“Why is there no Retail at Metro Stations?”

metro retail
Photo by PoPville flickr user Brian Mosley

“Dear PoPville,

Random question that I couldn’t answer via Google: Do you know why there are no retail outlets in DC metro stations? For a system that seems to be underfunded and in need of upgraded cars and greater police presence, among other things, it would seem like leasing retail space could provide a least a secondary source of income. This technique is employed to a great degree in Europe, where even small-town train stations resemble shopping malls.”

42 Comment

  • They also have this in some T stops in Boston – in one of their downtown locations, they have a convenience store and a Dunkin Donuts – which now that I think about it, the reason we probably don’t have these in our metro system is because you’re not allowed to consume food or drink on the metro.

  • I don’t know the direct answer to your question, but it seems that WMATA has more than enough problems on its hands just running daily operations. I’d do my best to fix what’s currently broken before adding new any new features.

    • Income generation isn’t really a “new feature”

      • Assuming that WMATA has limited resources (which they do), I’d prefer they focus those resources on fixing various structural problems (infrastructure + organizational) rather than applying them to some exploratory committee to figure out how we can sell coffee on the platform.

  • I forgot what city I was in, I want to say Paris, but some of the stations had a Dunkin Donuts on the platform. The platforms here aren’t big enough, but people eat and drink in trains anyway and no one is stopped. Why not try to make some money off of it? Maybe put one on each line, so Metro Center…L’Enfant, Chinatown, etc.

  • I have wondered this too – I grew up in Toronto and the subway stations always seemed to have at least one coffee shop or convenience store, and sometimes other shopping as well. I assume it’s a conscious decision in DC to cut down on food garbage, and maybe to discourage loitering as well (some of those coffee shops were definitely after-school hangout spots for teens, myself included).

    • Yeah, I would imagine not allowing food or drink on the metro has a lot to do with it, since presumably underground retail would be little convenience stores.

    • Ha, I live in Toronto now. Yeah, I mostly notice food/coffee/snacks in the metro stations. Honestly, I think it’s super gross! I see people eating ice cream, fast food, etc, on trains and it just doesn’t seem like a clean place to be eating food. However, Toronto does have the PATH system and there’s legit retail shopping in those, which is cool.

    • Another former Torontonian here. I used to buy magazines all the time before a long subway ride growing up and loves the convenience of those little kiosks. The worst though is an in-subway McDonalds (Dundas West station) that just makes the whole station smell rancid. In sum: convenient retail = good; onsight cooking = bad.

  • WMATA was considering adding retail (at least in the fall of 2015), but it seemed like the idea wasn’t getting much traction — understandably so, since eating and drinking aren’t allowed on Metro.
    .
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/metro-considers-adding-food-retail-outlets-in-system-to-raise-revenue/2015/11/04/77730fc6-832f-11e5-a7ca-6ab6ec20f839_story.html

  • Ashy Oldlady

    Can you imagine what it would be like if WMATA were charged with managing retail? When the automatic doors at the store’s entrance break down, the area becomes a barricaded construction zone for 18 months, and when the new doors are finally installed, they still break down continuously. Shoppers are regularly mugged by large groups of kids, and nothing is ever done about it. It is determined that the cash register is a major fire hazard, but nothing is done about it until it catches on fire. The store fills with smoke and somebody dies from smoke inhalation because the cashier won’t open the doors because they haven’t gotten approval from their manager. When it comes time to renovate the store, it operates with really odd and inconvenient hours for years, and then Metro wonders why profits are down.

  • The London tube has them – though given I was there in 1991 I don’t know how extensive they are now. They mostly sold easily consumable food/drinks. It wasn’t a trash issues there but I think that trash issues may why they didn’t want to have it here. Also, was it possibly because of jurisdictional issues (3 locals) that don’t apply in other systems?

    • All the more remarkable considering that in the early 1990s, Tube stations did not have trash cans (because of IRA terrorism). So if you brought something on board to eat/drink, you had to carry any wrappers/bottles/cans/etc. not only off the train but up to the surface.
      .
      IIRC, Tube stations still don’t have “standard” trash cans, but many/most have clear trash bags that are suspended from a ring attached to the side of the wall. That way people can dispose of litter, but the receptacle can’t hide a sizable/heavy bomb.

      • As of the 2000s, still no trash cans. When I lived in Manchester, they were few and far between in te city center (because of the bomb in 1996), but the city was relatively clean, with the exception of after matches.

  • Doesn’t McPherson have?

    • They do. It’s a little awkward though. The place where people step off the escalator in our metro stations just wasn’t built to accommodate shops. I don’t know how they’d put any in without a ton of digging or construction at this point. It was poorly thought out way back in the day.

  • Crystal City has that, sort of. The retail isn’t in the footprint of the station per se, but there’s an underground network of shops extending out from it. From what I can’t tell it’s not very successful. Many of the storefronts are vacant or have going out of business signs. The ones that do seem to be doing well also have a ground-level presence along Crystal Drive, and are typically fast food restaurants catering to the lunch crowd.

    • The were in better shape when the defense contractors were booming. DoD has also divested a lot of commercial office space they used to rent in CC.

      • There are still plenty of people that work here, not to mention the all tourists. I think people just have no interest in shopping in an enclosed mall-like space anymore.

    • I’d assume they’re not doing great because they’re out in VA. If underground shops magically appeared at U Street, or Dupont, or Chinatown, etc. I think they’d do just fine. My key word being “magically” — I don’t think it’s worth the investment.

      • They’re also kind of creepy. The whole Crystal City underground is kind of odd and feels kind of dated and closed off.

        • They recently attempted to brighten it up by painting the brown stone walls white. Now it feels like you’re walking through a hospital corridor. 🙂 I avoid it unless it’s unbearably cold out.

      • It is pretty dead in the evenings, but there are a ton of people passing through during rush hour.

  • I wonder if it’s a federal/tri-jurisdictional competition issue. We all know how Congress loves to stifle competition to protect their homegrown favored businesses and franchises. It may be the same reason why they won’t let the Post Office open a low-cost savings bank, like the rest of the world. It would compete with their campaign donors/vested interests.

    • +1. I just don’ understand this either. A post office banks really works well as its affordable and accessible for the poor… But if one doesn’t have the interests of the poor in mind…

  • General Grant Circle

    Lets work on getting police officers on the train before adding retail into the mix for the packs of roving youths. Although maybe stores will hire their own security guards…

  • I recently did a survey for metro where they asked about retail, so maybe it’s something being considered?

  • How about the states of VA and MD pay more into the system since they benefit from having it.

  • I think a better question is why there is so little retail around the entrances to stations (see the picture as an example). Or, better stated, why do the entrances have to be so big, creating a really pedestrian unfriendly experience at the opening, and deadening the block around them?

  • Reasons there isn’t retail:

    1. Opposition to food and drink in the system
    2. Infrastructure not designed for it (electrical, plumbing, waste disposal)
    3. WMATA not really structured to run that type of enterprise
    4. Capital improvements and security are nominally priority investments right now. (Really, almost all revenue money goes to wages, so we’re talking about the margins.)

    Reasons those reasons are dumb

    1. People eat and drink, anyway. MTPD stopped enforcing that in the last 10 years.
    2. The power consumption of a few refrigerators and LED lights is negligible compared to what’s going through the 3rd rail. And WMATA could easily convert the scary money train into a trash train (trash train!)
    3. WMATA is structured to contract out their work. See MetroAccess and escalators. Vendors would be contractors. WMATA just needs to learn how to manage contractors better
    4. Retail leases would bring in MORE revenue to help with those capital and security improvements

    Reasons it will never happen

    1. Jackie Jeter will flip out if her station managers have to add another responsibility to the ones they already have to pretend to manage.
    2. WMATA poops on its feet any time it has an opportunity to generate non-fare revenue. How many ads to you see in the buses these days?

    • We shouldn’t separate retail, revenue, and capital improvement priorities for one good reason: station-specific budgeting. The stations with the most repair needs are ALSO the stations with the most retail revenue potential because those things correlate strongly with having more foot traffic. WMATA could tap that sentiment with smart marketing: “Help take care of YOUR station! Each vendor’s revenue helps pay for repairs in their station. Buy your DD here. Excess revenues will fund artwork (once we fix everything).”

  • WMATA is terrible at leveraging its property. That’s a big difference between WMATA and Hong Kong’s MTR, which is profitable, in part, because it makes a lot of money from its properties.

  • Isn’t there a barbershop in Farragut North? Never seems busy, but its been there awhile. As someone in the commercial real estate industry, it does take some knowledge and resources to act as a retail landlord. I’m not sure there are a ton of retailers who want subterranean space with WMATA as a landlord.

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