Subway Etiquette – Four Tips to Be a Better Train Rider

subway etiquette train rider

I love subways, the underground, metro or whatever one wants to call them. Initially my love was borne from convenience, they’re usually the best way to get around a city and are cheap. Over time it turned into real love of this unique way to get around town. Not everyone shares this love or has a lot of experience with subways though, which I see almost everyday in Washington, DC. Here are some tips to help everyone be a better metro rider, not to make fun of newbies, but to help preserve the sanity of residents.

1. Stand on the right, walk on the left

This isn’t a custom everywhere, but it is smart metro etiquette no matter the locale. Here in DC, it is a sacred commandment and more than once Metro officials have considered putting up signs saying as much. This rule has to do with the metro escalators, an area of confusion and tension during the height of rush hour. As a commuting professional I can tell you that there is nothing worse than rushing to make a train connection only to have a gaggle of tourists in front, blocking my way by standing on the left hand side of the escalator. I’ve noticed the same social phenomenon in many other countries and it really is just a better way to travel in the world of the underground. So remember, on subway escalators if you aren’t walking then stand on the right or be prepared to face the ire of commuting residents.

2. Don’t block train doors

The function of a good subway system is simple, to transport millions of riders to their destination efficiently on a system of metro trains. That’s why I don’t understand when people new to the system insist on preventing people from leaving the train. There they stand, right in front of the metro doors eager to board, but blocking the people who want to get off at that stop. It’s frustrating and slows everything down. It’s especially bad when the system is busy and people are frantic to leave/enter the train cars in what is a limited amount of time. So when waiting to board, stand on either side of the car doors and wait for everyone to exit before attempting to board.

3. Don’t be a metro tourist

If I’m in a city with a metro you can be sure I will use it to its fullest extent. While residents may suspect that I’m a tourist, hopefully I don’t conduct myself in such a way that proves this beyond a reasonable doubt. Countless times I have seen tourists posing for pictures around harried workers, pull out maps that are as big as a medium sized sofa and talk as loudly as possible about how great being a tourist is. Rather than criticize them for being annoying, which they are, I want to criticize them for being incredibly unsafe travelers. There is crime in every city and as tourists we are at the most risk. We’re in unfamiliar surroundings and frankly make good targets. That’s why it’s paramount that we do everything we can to minimize this risk and don’t broadcast to the world that we’re clueless travelers. That’s not to say you should be fearful, but being smart and paranoid is usually a good travel rule to obey.

4. Be polite and aware of your surroundings

The metro is not an attraction or theme park and was not created for your amusement. It is a means of public transportation and needs to be treated as such. As a tourist, you are a guest in the city and you need to be polite and self aware, especially when underground. When I travel, unless I absolutely have to, I usually avoid subways during weekday rush hour. This is for my sanity as much as the residents‘, I don’t want to learn a new system while also trying to navigate my way through huge crowds. I’m also self-aware, a quality many travelers do not possess. Look around you, see what others are doing and then do the same. Read signs and go with the flow. Do avoid going the wrong way down stairs, getting in the way and in general being a nuisance. Just like most of these rules, it’s in your best interest and helps everyone involved.

Subways are a great way not just to get around town, but to learn more about the culture of a new city. The world underground tends to be fairly reflective of the world above, but there are special rules in this world everyone needs to obey. Just practice a little common sense and you can enjoy your subway adventure instead of regretting it.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

10 thoughts on “Subway Etiquette – Four Tips to Be a Better Train Rider”

  1. Great list of subway etiquette! My pet peeve in subways is not adhering to the stand right, walk left rule. Blocking the escalator is a bozo no-no. Actually this is important in airports too. Dont’ block the moving walk way.

  2. Love subways too! Trains in general but there is something much more special about being underground.

    Good tips – I’d add not to exit an escalator or elevator and stop w/in 3 feet of it. Just because you’ve reached the top or bottom doesn’t mean you stop. Continue to walk forward and wait for your friends/family off to the side, out of the traffic pattern.

    AND… definitely be the tourist and check out each station – they’re often vastly different from each other but as suggested here… not during commuter rush hours. So go at 09:30 and be completely awed by Union Station. It’s main hall is not to be missed!

  3. Great list. You’d think by now these things would be obvious to most people… I think avoiding rush hour traffic is a good idea when you’re in a new city – unless you already know your way around.

    I like taking pictures of subways, but that’s something that has to wait for the ‘right’ moment – you don’t want to upset anybody, including soldiers/cops (in some cities).

  4. Despite the fact that the stand/walk rule is reversed in my area, I still wish people could adhere to it! Even locals seem confused sometimes.

    Basic observation skills should tell you what to do on any public transportation system. And remember, if you get lost, it’s just a story to tell later!

  5. on point 1: so what if the tourists stand on the left, then pass them on the right.
    The rule of the road in the countries who drive on the left side of the road is to keep left, pass right, and that rule is usually passed on to pedestrian traffic as well.
    So dont be irritated with tourists who maybe come from those countries, they may have not been made aware of your town’s rule. In some cases they may even not be familiar with the use of escalators at all.

  6. Great post, should be compulsory reading for tourists I think :) abiding to such conventions is a small thing to do on a personal level but combined with everyone else, makes a huge difference.

    On a related note I was living in South Korea when they ‘switched sides’ on the escalators, they changed the direction they ran in. The idea was to get pedestrian traffic aligned with road traffic, on the right. However, the chance over wasn’t publicised well enough outside the centre of Seoul, so the view from our balcony at the escalators into the local metro station was a great source of entertainment for the day!

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