For out-of-towners, navigating the Metro system can be a daunting task. Metro could make directions easier and improve wayfinding in the system by providing more information about train directions on signs.

The system’s use of colored lines and destination station to identify train direction works fairly well for Metro, especially given the structure of the system, but it can be confusing to see one train going to Glenmont and another to Grosvenor when neither mean much to a visitor.

Where some trains don’t go all the way to the terminal, like on the Red Line, the multiple terminals are even more confusing, especially when two Red Line terminals are two-word names starting with ‘S’ and the others one word starting with ‘G’, but one of each is on either end of the line. Other lines downtown also have two terminals in each direction since two colors share a track.

What could Metro do? Other transit systems approach this problem in several ways.

Inbound/Outbound
Some systems use “inbound” and “outbound” to identify the direction of trains in the system. Where this type of labeling is in use, a given train switches from being “inbound” to being “outbound” somewhere along its route (unless it terminates downtown).

The major benefit of this system is that it’s always clear which train is headed toward the center city or toward the suburbs. Usually the inbound/outbound system is used in conjunction with an end station, which ensures that riders can find the right train.


Downtown Boston. Image from MBTA.

Boston’s MBTA (the T) uses this system. The rail system doesn’t have just one central station, but four transfer stations downtown. Any train heading to that central square is “inbound,” but with no stations between the transfer stations, there’s no ambiguity.

It would be difficult for a purely inbound/outbound system to work on Metro. If the center point were Metro Center, would it make sense for Vienna-bound trains at Smithsonian to be “inbound”?

Cardinal directions
Another method to identify train direction is using the points of the compass. Trains are identified as “northbound” or “southbound” or whatever as the case dictates.

The simplicity of this method is its main benefit — as long as riders know the rough geography of the city. If a rider knows, for instance, that Arlington is west of downtown DC, he or she would know to look for the “westbound” platform.


MARTA, in Atlanta, uses this method. The system has two trunk lines, each with one spur. Because the lines are each oriented primarily in a north/south and east/west direction, it makes it easy to identify lines using the compass.

Metro can’t take this approach because our lines are so twisted. The Orange Line runs pretty well east/west and the Yellow Line is basically north/south, but the other lines are not as consistent. At King Street, the Blue Line headed toward Braddock Road would have to be “eastbound” while the Yellow Line on the same track is “northbound.”

Political/geographical
One more approach uses geographical or political boundaries to define direction.


Photo by jpellgen.

In the San Francisco area, BART uses this to some extent. Trains in downtown San Francisco are defined as headed toward the “East Bay”, for instance. New York also uses this approach. Trains are identified as “Bronx-bound” or “to Brooklyn/Queens,” for instance.

Applying this approach would also be problematic in DC. The Red Line, for instance, couldn’t be identified as “to Maryland,” since both branches lead there. The Orange, Yellow, and Blue Lines, on the other hand, could easily be identified as “Virginia-bound” or “Maryland-bound.”

Intermediate station
One final alternate approach is the use of an intermediate station to determine direction. In this case, the next major station in a given direction would be listed for the “direction” of the platform. Trains would still be identified by their final station.

Munich’s U-bahn uses this system. Platforms are defined by their Richtung (direction), whereas trains are defined by their Ziel (destination). So passengers at Candidplatz find one platform labeled “Richtung Mangfallplatz” (direction Mangfallplatz), which happens to be the line’s terminal, 3 stops distant, and one platform labeled “Richtung Hauptbahnhof” (direction Main Railway Station), which is not a terminal, but which is a major transfer point 4 stops distant.


Photo by Mike Knell. Note the text “Richtung (direction) Mangfallplatz” on the rightmost sign.


Next, a suggested solution.

Tagged: signs, wmata

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.