Surprise sexism: the escalators in the DC Metro

Hopefully, it’s old news to you by now that architecture can be – and often is – sexist.

I can’t remember who first brought up on Twitter the case of the sky bridge in some skyscraper’s atrium, with a floor that was, um, made of glass. The building was of course designed by a man starchitect (“star architects” for the uninitiated. Think Bobby Flay, but buildings, and the Whitney). So naturally, this man, or team of men, did not realize the design’s fatal flaw until it was too late: that women wearing skirts would not want to walk across this bridge. Because it. Was. Made. Of. Glass.

(To spell it out even clearer, that means that people below the sky bridge could look up and see right up women’s skirts.)

Thus launched a Twitter thread of women reporting equally offensive design flaws. Here’s one that I didn’t see mentioned: the escalators in the Washington, DC Metro system.

Metro is renowned for its very long escalators. WMATA, the region’s transit agency, is the country’s largest operator of “vertical transportation,” and the escalator at Wheaton station is the longest in the Western hemisphere. These are some crazy escalators, folks. A man using a wheelchair recently died attempting to ride an escalator.

Undoubtedly, these epic concrete tubes, delineated with sleek, stainless-steel stairs, are aesthetically pleasing – much like the glass skybridge. But designed with the interests of all users in mind? I think not.

How so, you ask? People on escalator steps below you can clearly see your butt.

Men, imagine wearing skirts in this situation. It’s awful.

This is not stupid or trivial. It makes me deeply uncomfortable. In the summer, when I wasn’t wearing opaque black tights with my work dresses, the fact that anybody below me on the escalator could clearly see my butt made me plan my outfits around my travel – or tie my dress between my legs, like a giant cloth diaper, before summitting.

Since women’s concerns have to be qualified by other, concrete concerns to matter, here are some other negatives of the escalators:

  • They are dangerous (see aforementioned recent death).
  • They are costly. (When one escalator is broken – which any DC-area resident knows, happens frequently – the whole shaft is shut down, not just one stretch. WMATA budgeted $20 million on escalator repair and replacement between 2018 and 2023.)
  • People are understandably scared of them.

There’s a better way. London Underground stations have depth comparable to Metro’s (both systems’ deepest stations are around 58 meters) yet their escalators are broken up into chunks, with platforms in between, like a regular staircase. This might be because it’s a much older system, while Metro was largely built in one 1970s-swing, but it’s a better model.

The Metro escalators look awesome, agreed. Useful? Nope. Future transit station designers, please don’t fall into mega-escalators-are-awesome trap and think maybe, for at least a fleeting second, about the people you’re designing for. Because if you want them to use transit, make sure they’re comfortable. It’s our space, too.

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