Blog-a-thon: The Geography of My Commute to Work: Part 1

Sarah Jane Caban is the Editor of the My Wonderful World Blog.  She initiated the Geography Awareness Week Blog-a-thon in November, 2008, and she has been writing and editing for the blog since June 2007.

Working in geography education, it’s my job to think about geography 40 hours a week. But the reality is I think about it more than that…probably more than I’d like to admit. I often find myself contemplating the geography of relatively mundane activities, and I never cease to be amazed by how relevant geography is to just about every aspect of life.

For a while now, I’ve had the idea to document the geography of my commute to work in a blog post. I figure: What better occasion than Geography Awareness Week?! I hope that by showing how intimately involved geography is in a small portion of my daily life, readers will be compelled to consider the simple and more complex geographic connections in their own lives.

When I sat down to start writing, I surprised even myself with the depth of geographic material. So, I’m going to break my post into two installments. Here goes!

Part 1: Apartment to Metro

Thumbnail image for IMG_0211.JPGDuring my commute to work, I have to walk outside for about 15 minutes–5 minutes to the Metro from my apartment, and 10 minutes from the Farragut West Metro stop to National Geographic. I listen to the morning weather report in order to be prepared for the elements I will encounter in the micro-climate of Washington, D.C: boots/umbrella if rainy, sunglasses, appropriate outerwear, etc. This is an aspect of physical geography.


I walk about 3 minutes from my apartment to Pennsylvania Avenue. I always cross over the island in the middle of the road, rather than walking to the crosswalk–J-walking is a much more direct path to the metro than using the crosswalk is! I’m not alone: The grass is worn from so many commuters traversing it, so there are sections of bare dirt. When it’s dry and I’m wearing high heels, I stick to the hard dirt so that I don’t sink into the grass (ladies, I know you can relate). When it’s rainy and I’m wearing boots, I switch over to the grass, since the dirt very quickly turns into mud (physical geography).

IMG_0214.JPGAt the top of the metro escalators, there are two African-American women who hand out free newspapers every day. One distributes the Metro, the other the Examiner. I usually hesitate to take one, concerned about wasting vital natural resources, even though there are recycling receptacles available. If I do, I get the Metro, since it the less politically conservative of the papers. In this extremely liberal city, I see relatively few commuters reading the Examiner, I’d guess the breakdown is about 80-20 (political geography). Before the women began handing out papers, there was a male newspaper distributer who was extremely vocal and friendly; his  enthusiastic daily greetings were a highlight of my mornings. Then, he disappeared; I heard he got sick. In this city with one of the highest rates of AIDS in the world, I wonder if that disease could have been culprit (medical geography).

Sarah-Jane Caban, National Geographic Society

On the metro escalators, people typically respect the convention of
keeping to the right when standing and moving the left when walking.
When tourists who don’t know the rules get caught up in the morning rush, it
disrupts the flow and they are often met with stares of disapproval
from commuters (spatial dynamics). I always feel bad for the wayward tourists, but I am guilty of being among the group of the leftward hustlers.

I have to pay $2.15 for my morning ride because it’s during rush hour; on
the weekends and during off-peak hours when there are fewer people
traveling, the trains run less frequently and the cost is cheaper. The
price a commuter pays for her trip varies with the distance she is
traveling. Commuters from out in the suburbs of Virginia pay more than
I do coming from Capitol Hill. Many metropolitan systems, such as
Boston and New York, charge a flat rate. It’s an interesting difference
in approach, one based on geography and the economics of transportation
use. I have some intern friends who have devised clever tactics to “game the system”…I generally support the convention of pay-per-distance. I also don’t have to travel very far.

IMG_0218_New.jpgThe D.C metro has an electronic sign that tells when the next train
is coming, and it’s amazing how knowing when the train is coming, vs.
not knowing, affects one’s attitude when traveling. One the one hand,
it’s disappointing if the next train isn’t coming for 20 minutes–I
think I’d rather not know and just assume it was coming sooner! On the
other hand, it’s valuable to be able to
gauge how long it’s going to take to get to your destination. That way,
you can contact your friends to alert them–provided you have Verizon, the only cell
phone carrier with a contract to provide service in the Metro! This
monopoly of a central geographic space frustrated me when I first
moved to D.C. in 2007, particularly as I was an AT&T customer at the time. This
fundamental geographic inequity gave me a bit of a taste of
what it might be like to live in a rural area with much more limited cell phone
service. However, other
carriers are now providing limited service in the Metro.

On the Metro trains there are certain spatial dynamics that riders
must be aware of. Seats with extra room near the doors of the train are
reserved for elderly and handicapped people. I notice that shorter
riders, particularly women, tend to avoid standing in the middle of the
train, since they can’t reach the overhead hand rails. This seems like
an unfortunate oversight to me–all trains should have hand straps that
are more easily accessed by shorter people (spatial equity, human

IMG_0216.JPGI take the Orange line from the Eastern Market stop to Farragut West.
The Metro lines are color-coded, forming a geometric map of the city
that looks like a child’s blindfolded attempt to draw a rainbow. There are plans to expand
some of the existing lines and build new ones, reflecting the rapid
growth of the region in recent decades, and the urban renewal (a.k.a gentrification) of
certain neglected neighborhoods (urban geography).

On my way from Eastern Market to Farragut West, the major
transfer stops have the greatest number of people getting on and off
the train. The Smithsonian stop is especially variable–it has very
light traffic during the week, and is very busy on the weekends when
tourists flock to the museums and monuments. L’Enfant plaza is probably my favorite stop because of
its name, which recalls the French-born architect–and geographer!–who
designed the layout of Washington D.C., modeling it after Western
European cities. I’ve always thought L’Enfant’s central role in our national history is a good reminder
of the immigrant roots on which the country was founded (human

Tomorrow, Part 2: from the Metro to National Geographic Headquarters

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