You might soon be catching a Southbound Green Line train to L’Enfant Plaza and transfer to an Eastbound Orange Line train, if Metro goes ahead with a concept to revamp signs and navigation in the rail system.




The agency took a fresh look at its wayfinding signs because of a number of problems, including accessibility for people with disabilities, really confusing designs, and more. Officials came up with a new concept, ran it by people internally, and last night shared it with the Riders’ Advisory Council.

North, south, east, west

The biggest change would be to drop the system of identifying directions by the ends of the lines. Instead of taking a Green Line train toward Branch Avenue or Greenbelt, you’d take it northbound or southbound.


Left: Current pylon design. Right: New concept pylon design.


Certainly this direction system can be confusing for many people, especially new riders, for whom these ends of lines mean little. It’s particularly easy to get mixed up with the Red Line, where trains can go to Glenmont, Shady Grove, Grosvenor, and Silver Spring. But the two “S” directions aren’t on the same side, nor are the two 2-word directions.

On the other hand, the Red Line makes a U shape, so telling someone to get on the Westbound Red Line at Wheaton, when the tracks really head south and a bit east, might still leave some room for confusion. Riders from Franconia to Pentagon would have one track for both Eastbound Blue Line trains and Northbound Yellow Line trains. The Blue Line train also heads west before it heads east, though the trains do ultimately go east and north.


Matt Johnson examined this possibility in a post in 2010, but also noted the above issues. Other possibilities include “inbound/outbound,” as Boston’s T does, picking a spot (such as Metro Center) where the directions flip; or listing the next major stations, as Munich does.

The strip maps would also get simpler and just show stations you can reach with a one-seat ride from the current platform, like Matt recommended. There would be only a few different signs; and stations with the same lines would all have the same signs, with the current station marked with a white background.


Current strip map (for Rosslyn).

New strip maps (for Pentagon City)


More dots on the map?

Another part of the presentation shows tweaks to the system map. Metro officials spent months agonizing over how to show stations where multiple lines all stop, since the old system of one small circle in between two lines doesn’t work for three lines.

The agency eventually settled on a scheme of using the same small circles but with little white “whiskers” linking it to the lines on each side. It seems they aren’t happy with this in the Jackson Graham Building, because the new concept tosses this out and instead puts a separate circle on each line.


New concept system map.

The current system map.

Alternate “pill” option from 2013 redesign.


To me, this looks really busy and messy. What do you think? Another problem is that transfer stations still have a single small-ish circle, so it might even look like Silver and Blue trains don’t stop at L’Enfant Plaza. Certainly the transfer stations are now much less prominent, which is the opposite of what should be.

In our 2011 map contest, someone actually did suggest something like this scheme: Matt Johnson, whose entry used pairs or triples of dots. However, he used bigger dots that link together, which I at least think looks much nicer than this. He made the transfer stations much larger, though the problem still exists on his version.


Matt Johnson’s map contest entry.


The ends of each line now say “West Terminus” and so forth. It’s a minor thing, but “terminus” seems like an unnecessarily technical word to use. There’s also got to be a more elegant graphical way to include those labels.

What do you think about using north/south/east/west and the map concept?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.