This is 30: On the art and science of station design

In the office. Photo by Steve Hymon

The next time you visit a Metro train station, take a minute to look around. Nothing you see is left to chance. Every staircase, furnishing, and lighting schematic was a conscientious design decision. Adam Light, Senior Director of Metro’s Systemwide Design team, leads a group of urban planners, designers, and architects committed to designing stations that are beautiful, navigable, and integrated into the communities they serve. How does it all happen? Read on!

By Adam Light

Have you ever noticed that the older Metro stations look very different than the newer ones? That’s because Metro Rail evolved very incrementally, line by line. The system started out as a handful of stations with a very limited light rail line and short heavy rail subway. No one likely envisioned how extensive the Metro system would become. The first heavy rail stations on the Red and Purple Lines were designed to be architecturally exuberant, each with unique materials, finishes and artwork approaches 

Hollywood / Vine station, B Line

Thematic designs were developed for a few light rail stations, such as Chinatown and East LA, and the Spanish Mission/Arts & Craftsinspired stations along what used to be the Gold Line. (These stations, such as the South Pasadena, Duarte, and Azusa stations, are now part of the north segment of the A Line.)  

East LA Station

Still newer lines feature consistent architectural styles from end to end, like much of the Expo Line and the G (Orange) BRT Line stations in the San Fernando Valley. 

La Cienega and Jefferson

Are you getting confused? I don’t blame you! So many unique designs and varying line design approaches resulted in a collection of stations that aren’t always easy to recognize and have become difficult to maintain over time.   

In 2012, at the direction of former Chief Planning Officer Martha Welborne, Metro procured Johnson Fain Architects to develop a consistent architectural language for its future stations. We called this language the Systemwide Station Design Standards, or informally as the Metro “kit-of-parts.” In other words, it takes the concept of architectural consistency found in other urban transit systems and applies it to the SoCal context. Think openness and access to natural light and air found in our warm and sunny climate. Think high-performance materials like low-iron structural glass panels, brushed stainless steel and architectural grade concrete finishes. The result? “Branded” station designs that are easier to recognize, build, operate, and maintain.  

Rendering of an underground station entrance using the kit of parts

Rendering of an at-grade station using the kit of parts

The Systemwide Station Design Standards aren’t intended to create boring, cookie-cutter stations. We’ve built in variability with customized landscaping opportunities that respond to local microclimates and sustainability principles. Then there’s the award-winning Metro Art program. You might have noticed glass and porcelain enamel steel art panels at our new stations on the K Line and the three new A and E Line stations in DTLA. And if you’ve been in our new subway stations, you’ve no doubt seen immersive mosaic murals, or artworks displayed in series of back-lit frames. Metro’s new architectural standards provide a “quiet” contemporary background that allows these beautiful pieces to shine. 

Leimert Park Station, K Line

Hyde Park Station, K Line

The Systemwide Station Design Standards have transformed the way that new Metro stations are integrated into the communities they serve. But as industry standards, government regulations and rider needs changed, and we learned from the new stations we’ve been designing and building over the past decade, it became clear to us that further refinements were needed.  

And that’s where the focus of my work leading the Metro Systemwide Design team began. 

Stations are not just functional facilities to access trains and buses. Our riders spend a lot of their journeys accessing our stations, moving through them and waiting. So they must be safe, secure, recognizable, accessible, clean, well-maintained, comfortable and uplifting to arrive at and wait in. All our stations are intended to be a kind of neighborhood center or focal point. And so they need to reflect and respond to the culture and character of each community.  

When I started at Metro in 2015 the Systemwide Station Design Standards were already in place. I was brought in to help further implement and refine them. Under my direction, we began extending these principles into station interiors, landscaping, furnishings, emergency telephones, and tactile wayfinding for sight impaired users.  

This was done via the Integrated Station Design Solutions (ISDS) Project, led by the team’s Project Manager Rachelle Andrews. We set up an interdepartmental design working group with design development led by Gensler Architects. This process, which started in 2018 and wrapped up this spring, resulted in new standards for lighting, furnishings and architectural finishes in our stations. We also adopted higher performance materials such as beautiful and highly durable epoxy terrazzo flooring and modular porcelain enamel steel wall panels, as well as brushed stainless steel for all furnishings and public facing metal finishes. We derived these principles by studying state-of-the-art transit systems in North America, Europe and Asia. Based on sound architectural principles and approaches for major public transportation facilities, we are confident these new Metro standards will improve safety, security, accessibility, maintenance, and overall customer experience.  

ISDS Project Rendering of 7th St/Metro Center B/D Line Platform

Since the mid 1990s, I’ve lived in several large cities without a car where I rode transit on a daily basis. And I’ve ridden dozens of other systems in North America and Europe.  From a design perspective, the Washington DC Metro system is one of the finest systems I’ve experienced. The extraordinary consistency, simplicity, and beauty of the station designs — which include grand cathedral-like volumes of space, modern high-performance materials, clear and consistent wayfinding, and optimal lighting — make the system a truly uplifting experience to ride.  

But I’m confident that no transit system anywhere has a better design approach and standards than LA Metro now has. I’m very proud that my team — in coordination with other Metro departments and talented architectural design professionals — has led such a successful effort to improve both our future and existing stations through better design, which our riders can enjoy and be proud of for the next 30 years and beyond.   

Got a cool story about riding transit in LA? We want to hear from you! 

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7 replies

  1. Many of the new stations look great; the Regional Connector ones especially.

    It’s just depressing to look at the Red/Purple Line trains and stations and see how they’ve been allowed to deteriorate in such a dramatic fashion, knowing that these shiny new stations and light rail trains will eventually look, smell, and feel like that too our lifetimes because Metro clearly doesn’t care about maintaining what these designers and artists have spent so much time building.

    The best thing about the Regional Connector is that I have to ride the Red Line so much less. It’s become a truly gross experience and getting to avoid that is great, well, until these lines and stations become like that as well.

  2. They literally don’t know squat about design … they forgot to design the restrooms!

  3. They’ve gotten prettier but all one has to do is visit any station in Busan, Hong Kong, Osaka, Seoul, Taipei, or Tokyo to appreciate how nice stations can really be when they have restrooms, cafes, bakeries, boutiques, art galleries, shops, and other businesses inside of them.

  4. Can you talk to the design of the elevators at Grand Ave Arts station? There are so many buttons and no clear explanation of what each letter means. How do you expect tourists to figure out how to get to the platform?

    • Hi VG;

      We have added decals to the elevators at the station to explain which buttons to use.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  5. Can you please add real-time arrivals to the expo line? It’s frustrating boarding ANY station of the expo line and not knowing how long for the next train to arrive. I should not need to check my phone to know this info. Other lines provide arrival times, why can’t the expo line?

  6. Meanwhile, the station at Lake Street in the heart of Pasadena remains unrepaired for years after a “bad actor” broke some of the artistic glass panel art. Why? I was told that Metro does not have funds to repair station art works, only to erect build them. Go figure.