Walking into an old Metro car is like walking into 1976, the year Metro opened. The fluorescent light in the 1000-series rail car is buttery, retro and forgiving, as if designed to flatter Robert Redford in “Three Days of the Condor.”
Walking into the clinical white-blue light of a new 7000-series car is like walking into a future where no one looks their best. Maybe you’ve seen a rider or two wearing sunglasses to stunt the glare of the light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which last longer and are more energy-efficient than older lighting options.
Sitting in one of the new cars is like sitting inside a Xerox machine.
Light is “the principal medium which puts man in touch with his environment,” Metro’s original lighting designer, architect William Lam, once said. What kind of environment is Metro in 2017? There are seven types of rail cars in service, each with its own aesthetics. Sometimes the difference is subtle — a matter of seat colors, the condition of the carpeting, the density of ridership.
Mostly, though, it’s a matter of lighting.
Car No. 2011 rolls into the McPherson Square station on the Orange Line at 2:38 p.m. This one entered service in 1982 but was rehabbed in 2003 with raspberry carpeting and padded seating. Its rectangular panels of overhead light emit different tones — whitish or orange-tinged, depending on their age and make. The visual imbalance gives a sense of slight vertigo.
Over at Metro Center, two Red Line trains heading in opposite directions arrive at the same time. Car No. 1281, on its way to Glenmont, has a matte exterior caked with grime; its amber-hued interior is soft as an easy chair. No. 7128, on its way to Shady Grove, is brushed silver on the outside and “Minority Report” on the inside.
Yes, Metro officials say, the lighting is changing. The older cars have a “warm white” color temperature. The new series has a “neutral/day white” color temperature.
Warm to neutral. That’s our journey as Washingtonians.
When the Metro first opened, commuters were more focused on the dimness of the stations than the aura of the cars, says Mark Rea, director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“I kind of like it,” Rea says of the Metro’s still-pervasive twilight setting. “It was a profound change in the conventional wisdom on lighting for public spaces. So I could see how it looks garish when you walk from that environment into a bright car.”
Lam, the lighting architect, said that the lighting shouldn’t be brighter than it needs to be, and he didn’t want hanging fixtures to mar the monumental nature of the stations’ architecture — which means that indirect lighting is a hallmark of the system. Which means that when we wait for a train, we wait in dimness. Until the arrival of a 7000-series car, a bullet of brightness.
We would have so much to talk about with Lam, but he died in 2012. So for a bit of analysis, we called the chief lighting designer for the National Gallery of Art.
“The new cars have that dark floor, and I’m pretty sure the dark floor is maybe there because it doesn’t show stains,” says Gordon Anson, who has worked at the gallery for 39 years. “But your eyes are always drawn to the brighter surface. In the new cars, you’re aware of the perimeter of the car as opposed to the light on the floor.”
Or the gum. Or the smear of ketchup. Or a curlicue of loose carpeting, in the case of the older cars.
Riders wanted a bluish color scheme, and they got lighting to go with it. People have reacted positively, Metro says — but let’s be real. The lighting in the new cars produces “a pallid, factory-like, and unwelcoming ambiance,” as one citizen declared in an anonymous online rant last month.
Some of us take lighting very seriously.
“The government has no business telling an individual what kind of lightbulb to buy,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said in 2011 when she introduced the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act amid a backlash against the compact fluorescent bulbs that are curly and supposed to save the planet. Some of us silently cheered her, at least for reasons of aesthetics.
The Italians know. In Rome, they’re fretting about the replacement of hundreds of thousands of yellow sodium street lamps with white LEDs — a transition that’s happening all around us as fluorescence and incandescence are also vanquished.
“Illumination is atmosphere,” Roman municipal council member Nathalie Naim said to the New York Times last month. Proponents of lighting replacement “are assassins of the beauty of Rome, of its history.”
But what is it that really bugs us about the new light? We complain that it is too bright, but is it really about the color?
“If the lights are a cooler white — if they do appear blue — that tends to enhance the brightness perception,” says John Bullough, the Lighting Research Center’s director of transportation and safety lighting programs. “Even if your light meter tells you it’s the same number of footcandles, [blue] can tend to look brighter.”
This blue-white light is good for us, except when it’s bad for us. It’s viewed as therapeutic in the morning but ruinous in the evening, when it futzes with our melatonin and circadian rhythms.
But what about stepping into and out of a 7000-series rail car in the morning and then again at night?
Rea doesn’t see harm in it. The brief time a commuter might spend in a rail car — and the scientifically quaint difference in light intensity outside the car — would not have a profound effect on our internal 24-hour clocks, unlike the bright smartphones we hold to our faces right before we go to sleep.
Of course, lighting is far down on the list of pressing Metro issues. There are delays, accidents, crime, fires, escalator drama, the occasional injury or death.
“Customers frequently comment about station lighting, asking Metro for brighter stations, which also helps them feel safer and more secure,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel recently told The Washington Post’s Faiz Siddiqui.
Stessel was defending the recent paint job at Union Station, where the raw concrete of the vault has been painted white — to the horror of preservationists who say it neuters the structure’s stony, brutalist power. “While power washing was considered, years of dust, dirt and grime coating the vault cannot effectively be cleaned and does little to move the needle when it comes to brightness.”
And in the new cars, “you can see what’s going on around you,” says Rose Surratt, a receptionist commuting home to Maryland via Metro Center. The LED lighting “just feels better.”
Better, as in safer?
“Is anywhere safe?” Surratt asks, before stepping toward the light.