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?’”

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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)

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.”

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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.

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