Tradition prevailed on the jury that David Alpert assigned to judge the 17 Metro map makeovers in a contest on his Greater Greater Washington blog. The winning entry is quite similar in style to the current Metro map.
As one of the jurors, I came away with deep respect for the work of Lance Wyman, who created the original map and now has been hired by the transit authority to produce the real makeover. That one will take account of the future Dulles rail line and the plan to send some rush-hour Blue Line trains over the Yellow Line bridge starting in summer 2012.
I also admire the contestants who put their talent and energy into the contest. Each came up with something of value.
Before I reviewed the entries, I thought the most difficult issue for the mapmakers would be squeezing in the Dulles line, which will extend west to Loudoun County. After the review, I decided the greatest difficulty lay in explaining the turnbacks on the Red and Yellow lines, all part of the current rail system.
The results showed that the contestants are people interested in transit and communications. Yet many maps either didn’t show the current turnbacks or provided confusing and sometimes inaccurate representations.
Much of that can be forgiven. After all, Metro’s current map does not indicate that many Red Line trains routinely turn back toward the District when they reach Silver Spring. On the left side of the current map, a text box says that every other outbound train terminates at Grosvenor from 7 to 9:30 a.m. and from 4 to 6:30 p.m. weekdays. (See a pdf of the map.)
Riders who wait on the outbound platforms for rush hour trains know that the schedule appears to be more whimsical than posted. In fact, the operations control center monitors crowding on the platforms and will turn back some trains to ease congestion, whether or not that’s in keeping with what the map says. As a result, many homeward-bound riders are surprised when they have to clear the train at Grosvenor.
About the Yellow Line: I routinely get letters from riders asking why Yellow Line service is cut back at rush hour so that the trains stop at Mount Vernon Square rather than continuing to Fort Totten, as they do off-peak. In fact, the service to Fort Totten was a supplement to the Yellow Line service. The D.C. government wanted to encourage development and connect communities in that corridor north of downtown, so it offered to pay for an extended service to Fort Totten. Later, that operation was absorbed into the general Metro budget, along with additional Red Line service to Shady Grove.
In some cases, the contestants’ solution to one problem — how to designate the extra trains that probably will cross the Yellow Line bridge — exacerbated the existing problem of how to designate the peak and off-peak terminals for the Yellow Line.
Contestants could have designated those diverted trains with new colors or with numbers, or they could have continued to call them Blue Line trains and shown the Blue Line taking two routes. But most chose to adopt the Yellow Line designation for those trains.
That makes a lot of sense. In fact, it’s an idea that Alpert presented almost a year ago in this blog posting. For one thing, it means that riders won’t have to figure out why the Blue Line is stopping on two levels at L’Enfant Plaza or why their new train isn’t making a sharp right after crossing the bridge and heading east toward Largo.
A key concern among Metro officials studying the Blue Line split is how to keep riders from winding up at the wrong destination. By designating these diverted trains as Yellow Line trains, the contestants largely solve that. Only riders bound for the two southern-most stations on the traditional Yellow Line have a chance of boarding the wrong train.
But the new Yellow Line designation would increase the odds that future riders will wind up as disgruntled as those Red Line riders forced to get off trains at Grosvenor.
The new “Yellow Line” would have three potential turnback points on its northbound run: Mount Vernon Square, Fort Totten or Greenbelt. And, as many contestants illustrated, it’s very hard to represent that clearly on a map designed for people on the go. During peak periods — unless Metro could somehow alter the schedule — some “Yellow Line” trains would terminate at Mount Vernon Square, and others would terminate at Greenbelt. Off peak, they would all terminate at Fort Totten.
I’d make sure to keep the list of prohibitions at the bottom of the map, because many riders would be tempted to have another coffee while they’re trying to absorb all the new information.