Would minor map changes encourage Metro riders to shift their commutes?

SafeTrack surges in the past months have highlighted one of of the D.C. Metrorail system’s largest demand crunches: the Rosslyn tunnel bottleneck, where the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines converge to head east into downtown. This capacity issue has been exacerbated by the 2014 Silver line opening, and more recently by the current Blue line shutdown surge.

Many commuters coming from the south prefer to take the Blue line downtown, as that route does not require a transfer at L’Enfant Square or Metro Center, even if it less geographically direct. This can create crowding on less-frequent Blue line train cars.

To encourage people to choose the Yellow line as their path to downtown D.C., a New York University professor experimented with manipulating how the Yellow and Blue lines appear on the well-known Metrorail map. Speaking with Martine Powers of The Washington Post, Zhan Guo detailed how, in different maps, he shortened the Yellow line’s Potomac River crossing and lengthened the stretch of Blue that passes Arlington National Cemetery to see if these affected the choices of test-takers at a crowdsourcing website:

“Three different maps showed the Blue Line to be more out-of-the-way as it crossed the Rosslyn tunnel: that section of the route appeared more angular or boxy, but the line was the same length as in the original map. In those cases, the percent of people who opted to use the Yellow Line route increased by sizable amounts: from as little as 1.9 percent, to as much as 5.7 percent.

“In another map, he redrew the Yellow Line to be less angular, more of a straight shot between Pentagon and L’Enfant Plaza stations. That also had an effect, encouraging 2.6 percent more people to use the Yellow Line.”

Guo told the Post that even regular Washington, D.C., commuters (based on respondents’ zip codes) were more likely to switch to the Yellow line given map changes. Practically speaking, most regular commuters are less likely to reference a map on their way to work, but those Blue/Yellow tweaks might be effective for newer commuters and visitors.

One change from Guo’s experiment, which smoothed the Yellow line river crossing to make it appear more direct.

Even if the changes – some designed to be deliberately unattractive – are unlikely to be incorporated into a future version of the iconic Metrorail map, Guo’s results highlight the key role transportation information plays in guiding the deliberate choices people make in how they get to work. Small changes can lead commuters to more efficient paths that skirt congestion issues. Besides, who doesn’t like taking in a morning view of the Potomac as the Yellow line makes its way into the District?

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