Many complain that Metro’s subway stations aren’t bright enough, but they’re surprisingly not that dim compared to other systems. Better surfaces can ensure that the limited lighting available is used more effectively without altering Metro stations’ iconic appearance.

Which of these stations do you think is better lit? This one in Vancouver:

TransLink system lighting standard for subway platforms: 4 foot-candles. Photo by monnibo on Flickr.

Or WMATA’s Gallery Place-Chinatown station?

WMATA system lighting standard for subway platforms: 10 foot-candles. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Believe it or not, Vancouver’s transit agency specifies platform lighting 60% dimmer than WMATA’s: their standard is 4 foot-candles, versus 10 foot-candles for WMATA. I usually read when I’m aboard transit, and whereas I have to seek out light on Metro subway platforms, I’ve never thought twice about the brightness on TransLink platforms. (Admittedly, I’ve spent much less time on the latter, partly due to the automated system’s startlingly low headways).

It’s not how much lighting, but how to use lighting

The difference is that TransLink also specifies high-reflectance, light-colored walls and floors, which direct light into occupied areas so that they feel much brighter. With “passive illumination,” it’s not just how much light is used, but also what the space does with that light.

Seemingly minor increases in reflectance for surfaces like walls and ceilings, particularly for indirect lighting scenarios, proportionately increase the brightness one can achieve with a given amount of light.

By comparison, much about the classic Metro station design thwarts attempts at improving lighting, and in fact intentionally so. Our standards of brightness have increased, partly because illumination has become so cheap.

Yet the stations’ dark material palette, which includes unpainted concrete walls and ceilings, burgundy tiles, chocolate brown panels, even the bronze railings, absorbs what little light new fixtures add. These materials also attract dirt, which further darkens the stations over time.

Metro points to the efforts that it’s taken recently, including regular power cleaning of the concrete station vaults, existing efforts to add fixtures, and replacing lighting fixtures system-wide with more modern (and thus brighter and more energy-efficient) equipment. The fruits of these can be seen at stations like Judiciary Square, which does indeed seem like a beacon of light compared to others in the system.

Reflective materials can improve lighting

However, using more reflective materials can also improve station lighting. That’s the gist behind Metro’s proposed changes to the Bethesda station, like replacing brown metal panels and concrete walls with brushed metal and clear glass. These changes will definitely help, but a more comprehensive approach could look at other changes that can improve lighting without dramatically impacting the stations’ canonical appearance.

Laying a clear polymer coat on existing concrete surfaces could increase reflectance, reduce porosity and repel dirt, making cleaning easier. Painting the station vaults has proven controversial throughout Metro’s history: Zachary Schrag’s book The Great Society Subway points to a 1968 disagreement between the designers Harry Weese and William Lam as to whether to paint the vaults, and notes Weese’s “commitment to ‘pure structure in plain concrete’ ” in criticizing a 1990s decision by WMATA to paint some vaults.

But advances in construction materials now mean that light reflectance surprisingly has less to do with color as one might expect. A darker color with a slight gloss reflects more than a brighter color with a dull finish.

Today, much of the lighting in underground stations come from fluorescent tubes recessed within wells that are out of sight, beyond the platform edge or between the tracks. Since these surfaces are so close to the light sources, small changes here will result in big changes throughout.

Cleaning and brightening surfaces within these wells will result in more light reflected upwards into the station, as well as adding reflectors below the tubes to “catch” light that’s currently pointing downwards, moving wire conduits so that they’re below lights instead of blocking them, and replacing bronze-colored diffusers above the between-track tubes with clear plastic diffusers.

The stations’ coffered ceilings have acoustic panels in them, which can be made brighter. These panels cover a surprising amount of the vaults’ surface area, but because they’re literally in the concrete’s shadows, we don’t tend to notice them very much.

These, too, accumulate dirt and dust over time, and over time they could be replaced by more reflective panels. The new Rosslyn entrance has highly reflective panels embedded within its coffers, which I didn’t even notice the first few times I walked through it.

Similarly, WMATA could replace the drop-ceiling tiles underneath station mezzanines with tiles that reflect more light. Given the low ceiling heights in these spaces and the fact that they’re largely hidden from view, a more ambitious upgrade could replace these with ceiling tiles with embedded LED lamps, reducing both shadows and glare in these areas while improving efficiency over the existing can lights. LED ceiling tiles might sound gaudy, but look no different than the fluorescent panels embedded in most office drop ceilings.

Attention to these details can ensure that the maximum possible amount of light is available within Metro’s subway stations, improving energy efficiency, safety, comfort, and accessibility without altering their iconic appearance.

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Payton Chung, LEED AP ND, CNUa, sees the promises and perils of planning every day as a resident of the Southwest Urban Renewal Area. He first addressed a city council about smart growth in 1996, accidentally authored Chicago’s inclusionary housing law, and blogs at west north.