New Metro train cars should help riders, but platform signage still needs improvement. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

With all the problems Metro faces, the state of its signage is probably far down on the list of things to fix. Better to address the smoky tunnels and random breakdowns that bedevil commuters.

And yet the lousy signage is something I grumble about every time I ride Washington’s subway.

I’m not alone. Subhash Vohra lives in Falls Church and is a frequent Metro rider. He recounted a recent episode that occurred on the Silver Line. As the train slowed at Foggy Bottom, a group of tourists asked which station stop it was. The train operator’s announcement had not been intelligible, and the internal lighted sign had switched to a message indicating which side the doors would open on.

Subhash wrote: “With too much brightness inside the car and darkness outside, one could not see the name of the station, and as the platform was in the middle at this station, another train was obstructing the name of the station on the opposite wall.”

Subhash told them they were at Foggy Bottom, where he himself was alighting.

London’s subway seems to have this sign thing figured out. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The new 7000-series rail cars should solve some of these problems. Not only are the automated audio announcements clear, Dr. Gridlock reports that some sort of station information is visible from any place in the car. (I have yet to encounter one of the new cars in the wild.)

Of course, we’re a long way from replacing all the old cars with new cars. That’s why Subhash thinks Metro should reprogram its lighted signs in the existing rail cars. The station information should stay up until the doors open.

I’ve never understood the fixation on which side the doors open on. Why devote precious time or pixels to “Doors opening left side”? Once the doors open, it’s pretty obvious.

But my real gripe with Metro’s signs isn’t about what’s inside the cars, but what’s outside them. The platform information is awful. There aren’t enough signs, and the signs are too small. Riders should not have to scurry down the platform as a train is entering the station to find a complete Metro system map. They shouldn’t have to march from pylon to pylon to find the surface that has the tiny white stick-on letters indicating the rest of the stations on that line.

Subhash is a former BBC journalist who’s ridden public transportation around the world and once worked in London, which he says has the best signage.

I have to agree. Several years ago, I interviewed Transport for London’s Jerry Hill, who has the wonderful title “signage and wayfinder designer.”

That’s all we want to be able to do when we’re embarking on a journey: find our way.

London’s Underground has won many awards for its signage. There’s a nifty 201-page PDF you can find online that details the strict requirements designers follow.

Jerry described the holistic mind-set the Tube’s designers have, how they must take into consideration a journey’s sequence and how that affects signage, from the large, iconic roundel atop the entrance canopy of a station to the complete line maps as users approach the platform. Everything is designed to inform and confirm (Ah, this way to the Piccadilly Line. Yes, this is the platform I need.).

“One of the key things with Underground signs is making sure the signs are functional and legible for their distance,” Jerry said. “In a station with a lot of interchanges, like King’s Cross, the signs need to be bigger to accommodate line directions within a legible size.”

The standard type on route maps inside Tube stations is a capital letter 21 millimeters (about eight-tenths of an inch) tall. “When seen across a track, on a back wall, it’s 42 millimeters,” Jerry said.

Jerry has worked on London’s subway for 30 years. He started in the lighting department. The Underground’s lighting edicts are as rigid as the signage standards, he said.

“If the lighting level is low, your legibility’s really restricted,” he said. “It’s quite surprising how it appears. The letters look quite small in low lighting.”

Of course, dim lighting is something our Metro suffers from. I wish the transit agency would follow tourists around and observe how they interact with our system. And not just tourists. I still find myself scrambling to find my way in unfamiliar stations.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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