As discussed yesterday, Metro is currently planning a new line color, brown, to delineate new service from Franconia-Springfield to Greenbelt via the Yellow-Green route.

Metro presumably decided to do this based on rider feedback. According to their presentaton, “A majority of respondents mentioned that adding a new line color to the map would make the change easier to understand.”

I can see how people would say that. But WMATA shouldn’t take that at face value. Sure, if you’re specifically thinking about a new service, having a separate color would make the new service clear. But it also will make the rest of the map harder to understand, with more lines. We must therefore ask: How much more clarity do we really get from a new color? And how much less clarity do we get elsewhere?


No need for a new color.


Here are the top ten reasons to use Yellow instead of Brown for these trains:

  1. The change affects few stations and few people. Having a whole new color adds very little. The service only changes anything at four stations, Eisenhower Avenue, Huntington, Van Dorn Street, and Franconia-Springfield. According to ridership data, those stations represented only 3% of total riders and 6% of riders on Blue, Yellow, and or Brown Line stations in 2007.
  2. Casual visitors don’t use those stations. Those aren’t heavy tourist/visitor stations. They mostly serve commuters. The nearby stations which do draw more tourists and visitors from other parts of the region, like King Street and National Airport, aren’t affected by the service change. Regular everyday commuters will get used to the new service very quickly, new color or no.
  3. Keep it simple downtown. Most people who don’t know Metro ride in the downtown core area. We should avoid any change that forces them to select among more choices—like yet another color to get from L’Enfant Plaza to Gallery Place—without actually affecting their travel options.
  4. There will be few trains. Only four trains per hour will be Brown trains, and they’ll only run rush hours. I can just imagine tourists sitting at Pentagon wanting to go to College Park waiting for 30 minutes for a Brown Line train that never comes. To warrant a color, a service should run frequently and all day.
  5. Vienna-Largo service isn’t getting a color. Since four Blue trains per hour won’t be going to Largo, Metro will send some of the Orange Line trains from Vienna to Largo instead of to New Carrollton. As commenter Transport pointed out, why aren’t we doing another color for that, too? It even affects more stations. That must be because Metro didn’t ask Orange and Blue riders in the east if they want a new color.
  6. The map is too cluttered. As several commenters mentioned, the thick lines take up a lot of room and, with the Silver Line, we’d have six lines going through L’Enfant. Metro can alleviate this by thinning out the colors, but that’s still a lot.
  7. Where does it end? WMATA’s long-term expansion plans call for connection tracks allowing Vienna trains to go down to Alexandria without going through DC, or to turn at Pentagon and go up the Yellow Line bridge, or from a new separate Blue Line onto the Green-Yellow tracks. Commenter kk said, “What next, the Aqua, Apricot, Turquoise, Buff, Amber, Ecru, Celadon & Tan lines?”
  8. Riders aren’t that dumb. New York riders can handle having 3-4 services on one track that go to different places when they get out toward the ends of the lines. All we have to do to make it clear is have the conductor announce, clearly and loudly, as the train heads toward King Street, “This train is going on the Blue Line to Franconia-Springfield! Get out at King Street and wait for the next Yellow Line train for Eisenhower Avenue and Huntington.” As above, they’ll have to do that for Orange trains at Stadium-Armory too.
  9. It could be, and was, worse. Metro riders managed to cope with this:

    WMATA map, 1982. Orange and Blue trains at the ends of the lines are one color in one
    direction and the other color the other direction. From Transit Maps of the World.
  10. Watch what people do, not what they say. Ken Archer, who runs a software company, recently reminded me of this saying in the software business: watch what your users do, not what they say. People will say they want this feature or that feature added to a piece of software, but sometimes if you add it, few people will use it; meanwhile, people might not say that a particular user interface is confusing, but it costs them time. People don’t know what they really want. Instead, good software companies run usability tests where they watch people using their software and see what’s actually confusing. Web sites monitor server logs to see what links get more clicks.WMATA could do the same. Run a series of usability tests where they show neophytes one map or the other and ask them to point out how they’d get from one place to another. See if it really is more confusing. Make sure to ask them to get to and from an affected station, then between two unaffected stations along the potential Brown route. Time the amount of time elapsed for someone unfamiliar with the Metro map to find a route from any two stations (sometimes including the affected stations, sometimes not). I suspect that the Brown map will take people longer to comprehend, but few people will find it meaningfully harder to navigate on the split yellow. Maybe I’m wrong, but we won’t get the right answer just by saying to riders, “do you want another color or not?” They’ll always say yes even if it’ll confuse them.Or just try it with split yellow. If it’s really a problem, we can always switch.

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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 now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle.