Red platform lights, which were installed on the upper level of the Gallery Place Metro Station in March, have now arrived at L’Enfant Plaza as well. Metro has announced that Fort Totten, Metro Center, Smithsonian, Union Station, Stadium-Armory, and Eisenhower Avenue will get the LEDs (light emitting diodes) soon.
The effect is not subtle. When at half power, the red lamps give the station vault a horror-flick vibe. And when a train enters and the lights begin blinking at full power, the place feels like a nuclear power plant’s control room as a meltdown looms.
There are two arguments for the lights. They will save money, because they use less electricity and need to replaced less frequently. And, believes Metro General Manager John Catoe, they will improve safety.
Writing in the Examiner, “Sprawl and Crawl” columnist Steve Eldridge complains that the lights “make everything look cheap,” but accepts them because they will cut Metro’s expenses.
In fact, the red LEDs do cost less than white ones: $63 apiece as opposed to $108, according to a Metro press release. But the cost of the bulbs is a minor part of the savings, most of which comes from reduced electricity use and decreased labor costs.
As for safety, the argument is even thinner. “When they see the red lights, I’ve observed that customers stop, and keep a safer distance from the edge of the platform,” Catoe has said.
In other words, no study has been done on the lights’ role in increasing safety. It just happens that the general manager, who was already inclined toward red platform lights, thinks they might change riders’ behavior. Even if this is true, the red LEDs are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist: Metro trains don’t hit people standing on platforms. In the 31 years that Metro has operated, the only recurring cause of trains’ colliding with riders is attempted suicide. (The stations’ bloody new ambiance might even encourage that.)
Metro is Washington’s most significant work of postwar architecture, deftly combining aesthetic and safety concerns. Designed at a time when most Americans associated subways with New York’s system, and New York’s system with danger, Metro was meant to both appear and be safe. Such features as the open station design, platforms that subtly slant away from the tracks, the granite edge with blinking lights, and overhangs under the platform to provide refuge to anyone who fell on the tracks all make Metro the safest transit built at the time. Yet architect Harry Weese and his team were careful to also make the system elegant, and not a scary-looking industrial site with barriers and warning signs—-or blinking red lights.
The addition of the red LEDs indicates how profoundly Metro’s current management doesn’t understand the system’s design. And that probably means that more assaults on it are to come.