Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Just about every other transit system I have used does a far better job of using signs and maps to let people know where they are and how to get where they are going. A feature of the London Tube that any tourist would appreciate is the huge system map, about 15 feet by 30 feet, that many of the stations have on the walls opposite the platform. The system maps in our Metro stations are small and difficult to find.

Also, the small station placards on the walls opposite the platforms in our system are spaced far enough apart that they cannot be seen from many places in the train.

Many other systems I have used have route maps along the ceiling line of the cars showing you the stations served by that particular train.

Finally, I am not aware of any other system that clutters its route maps with such idiotic concoctions as U St./African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo and New York Ave/Florida Ave/Gallaudet U. All this excess verbiage accomplishes is to make the maps more difficult to read.

— Dan O’Day, Alexandria

Metro has a map problem. The station names are getting too long, and the routes are about to get more complicated. All this in a transit system that faces a particular challenge in guiding visitors from around the world.

The London subway refuses to let its riders get lost. At least, that’s the philosophy its managers seem to have adopted over the years. There’s a map at almost every turn, and they seem to get bigger and simpler.

By contrast, Metro has made its map more difficult to read by adding text, lengthening the station names to advertise neighborhood attractions and creating text blocks to describe the train turnbacks on the Red and Yellow lines.

The more specific the map gets, the less useful it becomes to the people who need it most: the riders squinting at it over the shoulders of other riders on a crowded rail car as they try to figure out how many stations till they need to reach the doors.

The transit authority is considering revisions to its policy on station naming. This is a delicate matter for board members.

Sure, they’re supposed to represent the riders, but they were appointed by the jurisdictions that come up with the long station names. The District has created the longest names in the system, but hasn’t found a way yet to fiddle with the shortest name: Takoma.

The jurisdictions cover the cost of redoing all the signs and maps whenever they discover some other train-side attraction they want to show off by stretching a station name.

“Brevity of the names is important to customers for quick comprehension in navigation,” says a board briefing paper prepared by the transit staff. “Over time, customers have indicated a preference for simple names, and with only one hyphen, if necessary.”

And over time, the jurisdictions and the board have ignored such advice. Many riders will be surprised to learn that Metro already has a policy on the length of station names: no more than 19 characters long, except in the case of transfer stations, which should be no longer than 13 characters. They’ll be surprised, because 15 of the 86 station names exceed the 19-character limit.

And the jurisdictions aren’t done. To get ready for the Dulles rail extension and some service changes likely to stem from that, the transit authority is trying to gather new station names and some revised station names for inclusion on a new map.

The transit staff has submitted a modest proposal, aimed at getting the jurisdictions and the board to adhere to some of the original naming conventions, including brevity as well as the novel idea of making feedback from riders a formal part of the process.

One problem: Even if the jurisdictions can resist the temptation to lengthen current names, it would be tough to get them to retreat on the long names they’ve already assigned.

Remaking the map

Imposing some discipline on station names may turn out to be the easy part of improving the riders’ sense of where they are. There’s that map, too. Consider the challenge of revising the iconic Metro map to include all the new stations on the Dulles line as well as the plan to divert some Blue and Orange line trains at rush hour.

For a contest on David Alpert's Greater Greater Washington blog, 17 mapmakers went through that exercise.

I was one of seven jurors who reviewed the submissions and picked a winner, but blog readers also could vote for their own choice.

The exercise left me with even greater admiration for the original Metro mapmaker, Lance Wyman, who came up with a clear, concise way of displaying five lines and 86 stations.

But the contestants suggested many possible improvements and highlighted some challenges for Wyman, who has been hired by Metro to revise the map. Several pointed the way to a better display of station names: Put the main name, the one riders actually go by, in boldface type. Have a lighter typeface and a smaller type size for the neighborhood advertising part of the name.

What about Dulles?

Many of the map contestants wanted to add very specific information: the route of the proposed Purple Line in Maryland, various bus routes or the opening dates for the two phases of the Dulles line.

Don’t listen to them, Lance. Metro can’t afford to change all these maps every time an above-ground route changes or an opening date gets pushed back.

While I have less than full confidence in the exact opening date for the Dulles extension, I have great confidence that the airport line will open, despite the haggling over the location of the airport station.

The problem isn’t the location of the station, which should be placed to maximize ridership and revenue. The problem is the growing cost of the project.

That’s what the airports authority and its bashers need to address in a forum to be provided by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

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 .