Metro trains arrive in the Gallery Place-Chinatown station. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

WAMU, the D.C. area’s public radio station, has launched an interactive online game asking transit riders to commute in someone else’s shoes.

Commuting on the Washington, D.C., Metro is no fun lately: The WMATA system is undergoing a difficult era of long-delayed maintenance, and commuters are now intimately familiar with the obstacles of single-tracking and SafeTrack station shutdowns. Frequent service cuts and delays have inspired lots of hate-tweets about how the system sucks, but for many of the city’s young urban professionals, these inconveniences are only mild irritants, since so many knowledge workers enjoy a certain independence from the clock-in, clock-out culture of conventional jobs.  

To help close that perception gap, here comes Commuter Challenge, a new interactive online game from WAMU, D.C.’s local NPR station and the home of the Metropocalypse podcast, which is devoted entirely to the system’s state of disrepair. This gamified subway experience asks players to take a commute in someone else’s shoes.

The premise of this lavishly illustrated choose-your-own adventure is simple: You are Edward, who has a preschooler and works in a restaurant. You have budget of $200 for daycare and transit for the week to complete a 90-minute commute to work. Arrive late three times in the week and you’re fired.

Edward encounters an all-too-common SafeTrack sight: a train overcrowded by single-tracking. (Sarah Winifred Searle/WAMU)

Using a multi-modal patchwork of the C26 bus, the Blue Line train, and Capital Bikeshare, Edward must make it to his restaurant shift on time and under budget. To achieve that, he’ll have to navigate disruptive bus delays, smoky train tunnels, and ride-sharing surcharges. Combined with daycare fees, overtime pressures, and slipping past the boss, a precarious pattern soon emerges for our parenting protagonist: The split-second decision-making pits time against money, with real-world consequences.

Even non-D.C. players may relate to Edward’s mass-transit plight, which asks him to balance his duties as an employee and a dad; as many commuters know all too well, it’s hard to “win” this activity in the end. (For the record, I got dinged with two strikes for showing up late and went over budget by $46.) More importantly, the game highlights how unreliable transit produces all manner of economic hardships for low-income riders. As my colleague Laura Bliss reported for CityLab last year, those earning $30,000 a year make up about 11 percent of rail ridership and roughly half of the system’s bus ridership. For this crowd, getting to work on time is no game.

About the Author

Andrew Small
Andrew Small

Andrew Small is an editorial fellow at CityLab.

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