WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 27: Barbara Milleville, of the National Capital… (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON…)
Everywhere you look, Metro seems to be busy rebuilding the subway system. That is, if you can see much of anything. As Metro spends billions to repair escalators and elevators and upgrade miles and miles of track, some riders and rider advocates say the transit system is continuing to neglect an even more basic need: light.
For years, many of Metrorail’s stations have been plagued by dim — even dark — pockets, yet better lighting has remained a low priority. Riders complain that stations are too dimly lighted to read a newspaper or even make out an escalator step. Wheelchair users and the visually impaired say navigating the system is even more difficult when the stations are too dark.
Farragut North — one of the busiest stations in the system— has gained a reputation as one of the darkest in town. “I call it the cave,” Metro board member Tom Bulger said at a recent board meeting.
To focus attention on the problem, a group of rider advocates has inspected nearly 70 percent of Metro’s stations and has confirmed what riders already knew.
“We have found that this is a very severe problem, and it impacts everyone in the low-vision community as well as the general public,” said Barbara Milleville, president of the National Capital Citizens With Low Vision.
Milleville, who has limited vision, worked with members of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee to audit the stations. They plan to present their findings and recommendations to the Metro board this month and will urge the agency to incorporate the lighting needs into next year’s budget.
“In the past, lighting was not a priority, and we are trying to say it needs to become a priority,” Milleville said.
Over the past few years, Metro has had a lot on its plate. From catching up on long-delayed maintenance to making rail travel safer after the deadly Red Line crash in 2009, the transit system has been running a system and rebuilding it all at once.
Advocates acknowledge those needs but say they don’t want lighting to, yet again, take a back seat to higher-profile needs.
It is a fundamental challenge facing Metro: how to carry out the work required to make the system safe and viable for the 21st century while ensuring reliable, comfortable service to the passengers of today.
A commuter heading home after a long day might want to read a book without having to canvass the platform for the rare spot with good light. A disabled rider with few options besides public transit might fret about navigating the inherent hazards of a subway station when the lighting is lacking.
Lighting problems in Metro are complicated by the distinctive architecture of the system, which opened in 1976.
Designers wanted soft, indirect light that would highlight the cathedral-like arches of the underground stations. And, indeed, images of the system are known by subway aficionados around the world.
But that has made enhancing lighting a tricky endeavor.
“In a sense, [the architects] wanted to create a kind of ambiance that gave you a feeling that you were underground and in a place that had a bit of mystery to it,” said Roger K. Lewis, an architect and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.
“It is quite difficult to remedy or fix the problem without destroying the original idea that goes back with the design. It takes a lot of careful analysis to do it right.”
And then there is Metro’s lax maintenance of the existing lighting, with dead bulbs common among the 300,000 fixtures at all of Metro’s facilities.
Improving lighting comes down to money, especially with budgets tight, said Lewis, who years ago was a consultant to Metro in a lighting design study.
Despite such studies and some improvements, many stations have uneven levels of lighting that make it difficult for riders inside the trains even to spot the station names on the walls along the tracks.
Some riders also worry that the poorly lighted platforms combined with ongoing construction at several stations create an unsafe environment.
“It can be dangerous when people are running to catch the train,” said John Federico, a Bethesda resident with partial sight who recently tripped into a construction cone inside Farragut North.
“When the lighting is inconsistent, it is difficult to maneuver,” he said. “Everybody can benefit from consistent lighting. You don’t want people tripping.”
Katrina Chavers, a daily Metro user who travels between the Shady Grove and Smithsonian Metro stations, agreed that lighting is often lacking. “It would be great to have some improvements,” she said.
Any significant enhancements, however, would be costly to the system that is now in the middle of a $5 billion reconstruction that focuses on safety and performance.
The Accessibility Advisory Committee says better lighting is needed on platforms, in the walls along tracks, and around the elevators, escalators and kiosks.