When the signs don’t say what to do

By · Published in 2010

Following these signs will get a subway rider nowhere. (Photo by flickr user Hello Turkey Toe)

New York City Transit has a sign problem. Every week, countless signs proclaiming various service changes are plastered throughout the system, and they have begun to multiple to such an extent that no one reads them. Worse still are the ones people read but can’t understand. No wonder few can track what’s really happening over the weekend.

Now, generally, the plethora of signs lead to many headaches but few real problems. Maybe we don’t really know which train is going to take us to our destination on Saturday, but with some patience, we’ll get there nonetheless. The problem pops up, though, when the signs simply do not tell us what to do.

Earlier this week, I examined just that problem. Every subway car has an emergency brake, and yet, Transit’s message has been one of caution. In case of emergency, don’t pull the emergency brake. In that piece, I discussed a sign each car has up with instructions about emergencies. The sign — click the image to enlarge — hangs beneath the brake and supposedly tells straphangers what to do in an emergency.

This sign is highly problematic. It purports to be “Emergency Instructions,” but then has some rather odd directives. If there is a fire, do not pull the emergency brake. If there is a medial emergency, do not pull the emergency brake. If the police are needed, do not pull the emergency brake. Three do-not’s and no do’s. Anyone reading this sign could be forgiven for not having a clue what to do. When exactly should someone in trouble pull the emergency brake?

The message from Transit is to pull the brake only when someone is in danger of getting injured by a moving train. If a rider is stuck in the doors as the train begins to pull away or if some passengers spot someone on the track in danger of getting struck by the train, it is perfectly reasonable to pull that emergency break. You wouldn’t know it from the sign.

On an institutional level, the lack of emergency brake preparedness gets to another problem MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder identified in his 100 Days report on the state of the authority. The MTA has an information problem. As the booklet he produced says, “Information on planned service changes can be overwhelming and extremely difficult to understand.” The same holds true for these emergency instructions.

For the MTA, better communication with customers is vital toward gaining more acceptance as a player in the New York political scene. People do not trust what they cannot understand, and that effort at explanation can start with something as simple as emergency brake instructions or as complicated as a convoluted service change poster. Iin the aftermath of this fall’s D Train murder in which the emergency brake was pulled and riders in one car were trapped with a killer, Transit is currently looking into ways to better present its emergency brake rules. After all, in the event of some emergencies, pull the brake. Good luck for now figuring out which ones.

Categories : MTA Absurdity

11 Responses to “When the signs don’t say what to do”

  1. Scott E says:

    “Transit is currently looking into ways to better present its emergency brake rules”

    I hadn’t heard that they acknowledged a need to improve this, but that’s great news. To date, their response has been more like “we told you the rules, you should have read them”.

    And, by the way, on the R62s (1, 3, 7 lines) the sign is not below the brake, it’s around the corner on the door to the old conductor’s cab. If anything, the sign below the brake is the Evacuation Information sign that suggests looking for the other sign AND/OR watching the video on their website. That AND/OR always cracks me up. (The video appears to be missing, by the way)

  2. Marc Shepherd says:

    Your post is long on complaints, but short on solutions.

    The R Train signs pointing in three different directions are funny, and obviously a mistake. But in general, the signs announcing service advisories do precisely what they are meant to do. The reason there are so many of them is that the city has so many subway lines, and practically all of them are being worked on at any given time. Stations served by many lines are naturally going to have a lot of these signs. Sometimes, the service changes are inherently complicated, because an important section of track needs to be taken out of service, and riders still need a way to get around.

    The only alternatives are not to repair the system, or not to inform the rider. I, for one, do read those signs when they’re on a line that affects me.

    • Kid Twist says:

      Actually, I call BS on the picture. The photographer probably posed the signs that way.

      • Clearly. It’s just meant to be a humorous photo 🙂

        I’ll see if I can find one of the truly wordy and confusing service changes signs.

        • Jonathan D. says:

          There’s a good picture from Walder’s Report.

          • Marc Shepherd says:

            Yes, but it’s not at all clear from the photo that there was anything wrong with those signs; it just seems to have been taken in a station served by a lot of different lines, and many of those lines had planned service changes.

            • Jonathan D. says:

              There doesn’t have to be anything wrong fact-wise. The signs that are in stations now are a big improvement over the signs that were in stations a few years ago (finding a picture of the old signs would be worthwhile). The fact of the matter is, there is always room for improvement with regards to information design. In some stations, it might just be figuring out how to post service changes in other languages. In other places, it might be the greater use of maps. The newer signs using maps to describe 2,3,4,5 service when the MTA was finishing South Ferry last year, or the great maps in the Heights about the two shuttle buses serving the A when it’s not running past 168th are a good example of more meaningful design. Those are the kinds of options the MTA needs to explore.

  3. Scott E says:

    They’re not service advisories, but Forgotten-NY shows lots of permanent subway signage that will guide someone the wrong way.

    As an example of a confusing advisory, how about the one a couple of weekends ago, which spoke of the downtown #2 train being diverted and terminating at South Ferry, advising riders headed to Brooklyn to take the “Free out-of-system Transfer” to the #4 at Bowling Green. We never really found out how this free transfer worked, if it worked, or if it works every day. I’d have been skeptical.

  4. Eddy says:

    “Emergency brake” is just too vague. If the E-Brake is really meant to be used to save someone from being dragged to death, why not just call it that? “Brake to Prevent Dragging Death” – it’s only 16 characters longer. Then that convoluted Emergency Instructions could be simplified to say “Notify train crew immediately” across all categories and include any other pertinent info as appropriate.


  1. […] Who would have thought that the emergency brake — a fixture of subway cars for decades — could generate such attention? Over the last few weeks, I’ve burned quite a few pixels opining on the problems with the way Transit labels its emergency break. The dialogue started late last month when we explored how, in case of emergency, riders aren’t supposed to pull the brake and continued with a look at how the emergency instructions don’t say when to pull the brake. […]

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>