Guiding Lights

I like to say Metro has mood lighting. Laura Soskey, 23, puts it a different way: “It’s eerily dark, but mostly it’s depressing.” But it seems Metro has finally seen the light — and now riders are starting to also. I met Soskey beneath the glow of four super-bright orbs attached to the top of a pylon in the Friendship Heights station.

Like several people I talked to down there, she hadn’t really noticed the addition until I pointed it out. (When I first spotted it, though, I shielded my eyes and wondered whether aliens had landed.) My theory is the oblivious riders were too distracted by the glow of their cell phones to look up.

Not everyone was clueless. A few folks had been wondering about the recent appearance of such an odd fixture. “I’m curious why it’s so close to the escalator,” says Megan McKinney, 27.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel has a simple explanation. When escalators are rehabbed, they must be recertified before they can be put back into use. “It wouldn’t pass the recertification process until the lighting near there was brighter,” he says. (Something about a certain number of lumens required to see whether you’re going to trip.) So, since Metro is as bright as a smoky speakeasy, they needed to put something bold in ASAP. They’ve installed another at Bethesda, and Tenleytown’s next.

“It’s still a pilot program,” says Stessel, who emphasizes that these lights are about safety (“our No. 1 priority”) rather than aesthetics. Maybe that will appease the pickiest commenters on DCist.com, one of who deemed the orbs overly “harsh” in a recent posting.

Looks do matter, however, which is why WMATA plans to lighten platforms with brighter bulbs and some sprucing up. “In some stations, it’s just a matter of cleaning the brake dust that’s built up over the lights,” Stessel says. Another initiative that should help: power-washing the walls. Dingy gray surfaces can’t reflect light the way shiny white ones can.

As Metro matters go, lighting might not be the most critical. “I’d be happier if they spent the money on rail lines,” McKinney says. But a few thousand dollars for some orbs and cleaning doesn’t seem like a waste to me. As long as we’re going to be waiting for trains, it’s nice to be able to see.

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