Metro has the money to fix what’s busted and to test better station designs

Robert Thomson
Columnist April 27, 2013

Some Metro riders are upset about the transit authority’s plan to use Bethesda as a lab for testing new station design elements. The main theme of their complaints was: How can transit officials think about redesigns when they haven’t fixed all the things that are broken?

Others were put off because they envisioned redesign in terms of tearing down the cathedral-like vaults that are emblematic of many underground stations. They preferred preservation to change.

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. View Archive

My own theme in last week’s column was a difficult one for transit riders to accept: You can and should have it all. I’ll elaborate, but look first at this rider’s expression of unease.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Before it redesigns the system, Metro ought to replace the dozens of burnt-out light bulbs in each station. The darkness makes it impossible to “see something” and then “say something.” The lack of light is negligent and makes Metro stations a target for people looking for dark spots to place backpacks loaded with bombs.

If it redesigns the system, Metro ought to light the floors, steps and escalators; no one walks on the walls or ceilings. What light there is, is incorrectly aimed.

— M. Lincer, the District

Safety and security are among the many good reasons for brightening the stations. Our cathedral-like spaces look like they’re lit by votive candles.

Keeping the lamps lit is the most basic part of a lighting program, and I join other riders in wanting the transit staff to be more aggressive on this. But brightening the stations ultimately involves much more than screwing in new bulbs.

Over the long run, the lighting equipment should be modernized and enhanced to take advantage of newer technologies that provide better illumination while limiting power consumption and cost.

Metro’s current rebuilding program provides for such improvements. Weekend riders endure the consequences. Recently, the Judiciary Square station was closed so workers could upgrade the bank of lights in the track bed that illuminates the station’s ceiling.

But such fixes to a half-century-old system won’t suffice, and Metro riders should expect transit planners to find out how the latest technologies and design techniques can work together to brighten stations.

Is it possible that more stainless steel, less brown and clearer signs could help get the most out of modernized lighting? The best way to find out is to test such elements in one spot, then let riders say what works and what doesn’t.

Am I persuading you about the value of the Bethesda station lab? Last week’s letter-writer says he wasn’t sold on my argument, although he was gentle about it.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I saw your column in Sunday’s Metro section and appreciate the complete picture you provided your readers. Not that I’m swayed in my opinion. I’m more in line with the Local Opinion piece written by Andrea Smith.

Whatever funds Metro has need to be applied to a long string of nagging issues you have highlighted many times. If my basement is leaking or the carpets are filthy, I’m not going to use my tax refund to buy a new chandelier.

— Allen K. Mears, McLean

Smith, an assistant professor of preservation planning at the University of Mary Washington, made a solid argument against giving up Metro’s distinctive design features in favor of the latest — and probably ephemeral — fashion. I agree, but think using one station to test some modest, user-friendly improvements is a great way to ensure that any systemwide changes will be thoroughly reviewed by both design experts and everyday riders.

Thanks to the region’s taxpayers, Metro has the financing to fix what’s broken now and make tomorrow’s ride a better experience. Riders shouldn’t settle for one or the other. They should expect both.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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