Atlantic Cities

D.C.'s Elegant Metro Map Suffers From Growing Pains

D.C.'s Elegant Metro Map Suffers From Growing Pains
WMATA

D.C.'s Metrorail system is growing. And so is its map.

The Silver Line, whose first stops will open later this year, will eventually — finally — provide a rail connection between the city and Dulles International Airport, a welcome alternative to one of the metro area's more expensive taxi rides.

But the expansion means the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency's iconic rail map, the latest iterations of which were released this week, is starting to look more crowded than a downtown platform at rush hour. The system has been expanding regularly [gif] and with grace since Lance Wyman designed the first map in 1976, but the Silver Line poses a new challenge: three lines running on the same track.

Wyman's design prizes clarity over geographic specificity. With thick, vivid cables for routes, the scheme became a favorite for its simplicity and legibility. But now we're confronted with a hefty, tripartite band winding through downtown. After taking suggestions from riders and readers, WMATA put forth two new concepts (split by the slider across the center), neither of which addresses the issue:

A slider shows two new map concepts, with "whiskers" on the left, and "capsules on the right." Via PlanItMetro.

It seems the choice, at this point, is between "whiskers," shown on the three-line stations on the left side the map, or "capsules," shown on the three-line stations on the right. The coiled, tri-colored snake -- and this represents a reduction in thickness from previous iterations -- looks here to stay.

D.C.'s isn't the first subway map to run three lines in one place. The Berlin U-Bahn map has four lines running together, and London easily manages three. The difference is that those maps have much thinner lines, which makes a multi-line-combo more graphically palatable.

Map designer Cameron Booth addresses this issue with his proposed revision of the D.C. Metro map, which was the "People's Choice" winner in a poll at D.C.-area transit blog Greater Greater Washington a couple years ago. "With the addition of the Silver Line and new peak services," Booth wrote in his submission, "the thick, chunky lines of the old diagram just aren't going to work anymore." Instead, Booth slimmed down the lines so that even while adding in the Silver Line, as well as new lines to distinguish peak and off-peak services, the result was a map that looks sleeker than the current proposal. His map shows as many as four lines running together in bundles that resemble the striped trunks of Massimo Vignelli's scheme for New York's subway map.

It's easy to understand why D.C. is reluctant to dispense with an icon whose robust and brilliant graphics have greeted visitors to the capital for almost 40 years. For smaller systems like those of Boston, Marseille or Liverpool, thicker lines are de rigeur: they give a sparser network greater visual impact.

But actually, D.C. doesn't need to ditch or clutter its classic design. It could just call the Silver Line what it really is: a branch of the Orange/Blue trunk with alternate termini. This option had appeared on an official WMATA survey (results, to the best of my knowledge, never published), but seems to have fallen out of favor, especially once the Silver Line trains were extended to a new eastern terminus with the Blue Line at Largo Town Center.

It certainly sounds better to say that the District has spent $6.8 billion on a sixth Metro line rather than an alternate terminus of an existing one. But do the 11 new stations, veering northwest through suburban Virginia, a new line make? In a major transit system, the answer surely ought to be: no. Orange and Silver have more stations together than either one has apart, and for anyone traveling in or to the District, the distinction between the two will be irrelevant.

Additionally, and this is not to diminish the importance of the Silver Line project, once routes with subtle differences are expressed in different colors, the simplicity of the map will be hard to maintain, as in this satirical illustration by GGW's David Alpert. It's not hard to see how this could get out of hand.

One option would be for D.C. to adopt New York City's strategy, whereby each "color" is divided up into several letters or numbers denoting variations in the route. But a more amenable fix might be found in London's suburban branching strategy. The Tube's District Line has five separate endings, two eastbound and three westbound. The Metropolitan line has a remarkable four different termini going one way. If they were all colored differently, the resulting map would be inscrutable. Instead, each train is simply labeled with its destination.

If WMATA colored the new construction Orange and labeled each train with its destination, it wouldn't create much additional hassle for riders, since with three different lines coming in and out of D.C. stations, riders must check each train for markings anyway. As it is, riders on some Virginia-bound Yellow line trains already must distinguish between two termini.

To minimize directional differentiation, WMATA could even call the new Dulles Extension an alternate branch of the Blue Line, since trains to Franconia and Dulles will both originate at Largo Town Center in Maryland.

That won't solve the Silver Line's biggest problem: its effect on the service of the other lines, given limited center city tunnel capacity. But the map, at least, could remain simple and elegant.

All images courtesy of the WMATA.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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