Train Wreck in D.C.

From the age of five to the age of seventeen, I lived in the D.C. metropolitan area, where I spent a lot of time riding the Metrorail subway system. In retrospect, I have to credit the repeated exposure to the system’s beautiful modernist architecture and typography for influencing my design sensibilities. It featured a distinctive pylon-based signage system that was originally designed by Vignelli Associates, though it had already been somewhat corrupted from its original form with additional wall signage by the time I was riding it. (I actually found the wall signage helpful, I must admit.)

Machine Language

Over time, through the inevitable process of accretion at the hands of less inspired designers, the original, Vignelli-produced design system has only been corrupted further, sadly. Every time I return to D.C., I note with a wince some added layer of incompetence. In fact, I just came back from a day trip to the area yesterday, and snapped this photograph of a Metrocard vending machine.

Metrofare Vending Machine

What a mess. I half expect to be able to buy lottery tickets and an international calling card from that machine as well as subway fare. Compare that visual disaster to this (miraculously) still-standing vending machine which allows passengers without sufficient fares on their Metrocards to top them off before exiting the turnstiles.

I’m not sure if Vignelli Associates were responsible for the design of this Exitfare machine as well (I’ve never seen them take credit for it), and with the unintuitive positioning of step one it’s clearly not perfect, but it still reflects some real design skill. There’s at least some modicum of intellect and reason at work here.

Having actually lived in Washington, D.C. for a few years in my twenties, I know as well as anyone that the city has been through its share of hard times, and it’s certainly not in the clear even today. Still, they had a gem of a design system there to complement their largely excellent subway system. And they’ve let it go to waste. It’s a shame.

  1. I get to ride the Metro in DC almost everyday and it’s astonishing to see the lines that form around these machines… People have no clue how to use them and their scary appearance don’t help.

  2. They have a simplified version of the machine actually somewhere? My first use of the DC Metro just two weeks ago was a ridiculous headache when I looked at that darn machine.

    How do I check my fare? How do I get a new card? How much do I have to pay? Where do I place the money? Do I place the money now?

    I really appreciate the NYC MTAs Touch Kiosks so much. Just touch, put the money in, and go. Even the LIRR machines are really swell that automatically calculate the fare based on your distance.

    It’s a little bit ridiculous and ludicrous to see something a machine like that hamper such awesome design aesthetic.

  3. I haven’t rode the Metro in months, and looking at the Fare Card machine you pictured I’m confused. I guess from repeated use I stopped paying attention to the idiocracy behind it.

    I feel bad for being so frustrated with tourists that stand dumbfounded when they want to ride the DC Metro.

  4. Crikey. As complicated as that machine is to use for residents, imagine what it must be like for visitors!

    On a recent trip to Germany, I had the misfortune of encountering a Frankfurt ticket machine. It’s hard enough dealing with a foreign language, but when the designers have decided to use a completely nonsensical visual language as well, you’ve got no hope.

  5. I witnessed a woman in front of me have a nervous breakdown at this machine on the Fourth of July (the height of the tourist season). A full on shaking, crying meltdown at the hands of a machine. It was unbelievable. (Clearly, I ended up helping her navigate this mess.)

    Pretty great User Experience.

  6. This is one reason a video screen can work so much better. Any any stage, you’re only presented with the two or three choices you need. All the other info tucked away until it’s relevant.

  7. Amen. One of my favorite parts about living in DC was the abundant public transportation, but locals operate these beasts by rote and feel and the tourists are terrified.

  8. Overall the signage throughout the system is pretty bad. Even the simple use-case of standing in a car and trying to see what stop you are on is a complete failure.

  9. I was in DC over July 4th, and I was also dumbfounded by these machines. I think one of the overarching problems of the entire Metro system is tiered pricing in general, which necessitates the cluttered fare grid at the top left of the machines; couple in peak hour pricing, and it’s even worse. I really disliked having to worry about if I’ll have enough money on my card that isn’t an easy multiple to remember. In New York, if I have luggage and am lazy, I know that Port Authority to Penn Station is $2.25, but if I need to go to Brooklyn, it’s the same price.

    Granted, I’ve never lived in DC, but I imagine a significant bulk of time spent at the machines, even considering the awful user experience, consists of people calculating the fare they need on the spot in front of the machine. Take that ridiculous variable away, and you’re just left with the card swipers not working like what happens all the time in NY. 😉

  10. These are all touch screens in London, with varying levels of success. The Oyster card system couldn’t be simpler though. You touch your card to a large yellow circle to register it with the machine, and then pick options to buy a railcard, or top up the pay-as-you go.

    Once you register your card online it can update itself straight from your bank account, registering these machines redundant.

  11. Stephen: I tried to use the Oyster card system in London a few years ago and I have to admit my traveling companion and I were bewildered. Ultimately we discovered that the Oyster card system, just as you describe it, is meant for daily commuters. The fact may be though that these fare systems are always going to be a challenge for those new to the system. I was lucky that in spite of all of the regrettable design changes that had been made to the Metrofare system that it still works more or less the way I learned it years and years ago.

  12. That top photo look like the Winchester Mystery Machine – they just kept building onto it as time went by.

    I am traveling to DC in October so thanks for this Khoi, I have been warned. It will be interesting to compare this to the public transportation in New York, London and Paris. I have to say I am a big fan of the Oyster card system in London – was dead easy to figure out.

  13. I completely agree. I’m a DC area resident–take metro at least 3 times a week. I always have to double check what I’m doing when adding money to my SmartCard.

  14. The names of the DC Metro stops have gotten out of hand, as well. They want to put landmarks and university names in the name of the stop if possible. Thus you are stuck with “U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” as the name of a stop. Or how about “Virginia Square-GMU”–which confuses people trying to find the main campus of George Mason University, since it’s pretty much just the law school at Virginia Square. The result of this is that no one ever uses the full name of a Metro stop, which must confuse visitors.

    The DC Metro now has a very bad accident record, which relates mostly to the difficulty of funding a three-jurisdiction metro system, but there are “design” issues of a sort there, as well. Unlike in NY, there is no redundancy. The slightest accident or minor difficulty means that trains have to “single track”–take turns going both directions on a single stretch of track. When this happens on one of the stops with more than one line, the result is that two lines, both directions–four train routes, essentially–have to go on a single stretch of track. Delays are endemic.


    I’ll close off by saying that the unique pylon signage system and brutalist architecture doesn’t cut it for me. Maybe if it were kept clean. A better design is one that can wear and tear gracefully. Also, it seems like basic, common sense design that different stations should look different in some way–it can be difficult to hear the announcement/read the signs through the windows of the train. But very few cities of the world seem to recognize this.

  15. A post on my blog about an event in the DC Metro HQ Vignelli was at this past June:


    He spoke about his work with Harry Weese during the building of the Metro. Also present the current Metro architect and others.

  16. Joseph: Thanks for the link. Your writeup of the event was excellent and very informative for me. Vignelli did a similar event not long ago for AIGA/NY in which he discussed his work for the New York City subway. It was a fascinating talk; he appeared on stage with some of the designers who have worked on the New York City subway map since he Vignelli produced his canonical map in the 1970s. There’s a lot of interesting discussions to be had about Vignelli’s work on these two subways systems alone, and I have some thoughts about them. I’ll put them down in a blog post one day.

  17. Those machines are a nightmare and for all the buttons and signs and other goog-gah you still have to go buy a permanent card (not the paper ones) from a different machine. I read an article about the sign shop for metro. They have a really cool make it take it policy, where the signs they make they go out and hang themselves. Of course the sign shop is slowly loosing out to digital signs.

  18. This post reminded me of my family’s first-ever trip to D.C. this past December. While I agree with the criticisms of the confusing design, there was an upside to my experience attempting to purchase metro tickets for my family.

    Rather than trying to decipher the instructions printed on the machines, I turned around and asked the man behind the glass booth for help. He gladly came out and assisted me in purchasing the tickets. We even laughed a bit about the design.

    I love the challenge of making experiences better for people and agree that these machines are due for a design overhaul. It just struck me as worth consideration that making the ticket dispensers easier to use might also involve at least some level of depersonalization.

  19. “Ultimately we discovered that the Oyster card system, just as you describe it, is meant for daily commuters.”

    I would advise anyone in London for 48 hours or more to get an Oyster to be honest. The savings in money and convenience are considerable.

    I assume you have already seen joe clark’s epic investigation into Toronto’s metro signage etc.: Link

  20. Speng: Next time I’m in London I’ll give the Oyster card system another try. It occurs to me that some sort of visitors’ guide to how to use another city’s unfamiliar transit card system would be a nice thing for an iPhone app, or as an appendix to existing subway map apps like CityTransit and my current favorite, Exit Strategy NYC.

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