As someone who spends quite a bit of time on the New York City subway, I'm always curious to compare our system with that of other cities. The first thing I noticed about Washington's system is that it's very deep underground, which makes for some very long escalator rides.
Or walks, if the escalator is broken, which it seemed to be in many cases. In this respect, the Washington and New York systems are very much alike. Sometimes I wonder why I didn't go into escalator repair as a career, because there seems to be a big demand for it, or at least a need.
As a rule, the metro stations in DC seem far less crowded, noisy, and dirty than in New York. Of course, the system in New York is much bigger and older -- not to mention it never shuts down -- so it's not exactly a fair comparison.
In DC they have these great signs that let you know when a train is coming, which is only available on a few lines in New York. Thankfully DC doesn't have that horrible, insanity-provoking recording of the woman with the most grating voice in the history of the universe telling you that a train is "one station away" or "entering the station." There is a cool and futuristic quality to the DC system that made me quite envious, along with the fact that the trains seem to go much faster and have a smoother ride. They also never seem to be that crowded! Oh and there is no garbage or rats or streams of toxic waste between the rails on the tracks.
On the minus side, you need a card to exit the station, which means that if you're going to cheat and jump the turnstile, you're going to have to do it twice. There's also the risk that you might lose your card, which means you have to pay for a new one in order to escape.
Another minus is that the fare-care machines are exceedingly complicated. DC has staggered rates, so that if you're going further, you have to pay more, which makes a certain amount of sense unless you're used to the New York system, where you can go anywhere for one fare. More maddening is the fact that if you buy a one-day pass, the day doesn't begin until 9:30 am, which you might discover at 7:30 in the morning if you're like me. "It's written on the machine," said the booth guy when I complained. I next asked him how long it was good for. "Until we close!" he said, as if I had just asked him the most idiotic question in the world.
Having lived in New York City for so many years, I understood the futility of arguing with a booth guy. I walked up the steps of the eternal elevator, where the outside sky beckoned like the entrance to heaven.