Metro should redesign stations for this century’s riders

Robert Thomson
Columnist April 20, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

News of Metro’s plans to refurbish and upgrade the Metro stations, using Bethesda as the prototype, left me sputtering. For a lot less money, Metro could clean and seal the concrete walls and ceilings at the stations and get an immediate and obvious upgrade.

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

Metro’s proposed plans to spend millions of dollars per station is cosmetic and simply stupid.

— Allen K. Mears, McLean

I do some sputtering, too, every time I walk into the Farragut North station. Since 2010, it has looked like the upstairs tenant let the tub overflow long enough to bring down the ceiling tiles. Farragut North, the nadir of Metro stations, just screams out government’s lack of interest in the traveling public.

But the interiors of other stations murmur similar messages. Wooden boxes surround various half-done repairs. Platform tiles crumble underfoot. The only uniformly applied color in the Metrorail system is dingy.

It’s a twisted benefit that people can barely make out the deterioration in underground stations because they’re so dark.

Many riders do care deeply about what these public spaces look like and think of problems such as dim illumination as service issues. I see Metro’s 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 in her story on Metro’s renovation plans: “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.”

Mears won’t be lonely in those quarters. But Metro does have the $10 million for this, and a lot more in its $5.5 billion capital budget. I wish the managers were spending it faster. And I see nothing wrong with using Bethesda as a lab for attacking some of the design problems that riders constantly complain about throughout the aging system, such as the miserable lighting conditions.

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

Don’t tell us about your big, fat six-year capital spending plan. Show us that somebody in charge cares what this thing looks like and how riders experience it.

So now, I see Metro picking a target and saying it’s going to make this thing better.

Well, okay, then.

And I don’t get nostalgic about Metro brown. Metro’s willingness to consider new ideas on station design is encouraging, as was its willingness to consider new ideas on rail-car design rather than trying to replicate outdated rolling stock.

I’ve watched Metro cleaning crews move in overnight and do station makeovers, power washing the ceilings, patching cracks and polishing metal. They do a fine job. But the station designs and materials are a half-century old.

Take a modern approach to the overall design of our stations and apply a 21st-century vision.

Metro managers might try some things at Bethesda and decide they don’t work. In this town, they certainly will get plenty of advice, solicited and otherwise, before spreading changes through the system. But as long as this experiment doesn’t come at the expense of other work — and Metro says it doesn’t — we should give it a chance.

drgridlock@washpost.com

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.

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