Housing Complex

Metrobusted: D.C.’s subway system needs a new map. Is anything worth saving?

An alternative vision by Cameron Booth. (Courtesy of the designer)

An alternative vision by Cameron Booth. (Courtesy of the designer)

Metro’s rail map, the rainbow diagram that serves as a logo of Washington as much as a tool to navigate the city, is a durable relic.

Unlike New York’s subway, Metro’s rail diagram didn’t go through a trippy ’70s phase that was then scrapped, or waver between representation and abstraction, like Moscow’s. Instead, the map just gradually filled in, as steady as the slow-moving federal government itself.

There’s a reason for that: Instead of adding lines in a piecemeal fashion, the entire plan for the Metro system was adopted in 1968, and the map eight years later. Instead of going through a makeover whenever new routes were needed, the visual representation of it appeared all at once, with hatched lines denoting where future stops and construction would go. It was the cartographic equivalent of buying clothes too big for your child so they could grow into them.

For years, those hatched lines were a mainstay of the system maps, until the final station on the original plan opened in 2001 (and some later additions in 2004). But now, the system is outgrowing the map that was planned for it. The addition of the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport, and the planned Blue Line service realignment to handle additional capacity, will force Metro officials to shift things around. While they’re at it, Metro has decided to research what riders want out of all the elements of wayfinding within the system—from strip maps on pylons to destination signs on the sides of cars.

The whole look of the subway system, instantly recognizable to locals and tourists alike, could change.

“Are they listening for the train operator? Looking at the front of the train, what it says there? Are you asking other customers? Once you get on the train, are you listening to the announcements? There are so many ways that riders make their decisions,” says Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. “It is a very comprehensive approach at looking at best ways we can communicate anticipated changes.”

Over the next year and a half, the process will involve focus groups, surveys, designers, and multiple layers of approval. But once that’s over, this being Washington, the new look will probably stick around for a while.

So, what should happen? Can the new version help people navigate, while maintaining the funky, pop-art quality of those thick, radial rails? Other transit systems provide a few examples to follow, but no one wants to just copy another city’s aesthetic wholesale.

“The design itself means Metro,” Farbstein says. “We don’t want it to look like another system, so people scratch their heads and say, ‘Where am I?’”

According to the District Department of Transportation, riders don’t often complain to them about the Metrorail map. But maybe we just got used to it.

A few things about it really, really bothered graphic designer Cameron Booth. He’s from Australia, lives in Portland, Ore., and has never been to Washington—which may give him some fresh perspective on a traveling companion that most D.C. residents have imprinted on their brains.

“I get frustrated when people call it a design icon,” Booth says in an interview. “I think ubiquitous would be a better word for it… Whether it’s actually good or not is not in everybody’s thoughts. They just look at it and say, ‘That’s our map.’”

What bugged Booth? Everything: The chunky route lines, the dorky parking symbols, the white-lined station dots that look like they were “done by an amateur,” he wrote in a blog post. Worse, Booth found that some of the proportions were off from reality in ways that don’t even make sense on an abstract diagram; both the Southern Avenue and Friendship Heights stations lie outside the District’s boundary with Maryland on the map, for example, when they should sit on top of it.

So, Booth got down to work, producing a new map last February. His final draft, which took about 35 hours to whip up on Adobe Illustrator, had lighter lines, all-horizontal text, and an overall aesthetic reminiscent of the London Underground map, his favorite of all transit diagrams (“It’s almost become that’s the visual shorthand that people need to see,” he says). The new version was chewed over by subway obsessives all over the Internet—some loved it, and others hated it, in a pattern familiar to those who try to change things so integral to daily life.

Larry Bowring's map. (Courtesy of the cartographer)

Larry Bowring's map. (Courtesy of the cartographer)

On the other end of the transit mapping spectrum from Booth is Larry Bowring. The veteran Washington cartographer works from a tidy house in Arlington, where he’s turned out everything from topographical depictions of continents to the maps for Capital Bikeshare on a six-foot-wide printer. He did a set of Metrobus maps in the late 1990s, but is perhaps most known for the Stationmasters series of booklets that help riders orient themselves as they emerge from the subway.

Rather than the austere London Underground map, Bowring favors the New York subway map, which retains much more of the city’s street grid. That would be especially useful in downtown D.C., where people often walk from a station to a given landmark—knowing exactly where stops fall in relation to the various Smithsonian museums, for example, would save tourists a trek from the Smithsonian stop on the south side of the Mall, when the Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter station might be closer.

The reason New York is able to have a transit map overlaid on a fairly proportional representation of the city, Bowring says, is because its subway cars also all have a very simple, linear graphic that just communicates where the line goes and when it connects to other lines.

“That’s common to just about every transit system in the world, and yet Metro doesn’t have that,” Bowring says. “I think if they did that, then this map could become more representational rather than abstract.”

Other elements that designers think need adjusting include color shades; the icons that denote parking lots and connections to MARC, Amtrak, and VRE; and the appearance of station names at line termini that are important for navigation. Some fixes—which only the most nitpicky transit nerds might notice—would be a snap. Zachary Schrag, author of Metro’s definitive history The Great Society Subway, is particularly bothered by the small, north-pointing compass arrow that mysteriously changed from a light font in the original version to a thick, clip-art-style symbol in today’s maps.

“In terms of the fan base, that is a real problem, having that departure from a recognizable icon,” Schrag says. “There have always been changes, but that’s a change that I strongly suspect was done without any real thought.”

The biggest temptation for Metro to avoid will be adding more information than the map can realistically hold.

After all, the most infuriating part of the map for graphic designers are the absurdly long station names that have crept into the system over the years, like “U St./African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” and “Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan.” They have to be squished in diagonally and even break over route lines—a no-no to transit design purists. But despite the clutter, community groups have championed and paid for each one, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Taking any of them away without due process would raise cries of discrimination and favoritism. (Even now, there are efforts underway to add “Ballpark” and “Capitol Riverfront” to “Navy Yard” and “Arena Stage” to “Waterfront/SEU.”) But just a brief glance at the now-barely-readable fare charts in stations, after “peak of the peak” pricing debuted, shows how confusing signage gets when it tries to convey too much.

The problem for anyone advocating restraint, though, is that D.C. now has a lot more transit options that could connect in with the Metrorail map. Why not add the popular Circulator bus routes? How about Capital Bikeshare stations? Then there’s the streetcar—and can’t we find a way to show connections to the Metrobus routes while we’re at it? As it stands, each map was designed by a different entity—the Downtown BID contracted national GIS mapping company NAVTEQ to draw the Circulator map, for example, which doesn’t look much like Bowring’s Bikeshare maps (even though the bikes borrowed the Circulator buses’ design). Aaron Overman, who heads up the mass transit division of DDOT’s Progressive Transportation Services Administration, is trying to bring those services under a unified brand to create a sense of smoothly integrated multi-modality. Eventually, that will also include TV screens at bus stations that show not only when the next bus is arriving, but where the nearest Bikeshare station is, and how to connect to Metrorail.

Fitting all that into the paper map, however, is probably wishful thinking, and a bad idea, to boot. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority just took the opportunity of a planned slate of service changes to strip down their map’s cumbersome boxes of bus connections, figuring that almost everyone could puzzle out their connecting routes online.

The dramatic shift in New York—the first significant update in 12 years—required the kind of executive decisiveness that Metro may not be able to muster. Alicia Martinez, the MTA’s marketing director, says MTA Chairman Jay Walder basically came in and ordered the change. But it didn’t stop there—streamlining connection information snowballed into more little tweaks, until green had turned into taupe, blue got bluer, route lines acquired shadows, and Manhattan even ballooned in comparison to the rest of the boroughs.

“You know, it was breathtaking,” Martinez says. “Jay had a theory, and he’s chairman, so he prevailed.”

Metro doesn’t even have a permanent general manager at the moment. Once it does, Martinez’s advice is to come up with a vision and stick to it. “Design by committee is the worst thing you can involve yourself in,” she says.

At least one person is watching with particular interest: Lance Wyman, who designed the original map when he was 35 and still has a design firm in New York. He says he’d like to be involved in the redesign—which would be the safest choice for Metro, given that Wyman created the aesthetic they hope to retain. But he’d try for one thing that got shot down back in 1976: Small icons for each station that reflect what’s important about the location.

“I’m really sad that didn’t go through, that kind of putting history on the table,” he says.

Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6928.

  • hungrypug

    If they're not going to make it better, then there's no sense in redoing the entire map. Booth's tiny-text, skinny-line map is not an improvement. The skinny lines give an illusion that the lines are drawn to scale, which they most certainly are not. No tourist (right-minded or otherwise) could look at his skinny lines and think it possible to walk from Metro Center to Smithsonian. And many lying real estate agents would use his map to 'prove' that Loudoun County is close to DC, when in fact they are hardly in the same time zone.

    In contrast, Bowring's map fails because the thick black text dominates weakly colored lines. If you don't already know where your station is, you will never find it among this word-jumble. And with no discernible purpose, he tosses in 395, 295, 270, etc.--only the beltway belongs because it's a general border between the inner and outer suburbs.

    The new maps will be much simpler if the 'silver' line appears as an orange-colored fork of the orange line--there's really no need (for now) to drag a third color lengthwise through the center of the city.

    Of course, the purple & streetcar lines will introduce great complexity. One option, adopted by the BART map in SF, is to omit the streetcars. I think this approach is mistaken; the streetcar is a dramatic infrastructure investment and hiding it will thwart its returns. The Metro map should use skinny lines to show that the streetcars connect certain points, without attempting to show the streetcar's stops or station names. A contrast between thick lines and thin ones will suggest the difference between heavy and light rail. But light rail users are going to have to use their own maps (which can accommodate far greater detail because they won't need to distort scales as Metro does).

    Standing as we do at the dawn of the age of aps, Metro should also consider dynamic maps that one can manipulate on smartphones. How cool would it be if the large in-train map itself was essentially a giant iPad, which an individual rider could touch and reshape for her own purposes? Anyway, people need to be thinking bigger and better, instead of parroting successful Underground maps of the 20th century.

  • http://www.ajfroggie.com Froggie

    Minor nitpick: Southern Ave may be depicted in Maryland because it physically is within Maryland. The only "parts" of the station that aren't are the park&ride and kiss&ride intersections with the street.

  • http://Www.cambooth.net Cameron Booth

    On the "tiny text" of my map, I'd just like to point out that the text is exactly the same size as that found on the PDF of the Metro Map that can be downloaded from Metro's website. The District/Arlington Co. "diamond" is also exactly the same size as that map. Thinner lines trick people into thinking the map is geographically accurate? I've never heard anyone say that about London's diagram, or Berlin's...
    You should note that I was trying to create a diagram that was as different as possible to the current one. As a design exercise, that was the whole point. Anyone can tweak what is already there; I wanted to start completely anew and see what I could create. I don't seriously expect Metro to adopt a diagram that is in any way similar to mine: there's too much invested in the current form - but it does allow discussion of what's right and wrong with the diagram as it stands.

  • Rick Mangus


  • C

    Metro has bigger things to worry about than map design. The map is fine. Its clear and really easy to understand. Much easier than New York, London and Paris.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @Rick Mangnus and C

    You're missing the point. Metro has no choice but to redesign the map. They're about to add the Silver line to the system.

    Unless you're arguing they should just leave the old maps as-is, and have a brand new line running without any indication that it actually exists.

  • Tracee Hicks

    I have thought for some time now that the Metro’s rail map could use a major make-over. I would start with a more accurate account of the mileage to and from the surrounding neighborhoods; therefore a rider could tell exactly how close they were in proximity to a Metro station from their destination. Information like this could help a rider decide if it would be better to walk or wait on a bus, thus giving us more options.

    I would be pleased to see a newer, 2010 version of our beloved map. A sleek new design that remains true to the original would be greatly appreciated by all Metro’s fateful riders. I don’t believe it should be changed to mimic another state or country’s design, just improved upon to show off a more modern and sophisticated look.

    The Metro rail map is an iconic symbol of the nation’s capital that reminds me I’m home. It would be a shame to lose that just for a few minor adjustments that could make a world of difference for us all.

  • Susan S

    I like Booth's map - it looks enough like the current map to be comfortable, yet improved. The all-horizontal names give it style. I like the ovals for transfer stations. I'd extend the silver line farther to the northwest, up toward where it says Metro System Map, to give as much information as possible about how far away Dulles is, maybe even break that line up with gaps to show that distances are shortened to fit on the map. The same could be done for the lines to Glenmont and Shady Grove though they don't seem as inaccurate.

  • Joe

    The map is simpler than New York's et al......because we have F E W E R lines than New York et al!!!!

  • Kara Harkins

    If I had to choose from what is available above, with no changes I would vote for Bowring's. Two of the most important things are shorter names and a more realistic map ... both of which make the map clearer. Thinner lines makes it look more professional and leaves more room to work with.

    Some things would still need to be tweaked though, like still naming Woodley Park "Woodley Park-Zoo/Adam's Morgan". Pick one of the 3, any one of them. Do something about the clutter too, Booth did it.

    No matter which map is chosen they should definitely record the design decisions and stick to them. Want to add the name of your thing to a stop and you are offering a hundred million dollars? Tough. Go to the community that 'owns' the existing name and see if you can buy the naming rights from them. Have a political or other reason to have a route extension not match reality? Too bad.

  • se resident

    If you only have so many $$ to spend, please fix the escalators before fixing the map. Thank you.

  • Theodor
  • Korrupt

    Exactly Joe, there are just five lines and most of the track mileage is outside of the District.

  • Rick Mangus

    Let see the silver line will not be ready for another two years, let's worry about this in 2012!

  • Bob

    Whatever they do with the map, it would be good if they corrected the errors and omissions in the current map.

    The Montgomery County - Prince Georges County line hasn't been a straight line for years. All of Takoma Park is now in Montgomery and the line on the map should jog a bit to reflect that, just as the Arlington/Alexandria line jogs to reflect that that boundary is irregular.

    And then there is the fact that they warn people on the west leg of the Red Line that not every train goes to Shady Grove. The same is true for Glenmont on the east leg of the Red Line, but there is no similar warning on the map. Why not?

    While they are at it -- and this isn't the map -- Metro should correct the signs on the fare card machines to reflect the fact that they take dollar coins! The signs erroneously say 5 cents, 10 cents and 25 cents coins only.

  • http://Www.cambooth.net Cameron

    @ Rick: on the contrary, they've left things too late. Moscow's SUPERB new Metro diagram took four years to design! And is planned ahead until 2100 to boot.

  • b. smith

    i'm not gonna don the high hat and criticize the design of a map...but on function: if you compare the two maps printed in last weeks' paper, i can't read any of the text on Booths' proposed map which is better looking; however, in the chunky existing map, i can read every station name and whether it has parking even when it's only 3x3 inch big. the point is, despite design or abstraction vs. geographic realism, people with less than 20/20 vision still need to be able to read the map. if one third of your riders can't read the text from only three feet away, then you've failed at the original point of making a map at all. designers can complain, but local governments have to make maps for everyone: people without vision plans, people with low literacy, the elderly, and even the dim.

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  • Andrew

    @Bob, that's the idea, to simplify things, so exact borders aren't important. The Metro lines aren't all 45 or 90 degrees either but they're shown that way to make it easier to read.