Metro stations can be dull. Not only are many stations dirty and underlit, they all look the same. What would it be like if WMATA used color and decorations to make it easier for users to navigate the system and the city?

Palm trees and film reels decorate the Hollywood and Vine station in Los Angeles. Photo by JoeInSouthernCA on Flickr.

Harry Weese, who designed the Metro stations, sought to give them a monumental and consistent identity. But the effect is both boring and impractical, particularly in a system that carries so many tourists and visitors from out of town. It’s difficult even for natives to tell one dimly lit concrete underground station from another.

A subway system that doesn’t confuse its users is one that gets everyone where they are going faster. Making the system easier to navigate is not merely a courtesy for visitors but an essential part of keeping Metro functioning as efficiently as possible. It also allows the Metro to reflect the variety of neighborhoods and attractions on the surface.

Boston’s T stations have tiled walls or escalator banners that display the history or neighborhood of an individual station.  In LA, you know you’re near Hollywood because the subway stations are decorated with film reels or images of Hollywood Boulevard stars. Every station in Moscow has its own unique artwork, so of course the station at the Lenin Library has a famous mosaic of Lenin. 

There are lots of ways we could decorate the Metro stations to make them unique. What if the walls and ceilings of Red Line platforms at Metro Center were painted red, and the levels below were orange and blue?

Imagine the Woodley Park escalator with panda posters, or the Waterfront stop decorated with murals of sailboats and of Arena Stage. The L’Enfant Plaza station is right next to the enormously popular Air and Space Museum. Let’s decorate it with artwork featuring rockets and space travel and begin steering museum visitors there and away from the overcrowded Smithsonian stop. The possibilities are endless, and practical.

Beyond convenience, it’s worth remembering that Metro is one of our most important shared spaces. Metro may not be as famous a public space as the National Mall, but it’s time for users to start thinking about it as something more than just a transit utility.

Millions of people spend hours on subway platforms, riding escalators and elevators and making their way through public infrastructure that lacks color and light, to say nothing of character or personality.  We expect that the Mall will be beautiful and pleasant as well as useful and interesting. Why not our subway? 

Furthermore, unlike Metro, the city continues to evolve and grow aesthetically. The museums on the Mall include classical buildings such as West Wing of the National Gallery of Art as well as the modern East Wing and the Hirshhorn Museum. Imagine what the East Wing of the National Gallery or the National Museum of the American Indian would look like if they had to meet the historical preservation demands Metro currently labors under.

If planners and builders can honor L’Enfant’s vision without being strait-jacketed by it, surely Metro can do the same with its original design. One option would be to designate several Metro stations as “classic” stations that adhere strictly to the original design, maintaining a link to the past, as others are modified and changed.

Aboveground, our city is full of unique neighborhoods and monuments. It’s time for that diversity to come underground to individual stations.