Metro riders do care about appearances


Platform-level view of proposed new station look. (Image courtesy of Metro.)

The interior of Metro’s Farragut North station makes a design statement: “We don’t care.” Since 2010, it has looked like the upstairs tenant let the tub overflow till it brought down the ceiling tiles. If Metro tried to sell the place, real estate agents would advertise it as a “fixer-upper.”

Farragut North just screams out government’s lack of interest in the traveling public, but the interiors of other stations murmur similar messages. I think riders care deeply about what these public spaces look like and see problems such as dim illumination as service issues that need to be addressed. I see Metro’s recently announced plan to use the Bethesda station as a redesign laboratory in that light, and I’m hopeful about the results.

Dana Hedgpeth, who covers Metro for The Post, summed up the plan this way in her story last week: “Stainless steel, bright lights and clear glass would supplant the soft lighting and dark colors that were defining elements of the subway system when it was designed and built in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The proposed changes, which would be most noticeable in some of the system’s underground stations, mark a striking departure for Metro. And just as the system’s original design was the subject of great debate, the transit agency’s announcement is already eliciting pointed critiques from some quarters.”

Here are three reader comments submitted for my online discussion Monday that illustrate the diversity of opinions.

Fare hikes and a station redesign: “For the last couple of years, Metro keeps talking about skyrocketing costs and the need for fare increases. Obviously the budget is big enough that they could find millions to redesign a station to look ‘prettier.’ With all the concerns about costs, I was in shock to see this was even considered. I’d love to change my kitchen to all granite and stainless steel, but if I don’t have the money for the basics, then I would be borderline insane to take on such a project. Is Metro really this out of touch?”

Station makeovers: “I was happy to see Metro is considering making the stations over by adding more light and better signage. I am also baffled by the people who are against this because they think the system is so beautiful as it is. I wonder if any of them actually ride the system? The darkness is depressing. It’s public transportation, not a church. After traveling abroad and using several well-lit, well-designed systems the shortcomings of ours are very evident.”

Beauty vs Function: “I wonder how the Blue Line riders, who are already getting pinched, feel about Metro’s beautification plan. There isn’t enough money to help them get to work, but there is enough for a project that achieves no service improvements, and just makes the station look different.”

My take

Metro does have the money for this. I see nothing wrong with using Bethesda as a lab for attacking some of the problems — such as the miserable lighting conditions — that riders constantly complain about throughout the rail system.

During Metro’s lengthy rebuilding program, when so much of the transit system looks so crummy, I’ve frequently urged Metro managers to pick something — almost anything — and make it better.

So now, I see Metro picking one station as a target, and saying, in effect, “We’re going to make this better. Yes, it’s just one station, but it’s a start.”

What I especially like is that Metro seems willing to consider new ideas on station design. I’ve watched station cleaning crews move in and do station makeovers. They do a fine job. But the station designs are a half-century old.

If you just take what your given and try to repair individual items, that’s just lipstick on a pig at this point. I can’t see anything wrong with taking a modern approach to the overall design of our stations, and applying a 21st century vision.

And I say it as someone who regularly has to look up at the ceiling in the Farragut North station. I know there are plenty of other things Metro needs to fix, and the transit authority should get on with that. But this Bethesda makeover is $10 million out of a six-year $5.5 billion capital budget.

Metro might try something at Bethesda and decide it doesn’t work. We’ve certainly seen other examples of that over the years. But as long as this station makeover isn’t coming at the expense of other work — and Metro says it isn’t — we should support this idea.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Robert Thomson · April 17, 2013