I sent this letter to Rahul K. Bhardwaj, President & CEO, Toronto Community Foundation, and Adam Giambrone, Chair, TTC, on 2007.07.09. (See renderings of the proposed Museum Renaissance project, which would redecorate Museum, St. Patrick, and Osgoode stations.)
Last year, I wrote Mr. Bhardwaj’s predecessor, Anne Swarbrick, to express concerns about the Museum Renaissance project:
I write regarding the Foundation’s plan to fundraise for purely cosmetic renovations to three subway stations. I have serious concerns about misplaced priorities.… [Museum Renaissance] is unnecessary and is a waste of money. But since you’re going to raise the money and waste it anyway... I want an improved, researched, and tested signage program in the renovated stations.... [I] want something provably better than what we already have – and provably better than what a purely cosmetic redesign would give us.
In the true spirit of community engagement, Swarbrick refused to respond.
Museum Renaissance has not become a better idea in the intervening year. It is still unnecessary and a waste of money, but we have other reasons to object to it now. As a result of my own documentation and presentations, everyone, even TTC staff, admits that the TTC has a serious problem with signage and wayfinding. (In a nutshell, there is no system at all.) TTC Commissioners have asked for two reports on the subject.
There is no hunger whatsoever from TTC riders to sail through Museum station one day (few people actually get off the subway there) and note with bemusement that structural columns are now dolled up to look like totem poles or sarcophagi. There couldn’t possibly be a less useful addition to the infrastructure of public transit in Toronto. It’s the kind of pointless frippery that only dowagers in mink stoles could possibly think is a good idea, except that they have never ridden the subway in their lives, not even as children.
The approach here seems to be: The subway needs a “renaissance,” so let’s spend money tarting up a few stations. Actually, what the subway needs is to work better, and one way it needs to work better is with signage and wayfinding.
While the TTC threw away a professionally-designed, well-tested signage system in the mid-’90s, it did cook up its own sign “standard” for the Sheppard subway. It looks like a hazy memory of New York City subway signage. It doesn’t perform well and has never been user-tested.
As if actually addressing the problem, TTC has reiterated plans to install Sheppard-style signs in every station that is renovated or upgraded. That includes the three stations that are the proposed subjects of the Museum Renaissance.
All this leads to a few questions.
- True to form for all Toronto megaprojects, the renderings provided by TCF and the architects are hazy on details. Why is not a single directional sign visible in the drawings? (And why not a single ad, either?)
- Do TCF and the architect seriously believe that the TTC’s homemade signs will function in the kind of immersive designed environment that is envisaged? If so, won’t the faux-modernist signs clash with the faux-historical interiors?
- In reality, won’t the architect insist that every aspect of a station match the theme of that station, including signage?
- At Museum station, does this not mean that signage will end up looking vaguely Egyptian? (Perhaps some kooky font downloaded from a Web site will be used, or pictographs that look like hieroglyphs will be added.) In other words, will signage at a renascent Museum station ask us to walk like an Egyptian?
Nobody in this town has clamoured for public infrastructure to be dressed up in drag. When presented with the functional failings of its signage, TTC eventually falls back on a complaint that it would cost money to fix the problem, money that would “have to” come from somewhere else. One of those places is Museum Renaissance. The project might be marginally less unacceptable if TCF paid for all of it, but as it stands TTC will be on the hook for six-figure costs. We need that money for truly necessary station upgrades, like researching and testing a new signage system for the whole line. We could probably do all the research and testing necessary for the whole TTC just with the cost of the Museum misadventure alone.
On behalf of the riding public, I call on TCF and TTC to cut their losses and cancel Museum Renaissance. Of course there might be cancellation penalties, and Jack Diamond won’t take it gracefully. But do not throw good money after bad on a vanity project that nobody wants – and that will actively interfere with functional improvements to signage and wayfinding in the subway.