.
    I can remember as a child several times grown-ups shoving past and knocking me down, on those narrow steps.
    On another note (sorry for the questions, best for only one person to seem clueless LOL).
    How fast do they go? I recall them being the speed of an amble… If so, one would save quite a bit of time walking on them.

  • Natalie March 29, 2011, 10:47 am

    It’s been a few years since I lived in DC, but I recall they were the average escalator speed.

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