Safety is important on Metro, but let’s not tiptoe around the elephant in the room…

6 minute read

June 18, 2012, 11:05 PM

So I was at Judiciary Square station today on business, and noticed a few new things in the station:

New wall-mounted camera

Three-way camera mount on top of the PIDS screen

Yes, those are more cameras. Metro is spending your tax and/or fare dollars on more bloody security cameras. As if we don’t have enough of those already, and Metro seems to be going camera crazy lately, with multiple cameras on the kiosks, among other places. I suppose being able to have more witnesses to crimes being committed on the Metro is all well and good (though with a big potential for abuse by security personnel), but it seems like, if safety and security is what Metro is interested in, I believe that they’re stepping around the proverbial elephant in the room: the lighting.

See, the problem is that Metro stations are generally pretty dark. For example, here are a few stations to illustrate my point, culled from photos I’ve taken within the past year and a half:

Stadium-Armory, January 8, 2011
Stadium-Armory, January 8, 2011

Metro Center upper level, January 8, 2011
Metro Center upper level, January 8, 2011

Tenleytown-AU, May 7, 2011
Tenleytown-AU, May 7, 2011

Smithsonian, September 24, 2011
Smithsonian, September 24, 2011

Pentagon City, February 12, 2012
Pentagon City, February 12, 2012

These photos were taken without flash and without the use of any special exposure settings. Look at which areas are brightest, and which areas are darkest. In all of these cases, the brightest areas are the walls along the sides of the station, where fluorescent fixtures are located. For the center platform stations, there is an additional significant source of light in the platform pylons, which are fitted with lights shining up. The darkest parts of the stations are actually the platforms themselves. There are people in each of these photos, and I am hard pressed to make out that many details on them. Yes, it’s that dark. The people are in the shadows. And if you’re going to put a high emphasis on safety and security, as Metro claims to do, good lighting needs to take a very high position on the priority list – higher than video surveillance. First of all, realize that on Metro you are far more likely to be the victim of a pickpocket or one of those low lifes that grabs the cell phone right out of your hands than you are of a terrorist. Just saying. So it’s really the common criminal that we should be looking at thwarting here with security measures (so don’t waste my time with bag searches). And they don’t say “under cover of darkness” for nothing. It’s much harder to rob someone when everyone can see what you’re doing because everything is lit up. Probably the one thing that the common criminal doesn’t to hear when he’s about to commit a crime is someone saying, “Hey, look! It’s Bob! Hi, Bob, whatcha doing?” Spotted and outed. Now we know that Bob is the one that was about to take that little old lady’s purse. Crime thwarted (even if, as in this example, unintentionally).

Realize that the way Metro was designed, lighting was supposed to be indirect. That’s why the lights are in low places and are pointed up at the ceiling. I’ve seen places where indirect lighting has been done well. For instance, CFW Information Services, where I worked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, had indirect lighting. There, the lights all pointed up towards the ceiling and the room was very bright. But the thing with CFW vs. Metro is that CFW had a white ceiling. White reflects everything, and the light reflected down into the rest of the room where it belonged.

With Metro, the problem is that, while the lights are aimed at the ceiling, the only thing that’s illuminated really well is… the ceiling. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a very nice looking ceiling, but that’s somewhat low on the totem pole of things that need to be lit well. And unlike what a few folks have claimed on the Twitter, based on what I can find, it seems that Metro has more or less always been this dark (look at the video). I also don’t put much stock in the vision of original Metro architect Harry Weese on lighting. With all due respect to Weese’s memory and accomplishments, it’s been decades since Metro was designed, and Metro is supposed to be an active subway system – not a time capsule of 1970s-era design. And the thing that bothers me most about Metro’s current lighting situation is that it has the potential of being so much more. Metro could be really bright if it was allowed to be such a way (like by taking the money that Metro spends on more video surveillance and putting it towards better lighting instead). If you’ve ever been through NoMa-Gallaudet U, Morgan Boulevard, or Largo Town Center stations at night, you know that Metro can really do a spectacular job in lighting dark spaces. This is Largo Town Center station at night:

Largo Town Center station at night

Now that is a well-lit station. I use an outdoor station at night because, similarly to an underground station, there is no sunlight at night, and if not for the lighting that Metro provides, it would be pitch black. This is how the underground stations should be. Metro should be bright. You can spot a potential attacker coming a long way away. Likewise, it’s fairly easy to spot potential slip and trip hazards on the platform itself when everything is well lit like that, and for me, I’m more worried about stepping on something and falling than about criminals. Plus, with a brighter station, the security cameras that Metro apparently loves so much will be able to see a lot more on account of the better lighting. Seems that a better lighting situation on Metro is a win for all. One of the directives when Metro was built was that the stations needed to be “architecturally significant“. However, what is the point of architecturally significant stations if they’re so dark that one is unable to see well enough to appreciate the architecture? And newer, modern lighting could actually save money in the long run, if it replaces older, less efficient fixtures. Win-win? I believe it is time to improve the lighting on Metro in a major way.

And yes, it is absolutely possible to light subway stations brightly. I have seen it done in other cities. This is Park Street station in Boston:

MBTA Park Street station, Green Line platform

And this is Chicago station on the CTA:

Chicago station on the CTA Red Line

So yes, it is possible to have underground stations lit brightly. Now if I were Metro, I would replace the indirect lighting with two banks of lighting running lengthwise down the platform, and small light fixtures pointing downwards at the platforms mounted on the walls (for side platform stations) or the pylons (for center platform stations), similar to Park Street station’s Red Line platform on the MBTA:

MBTA Park Street station, Red Line platform

And I think you’ll agree: that station is lit incredibly well.

So as many have said before, DC area, write your representatives. Write the Metro board members serving your jurisdiction. Write your elected representatives, from your city or county council representative up to your congressperson. Metro needs better lighting.

Web site: "Sustainability can save WMATA money, if it's a priority", from Greater Greater Washington

Song: Trains arriving at Judiciary Square station earlier today.

Quote: So there you go. Metro could be so much brighter...

Categories: CTA, MBTA, Security, WMATA