Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Signs


Metro's new displays do a better job of sharing info

Metro has installed new passenger information displays at some of its stations. The new signs fix the long-standing problem of showing information about elevator outages at far away stations rather than when the next train will reach the platform.

Metro customers have spotted new passenger information displays at Arlington Cemetery, Ballston, Judiciary Square, and Takoma. Like the older ones the majority of stations still have, the new displays list real-time train arrival information in three lines.

The biggest upside to the new signs is that instead of using the entire screen to slowly cycle through elevator outages, they simply show the info in a scrolling feed across the bottom.

In addition to the stations listed above, Metro's latest Customer Accountability Report says the new displays will go in on the mezzanine level at Smithsonian, Tenleytown, and Ballston by May of this year.


Metro considers labeling trains as Northbound, Southbound, etc. as part of new sign concept

You might soon be catching a Southbound Green Line train to L'Enfant Plaza and transfer to an Eastbound Orange Line train, if Metro goes ahead with a concept to revamp signs and navigation in the rail system.

The agency took a fresh look at its wayfinding signs because of a number of problems, including accessibility for people with disabilities, really confusing designs, and more. Officials came up with a new concept, ran it by people internally, and last night shared it with the Riders' Advisory Council.

North, south, east, west

The biggest change would be to drop the system of identifying directions by the ends of the lines. Instead of taking a Green Line train toward Branch Avenue or Greenbelt, you'd take it northbound or southbound.

Left: Current pylon design. Right: New concept pylon design.

Certainly this direction system can be confusing for many people, especially new riders, for whom these ends of lines mean little. It's particularly easy to get mixed up with the Red Line, where trains can go to Glenmont, Shady Grove, Grosvenor, and Silver Spring. But the two "S" directions aren't on the same side, nor are the two 2-word directions.

On the other hand, the Red Line makes a U shape, so telling someone to get on the Westbound Red Line at Wheaton, when the tracks really head south and a bit east, might still leave some room for confusion. Riders from Franconia to Pentagon would have one track for both Eastbound Blue Line trains and Northbound Yellow Line trains. The Blue Line train also heads west before it heads east, though the trains do ultimately go east and north.

Matt Johnson examined this possibility in a post in 2010, but also noted the above issues. Other possibilities include "inbound/outbound," as Boston's T does, picking a spot (such as Metro Center) where the directions flip; or listing the next major stations, as Munich does.

The strip maps would also get simpler and just show stations you can reach with a one-seat ride from the current platform, like Matt recommended. There would be only a few different signs; and stations with the same lines would all have the same signs, with the current station marked with a white background.

Current strip map (for Rosslyn).

New strip maps (for Pentagon City)

More dots on the map?

Another part of the presentation shows tweaks to the system map. Metro officials spent months agonizing over how to show stations where multiple lines all stop, since the old system of one small circle in between two lines doesn't work for three lines.

The agency eventually settled on a scheme of using the same small circles but with little white "whiskers" linking it to the lines on each side. It seems they aren't happy with this in the Jackson Graham Building, because the new concept tosses this out and instead puts a separate circle on each line.

New concept system map.

The current system map.

Alternate "pill" option from 2013 redesign.

To me, this looks really busy and messy. What do you think? Another problem is that transfer stations still have a single small-ish circle, so it might even look like Silver and Blue trains don't stop at L'Enfant Plaza. Certainly the transfer stations are now much less prominent, which is the opposite of what should be.

In our 2011 map contest, someone actually did suggest something like this scheme: Matt Johnson, whose entry used pairs or triples of dots. However, he used bigger dots that link together, which I at least think looks much nicer than this. He made the transfer stations much larger, though the problem still exists on his version.

Matt Johnson's map contest entry.

The ends of each line now say "West Terminus" and so forth. It's a minor thing, but "terminus" seems like an unnecessarily technical word to use. There's also got to be a more elegant graphical way to include those labels.

What do you think about using north/south/east/west and the map concept?


The man who designed Metro's pylons (and much more) dies

Well-known and influential designer Massimo Vignelli died yesterday at age 83. Perhaps most known (at least in transit circles) for his 1972 diagrammatic New York Subway map, he also designed the iconic pylons that stand on Metro platforms today.

Pylon at Rosslyn. Photo by the author.

The pylons were Vignelli's solution to the unique wayfinding design problem that Metro faced.

Harry Weese, the architect responsible for designing Metro's soaring vaults, wanted nothing to mar them or obstruct the airy design. That ruled out overhead signs. It also ruled out signs mounted on the vault.

Vignelli's answer to this problem was the pylon. These columns were to be the primary wayfinding system within stations. Some pylons contained a vertically-oriented strip map or directions to particular exits. Others contained the name of the station, written sideways.

The plyons served two other functions as well. In underground stations with center platforms, lights in the pylon's crown shine on the vault, providing indirect lighting. At outdoor stations, the pylons carry four light globes at the top.

The other main function is air circulation at underground stations with center platforms. The pylons release air from their crowns (the return is beneath the granite benches).

Lights in the pylon crowns at U Street. Photo by the author.

I had the privilege to attend a talk by Vignelli at WMATA's Jackson Graham Building a few years ago. He talked about the design challenges and how the pylons were received early on. It didn't take Metro very long to install the horizontal station names on the vault walls, but Vignelli noted that it was much easier to read the signs on his pylons since the vertically-oriented text was easier to track with your eyes as the train arrived. The horizontal signs were simply a blur of text.

Vignelli's pylons were (and remain) an elegant solution to preserve the sanctity of the vault and help riders navigate. But Metro signage has continued to evolve, and at some stations, limited overhead signs are starting to appear.

And while the pylons remain an iconic symbol of Metro, the transit agency has already decided not to install them in future stations. They're absent in the stations opened in 2004 and won't be around in the new Silver Line stations.


Cheh proposes hoverboard lanes and a Palisades stadium

DC may hire a dedicated person to help drivers read stop signs, build hoverboard lanes, and place the DC United stadium atop the Palisades Safeway, under budget recommendations from DC Councilmember and transportation chair Mary Cheh. As you might guess, these are a joke.

Photo by Debbie Goard on Flickr.

April Fool's Day was six weeks ago, but today is the day for joviality from Cheh and her staff, who put out an annual joke budget memo as council committees are making their serious budget recommendations.

The stop sign reader, the memo says, also will help people decipher parking signs:

Residents and tourists will be pleased to have a government employee stand next to them, read the sign, look back at the individual, look back at the sign, look at the location of the car in question, look back at the sign, shrug their shoulders, and exclaim, "hell if I know."
DC needs hoverboard lanes, Cheh says, because as we know from Back to the Future, Part II, hoverboards exist in 2015 and therefore they are going to be invented soon.
Hoverboard lanes will be placed between sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Opponents may argue that these lanes will only fuel the war on cars. This Committee stands by its position that there is no war on cars; however, as a
precautionary measure, an additional $175,000 will be allocated to the Department of Public Works to assist in the clean-up after D.C. Transit Judgment Day: the day when vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists engage in an all-out war to determine the District's policy going forward. Fortunately, some of us will have hoverboards to help us escape the battle.
Cheh has a great plan to get DC United a stadium without having to swap land for the Reeves Center: put it at the Palisades Safeway. For background, Safeway wants to build a new store with housing on top, and a lot of neighbors oppose housing for the usual reasons.

Cheh says this is a perfect solution:

Providing the Safeway with a grass roof will help the company obtain LEED certification. Moreover, residents will not need to be concerned about increased traffic or loud noise because—let's face it—who really goes to D.C. United games.
Instead of the proposed Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola, Cheh wants to fund a zip line. She has great suggestions to deal with the school lottery: a Harry Potter-style "sorting hat," or alternately, a "Hunger Games" style fight at RFK stadium.

Read the whole thing.


With the streetcar, H Street will need clear signs

For streetcars to move through traffic, rail tracks have to be free of parked cars. To keep them that way, the rules of the road must be crystal clear for drivers.

Streetcar parking zone sign, Seattle. Photo by BeyondDC.

Last week DDOT used a truck for a test-run of the H Street streetcar route, and because of illegally parked cars, the going was slow. But other cities with similar streetcar layouts, like Seattle and Portland, have had a lot of success keeping their lanes clear. How do they do it?

With constant and clear communication to drivers, like the sign pictured here, and with strong enforcement.

Any time you take pavement away from cars, there's a learning curve. Drivers accustomed to doing as they please have to change behavior. That's to be expected, and it doesn't happen on the first day you run your first test truck. But most drivers do fall in line, once they understand what's changed. That's how streetcars have worked in other cities.

And if all else fails, ticketing cameras mounted on streetcars, like in San Francisco, would solve any remaining problem in a hurry.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Metro fare signs confuse the riders who need help most

Nearly every Metro fare machine has a paper sign on it: "Using a paper farecard? Add $1 to every trip." Yet even with this reminder, some riders get stuck at the faregates, wondering why Metro won't let them leave.

Photo by Tim Krepp.

Most people riding Metro use SmarTrip, and that's great. But the ones that are more likely to need extra help with a fare table are the infrequent customers that use a paper farecard.

It makes no sense to list SmarTrip prices on the fare table and then ask people to add $1. Riders shouldn't need to do math to figure out how much to put on their farecards. We want to make purchasing a farecard as easy as possible, while not necessarily offering them the best deal possible.

The simplest solution would be to list the paper farecard prices on the tables, and then have notes that SmarTrip riders get a discount. Even if these riders don't notice, they'll just end up with extra money on their cards, which they can use later.

An even better approach would be to eliminate the $1 surcharge, and instead always charge peak fares for people using paper farecards. The fare machines would simply list the peak fare for each destination, with a note that SmarTrip customers get discounts during off-peak, discounted transfers to and from trips on buses, protected fare balances (with registration) and a guarantee that they won't be trapped in the system if their balance goes too low.

All paper farecard customers would have to do is look up their destination, and make sure their farecard had the corresponding amount. No math, no timetables, no figuring out whether it's currently peak or off-peak.

WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel said the agency is aware of the confusion and complaints about these signs, and is "considering" making changes to the posted fare tables and signs.


WMATA upgrades bus stop signs

Metrobus riders are seeing a new kind of schedule and route map at many stops. A multi-year effort to upgrade the information posted at bus stops has been underway since last year.

The new schedules tell you when the bus comes to the stop you're at, and just that. Formerly, a timetable was posted for the entire route, and the same signs were used all along the line. There was only room to list arrival times for a few places, and the stop where you stood might not be included. Unless you were already familiar with the bus route, the old timetables could be nearly impossible to decipher.

The route maps are also simpler, and new flat display panels are starting to replace the four-sided boxes long in use. Where WMATA and local bus services (Ride-On, Fairfax Connector, etc.) share stops, each will use one side of the board.

New flat panel information displays for bus stops. Left: typical schedule and map. Center: new schedule format. Right: special design used at the Mark Center. Photos from WMATA.

The new signage is now up at 3,500 of the 12,000 Metrobus stops, including all Metrorail stations and stops on priority corridors. The old schedules are gradually being replaced, but 4,500 stops still have them. It will take several more years to finish the makeover—how long depends on how many of the routes where the new signs are already up change their schedules. Each change ties up WMATA staff and contractors, who have to swap out timetables at each stop along the line.

Metro's long-range goal is to post a schedule and map at all 12,000 bus stops. This, however, will require time and additional funding.

Posting a customized schedule at each bus stop—at considerable expense—reverses a cost-saving measure of a decade ago. In the intervening years, WMATA and other bus services have focused on giving riders real-time bus arrival information over the Internet.

But a focus group two years ago urged WMATA to renew the investment in hard-copy timetables at bus stops. For a system trying hard to attract new riders, it makes sense. The bus and the bus stop, in plain sight of everyone on the street, are its best advertisements. The easier it is for someone walking by to figure out when the bus comes and where it goes, the more likely they are to give it a try.

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