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Brown Line: We don't need a new color

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.

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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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You may want to check some of your information. This change will affect all rush hour blue line riders--some for better, others for worse. Those that typically take a blue line train towards Foggy Bottom may need to wait up to 12 minutes longer for a train (or take a yellow line and transfer at L'Enfant).

by Jayme on Oct 7, 2008 9:08 am • linkreport

damn - nice map.

by Peter on Oct 7, 2008 9:18 am • linkreport

A couple of things:

1. If this is to be a totally new service, running at all times of the day, then a new color makes sense. If not, then I'd favor using the split yellow.

2. The map was designed, as the system was, to be a cohesive whole. There's no room for expansion - an inherent limit not just of the graphic design, but of the entire color-based system of route identification.

There's really not that many more easily identifiable colors out there. Silver and Purple are taken with various projects. Looking at other cities, Chicago tells us that Brown and Pink are really the only other colors available, lest we go to aquamarine and fuschia and burnt sienna.

Basically, my point is that with any more expansion or complexity to the system (such as the Rosslyn connection tracks) will bring more services to the system, and we can't keep assigning each one just one color. Even if we bunch colors together, trying to navigate those lines solely by their terminus is confusing.

I think Metro is going to have to take a long look at moving to a New York-style system of route identification, where each service is identified by a symbol (letter or number) that is also associated with a color. For example, a Red 'A' train could operate between Silver Spring and Grosvenor, while a Red 'B' train could run between Shady Grove and Glenmont. You can keep the associating the actual rails with those same colors, but there has to be some more depth in naming services beyond just primary and secondary colors.

Many systems around the world do this, thus they can use more colors (since even though a line may have a teal color, it's not referred to as the 'teal' line).

by Alex B. on Oct 7, 2008 9:23 am • linkreport

Jayme: All Blue riders (except from Rosslyn to Stadium-Armory) will indeed be affected by the service shift, but someone going from Braddock Road to Foggy Bottom will not care if the Franconia-Greenbelt line is yellow or brown. The only people for whom a new color would be even the slightest bit helpful are those riding south of King Street.

by David Alpert on Oct 7, 2008 9:28 am • linkreport

It seems to me like they should just make this a "yellow line extension" instead of a "blue line diversion." It seems like all they need to do is have the yellow line run more often, have it go to Greenbelt all the time and have 2 separate South destinations for it. They may have to reduce the number of blue line trains, but they've already suggested that in their presentation as well as having more orange line trains.

by Alicia on Oct 7, 2008 9:33 am • linkreport

What I wrote and forgot to post in the other thread:
Franconia-Springfield & Van Dorn are worth an entirely new color? Poppycock

Extend the Yellow to Greenbelt & up its frequency, and you've got a nearly identical map. This is just an arbitrary way to decrease Roslyn Tunnel traffic(in prep for the Silver Line coming up) without decreasing frequency at the two aforementioned stations. But even with that, 3 lines is still too much for that one tunnel, with the amount of Silver Line traffic we'll get when the Silver finishes Phase II and commuters from Leesburg & points beyond start to use park & rides.

BTW: Maps & paint are extraordinarily cheap compared to real track/service improvements.

RJ: Switching blue and yellow is another option that deserves in-depth study.

Our visibility needs are more serious than most cities because we interline so much. If we were to give up on easy verbal identification and stoop to having a legend on each map, it wouldn't be difficult to have 2-color composites represent lines that aren't explicitly named for colors. If we don't, I figure we have only a few colors left that are reasonably distinguishable: Black, Purple, Pink, Aquamarine, Olive/Tan/Khaki, Brown. Any more and you start to get overlap.

I don't like it partly because of the above, and partly because there are other things that the Yellow Line bridge is good for in the short/medium term - posts to come when I get a little free time.

by Squalish on Oct 7, 2008 9:58 am • linkreport

I LOVE the original short station names on the 1982 map. Look at how nicely Gallery Place fits.

by Matt! on Oct 7, 2008 12:10 pm • linkreport

David: Can you make sure to collect all of these comments including the article and email them to the RAC staff coordinator, It's great that there is this much discussion but in order to have an effect, it needs to be given to the RAC so that they can bring it up with WMATA.

by Michael P on Oct 7, 2008 12:22 pm • linkreport

Good idea. Will do.

by David Alpert on Oct 7, 2008 12:24 pm • linkreport

I'll add one more thing:

Adding a new color to the map would be a capital-letters Big Deal. It would attract media attention, cause rider confusion, and render millions of printed maps obsolete. All that to provide Yellow Line service to two stations? New colors shouldn't be thrown around willy-nilly -- especially for an ambitious transit agency that plans to build REAL new subway and streetcar lines in the future.

by tom veil on Oct 7, 2008 1:07 pm • linkreport

How about using a "U1", "U2", etc system since the system is majority Underground. This would allow basically unlimited numbering for new lines added down the road. For the Red line issues (ending at Grosvenor or Shady Grove, etc) - "U1 Limited." If the streetcar network EVER gets built (i hope and cant wait till it does) you could use "S1" or "S2" etc. I know I am stealing from Europe, but it kind of makes sense because you are no longer relying strictly on the primary colors. It would take along of public education, but sets WMATA for easier expansion and education down the road.


BTW - Awesome blog. I just moved here not too long ago and really appreciate the educational information and comments on here.

by Allan on Oct 7, 2008 1:25 pm • linkreport

I pretty much agree that this shouldn't be a new color line, and something like the yellow line branch makes the most sense.

But, as a regular rider of the Blue from Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, I'm pretty wary of reducing the number of Blues during rush hour. They already can get pretty darn full, and can have 8+ minute spaces due to delays. Since this plan doesn't reduce the number of trains on the tracks, it won't really help delays (maybe slightly in the morning because fewer Blue lines might backup leading into Rosslyn, but no help at all in evening leaving the city).

I foresee spacings of 14+ minutes being not uncommon for the Blue. Standing at Foggy seeing 4 or 5 Orange trains (instead of 2-3 the current) go by doesn't really seem to be "fair" service, nor optimal for the system.

by Byron on Oct 7, 2008 2:33 pm • linkreport

I think David's arguments are persuasive. If the general lines core lines - lines that represent major service - are the basis of the system, it still works for most people. I don't think it's a good idea to consider naming services, though. We've already split the trunks.

New York's service number/letter system works reasonably well, but the shared colors do get confusing, especially when you have to look at a key to see where things go outside of Manhattan. Unless you are a synesthete, tell me you have a really intuitive connection between Orange and D, between Sokolnicheskaya and Red, or that U2 is Puce. The name "Yellow Line to Huntington" directly relates a reader to two icons on a map. As long as the system stays relatively simple, this could work.

Whatever happens, the test is that that the system be clear to children, commuters, and drunk people. Those who are not really paying attention, due to youth, routine, or pleasant incapacitation are the ones who seem to get screwed by overly complex systems. People who are new to the system will be sure to meticulously look at the map; it's the ones who think they get it that are going to have problems.

by The King of Spain on Oct 7, 2008 2:44 pm • linkreport

I really hope that on Inauguration Day 2009, WMATA walks down to Congress and the Federal Transit Administration with a 100% complete, formal proposal for funds to triple the size of the Rosslyn Tunnel. It's becoming increasingly clear that, even if the Silver Line and New Blue Line continue to get delayed, the tunnel is a bottleneck that must be resolved.

by tom veil on Oct 7, 2008 2:45 pm • linkreport

I agree about Yellow Line split rather than giving it a new color. We need to save the new colors for when (at some indeterminite point in the not too near future) we or our descendents add an actual new line.

On another note, there are still plenty more colors after Silver and Purple: brown, teal, pink, emerald (green), navy (blue).

I think it's important to keep those colors for new actual train tracks. I like David's map that just has notes about special service during rush hour.

by Cavan on Oct 7, 2008 2:50 pm • linkreport

What I have in mind, in the event that we label each service with a letter or a number (that's color-coordinated, but color is not the dominant association), would be to get a map like the Kick Map that was developed (but never implemented) for NYC:

Each service is represented by a colored line, and each color choice is grouped together by their shared routes through Manhattan.

I think NYC's naming system makes a lot of sense, but it's unnecessarily confusing due to their map.

I'd also support a euro-style U1, U2, (though being that this is Metro, it would probably be an M1, M2, etc) with Streetcars also serving a specific role - though this would likely require the renumbering and renaming of a lot of bus routes to avoid confusion.

by Alex B. on Oct 7, 2008 3:06 pm • linkreport

Agreed on all points. There's a careful balance between having something that's both comprehensible and information-rich. Adding the 'brown' line seems to add complexity without adding a lot of new information.

As they add more alternative services, though, all those little thought balloon service notes will get confusing. WMATA may want to consider posting a separate 'General Service Notes' or something similar, to keep the map itself from getting too crowded.

by Distantantennas on Oct 7, 2008 3:08 pm • linkreport

I am a native New Yorker, used to confusing maps, but this one could take the cake!

by charles sumpter on Oct 14, 2008 1:48 pm • linkreport

I agree with the split yellow - I submitted that suggestion to the Washington Post commuter email a few weeks ago when they proposed this absurd double blue line business. Nothing quite like having blue trains transferring to blue trains on different levels at L'Enfant Plaza. What a thought... it would use over 90% of the yellow line tracks, why not just alter the yellow line slightly? Eureka!

by Matt Glazewski on Dec 17, 2008 11:29 am • linkreport

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