Musings on the Metro

Washington Metro (courtesy of Wikipedia)

I was at the Inauguration last week.  Braved the cold and the crowds and witnessed history – up close.  It wasn’t easy getting there, but it was worth the trip.  I’m glad I went.  Lots of others have already used up a lot of ink and bandwidth dealing with the event, its symbolisms and import for the future, so I’m not going to go there.  Rather, my mind has been occupied with more mundane matters:

What happens when a really good transportation system is asked to carry many times more people than it has ever done before?I spent the last two weeks in the Washington DC area, and for many of those days I rode the Metro to and from the Library of Congress where I was busy trying to absorb and tiny, tiny fraction of the knowledge and wisdom of the centuries.   Fantastic system, the Metro.  Beautiful and clean stations.  Smooth, quiet trains every 3 to 6 minutes.  Well behaved passengers and pleasant staff.  This is what public transportation ought to be.

Inauguration day represented a challenge such as the system had never faced before.  Having set a new record of 900,000 trips on Monday, it carried a total of 1,544,721 people during an unprecedented 18 hours of continuous rush hour service.  What this means is that full length trains were pulling into every station in the system every two to three minutes throughout the day.

But the numbers really don’t capture the experience:  My friend and I caught an empty bus in our neighborhood at 7 am.  Fifteen minutes later, as we pulled into the Friendship Heights station, the bus was standing room only.  The escalator was crowded but not uncomfortable.  The platform had only as many people as I would see on a normal day.  But then the train came in.  Any of you would have said, as we did, that it was already full.  But we squeezed in, just avoiding the doors as they closed behind us.  Minutes later we pulled into Tenley Town.  The doors opened – more people squeezed in.  Now I’m 10 feet from the door. Doors close again and we move down the line to Van Ness / UDC.  Another platform.  Another push from folks trying to get into our car.  I find myself close to the middle of the car now; at least 75 people have managed to board after I thought the train was “full”.  “Full” is clearly one of those concepts that is a matter of perspective and definition.  Soon we have a cheerleader giving us a clever adaptation of one of the more memorable lines from the recent campaign:  “Come on folks, we can do this – YES WE CAN!”  And we did.  By the time my friend and I left the train (at Farragut North if you’re keeping track) people had managed to join our fellowship at every single stop.  It was a remarkable demonstration of human capacity to adapt to stress, and to do so with good humor and patience toward others.

It turned out that our experience in the morning was nothing compared to what happened later in the day.  By skipping the benediction and doing some fast walking, we managed to ride an almost empty train home.  Those who stayed for the whole program, or perhaps just walked slower, found themselves unable to enter stations that were already packed with people.  When they finally made it to the platform, the press of other bodies was more than uncomfortable – it was dangerous.  The good will that was so evident in the morning started to fray a bit during the afternoon, as lines grew longer and finally stopped moving altogether when stations reached capacity and had to be closed temporily.  At least one woman fell off the platform onto the tracks.  Unable to get back up before a train came in, she rolled under the platform’s overhang – saved herself, but slowed the system down even more as the Red Line was closed down for about 45 minutes to get her out and make sure she was alright.  Though there were no serious incidents that I am aware of, it was clear that the system had passed its maximum capacity.  Things were still working – trains were running, people were (just) getting on and off – but it wasn’t fun.

What’s the point?

Think of the Metro system as an analogy for the world we live in.  It’s a pretty neat place – beautiful, full of good things to eat and all the ‘stuff’ that we need to live comfortable lives.  And it works.  But as the world gets more crowded, like the Metro, the experience becomes more challenging, much less fun and sometimes downright dangerous.  Last year’s political unrest in Kenya comes to mind as a problem with roots easily identified with overcrowding.  Haiti is another example.  Doesn’t seem crowded to you?  You still have your own garden, and roads that are not bumper to bumper most of the day?  You probably are one of those who happen to have boarded one of the cars at the end of the train. (The center cars always fill up first).  No worries – the crowds will find you.  It’s only a question of time.

Last week I discovered the works of Sigurd Olson, one of the pioneers of the movement to save the wilderness (and another fine citizen of Wisconsin).  It is to Olson more than any other single person that we owe thanks for the Boundary Waters national wilderness area in northern Minnesota and southern Canada.  What struck me on this first, quick introduction was his deep, deep appreciation for the parts of God’s great world where there are – were – few people.   He talks of walking and paddling his canoe for days and never seeing another human being.   When I read his descriptions, I’m left with a longing for a world that is no more – because for the most part, that kind of world really is gone.  Some few of us will enjoy brief visits to national parks or one of the few wilderness areas that are left, but there are so many of us humans now that when we try to go to one of these places, we show up in such crowds that we destroy the very quiet and beauty we’re trying to experience.  One of the biggest problems in the national parks seems to be traffic jams.

It is true that every human being is precious to God and is of eternal value.  As was every one of the 1,544,721 people who traveled the Metro on January 20, 2009.  But still…