Home View from Underground Finding a way around the subways or not

Finding a way around the subways or not

by Benjamin Kabak

Sitting on my coffee table in my living room is a book from the U.K. by two designs experts. The book is called Signs: Lettering in the Environment, and it is, as you might guess, all about what are known as wayfinding signs.

These signs are a ubiquitous part of everyday life in New York City. We have one-way signs, alternate-side-of-the-street parking signs, street signs, landmark signs, directional signs and, of course, an entire network of signs courtesy of the MTA. The underground signs tell us which way our train is going, what trains we can expect to arrive on which tracks at what time and whether or not the staircase on the left or right will put us on the proper corner.

In Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon’s book, the two write about the theory behind wayfinding signs. These should be welcoming and clear, uniform and informative. As the MTA learned in the 1950s and 1960s, it isn’t always easy to design signs that fit those specifics, and although Massimo Vignelli’s Helvetica signs succeed in certain aspects, in many ways, they live those unfamiliar with subway shorthand confused about the way.

Take, for instance, the sign up above. That sign — a direction with some letters missing — would make no sense to many people, and yet, it marks stations with mid-platf (sic) entrances throughout the system. Apparently, the MTA, short on cash, couldn’t afford the “-form.”

These signs all stem from a 1970 manual by Vignelli and his associates called the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual. The user Triborough has a full set of photos from the manual, and the images provide a tantalizing glimpse into the world of MTA signage. We can see the theory behind directional signs, the rational behind the placement of signs in complex station mazes and the modular font system designed to make the signs very readable.

But does it work? In general, the MTA’s signage makes sense. Riders know where they are and can figure out, to a reasonable degree, where the trains are going. But sometimes, signs such as the one above creep up. The B train stops at W 4th St., except when it doesn’t, and then you can take the D and transfer to the Q at De Kalb Ave. Usually, the D train runs express and skips DeKalb, except during late nights when it runs local and stops at DeKalb. Good luck, too, determining when that “late night” period is or figuring out what to do for those 90 minutes after the B stops running and before the D makes its stop at De Kalb. Even the MTA’s website is helpless on that front. In the end, the signs make perfect sense to those who use the B and the D and the Q on a regular basis and no sense to those who have never had to interpret Vignelli Subway-ese.

For the next few weeks, Slate is tackling this subject of signs. Julia Turner offered up a primer on signs to introduce the series and yesterday explored how London, a city decidedly not on a grid, is trying to help people get around. (Fun London fact: It’s often faster to walk than it is to take the Tube, but few out-of-towners and even some native Londoners know that because the street map is just that confusing.)

The New York-centric essay in her series involved Turner’s effort at finding her way around Penn Station. Why, she asked, are the signs so confusing? Turner charts her effort, in photos, to get from Lower Manhattan to Amtrak’s half of Penn Station and finds the connection from New York City Transit to Amtrak very complicated. The reason for the confusion, she says, is because three different agencies — the MTA, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak — share the space and have never coordinated on signage. Such are the travails of transit bureaucracy.

We tend to take signs for granted until we don’t know where we’re going. The next time I ride, I’m going to take a look at that plat and see if I can find some gems amidst the MTA signage. Sometimes, you never know on which track that train will arrive even with the signs.

You may also like


Rhywun March 5, 2010 - 2:59 am

I’ve always (well, for the 12 years I’ve lived here) found the signage in the NYC subways to be remarkably good at getting me around. I’ve seen MUCH worse in other cities. Sure, problems abound, and I’m glad there are folks who expend the effort to make it better.

Al D March 5, 2010 - 9:10 am

Acutally, the sign says to take the D to Pacific to get the Q.

Benjamin Kabak March 5, 2010 - 9:12 am

I know, and the worst part is that it’s not even the most efficient of directions. After midnight, the D stops at DeKalb, and it’s far easier to switch at DeKalb to the Q than it is to make that long walk from Pacific St. to Atlantic Ave.

Alon Levy March 5, 2010 - 4:18 pm

The problem is that the B stops running before the D starts stopping at DeKalb.

JE March 5, 2010 - 4:50 pm

OK, I’ll bite. *Why* does the B stop running before the D starts stopping at DeKalb?

Benjamin Kabak March 5, 2010 - 4:51 pm

Who knows. I’ve long wondered that too.

JE March 5, 2010 - 5:12 pm

If a D or N stops at DeKalb, does that also mean that the train must continue as a local for its Fourth Avenue run?

Benjamin Kabak March 5, 2010 - 5:22 pm

Nope. There’s a switch just north of Pacific St. So a train can pull into DeKalb on the tracks off of the bridge, switch to the 4th Ave. line and switch to the express tracks. But if the train pulls into Pacific St. on the local side, it will run on the local tracks to at least 36th St.

Andrew March 7, 2010 - 10:22 am

Because running the B is costly, and the various other routes that overlap with the B (the Q, D, and C) are adequate for the loads late in the evening.

Diverting the D to the local track at DeKalb (and then back to the express at Pacific) would make for an easier transfer, but it would also make for delays and less reliable service due to the extra merge with the R.

Marc Shepherd March 5, 2010 - 9:28 am

Some service patterns are difficult to summarize on a sign.

The example quoted at W. 4th St. is indeed complicated. But that’s because the service pattern is itself complicated. I am not sure how all that data could be conveyed much better, without turning the platform sign into an essay.

The only improvement I can think of is to remove information. Let the sign say that the B train stops here weekdays and evenings, and don’t even attempt to tell the customer what to do when the B does not operate. The sign would at least be less wordy that way.

Your first example is a better one. A smarter sign, writing out the full word “platform,” could easily be devised.

Benjamin Kabak March 5, 2010 - 9:30 am

The other problem, too, Marc, is that the sign doesn’t define when the trains stop running. The last Brooklyn-bound B runs through W. 4th at approximately 10:30, if I’m not mistaken. The next IND 6th Ave. train to stop at DeKalb won’t come until after midnight. That’s a key piece of info that neither the map nor the signs adequately explain.

Jehiah March 5, 2010 - 9:39 am

but of course! that’s why there are station attendants to answer these sort of questions… except for the not-so-minor fact that they are on the wrong side of the turnstile =)

AB March 10, 2010 - 4:21 am

For everyone’s information, the MTA fixed the 6th Ave/DeKalb issue probably about a year or more ago (I think in the schedule revision after the one that extended the hours of the B to later in the evening). If you look at the schedules currently available on the website, the last Brighton Beach-bound B to stop at DeKalb Avenue is 10:45pm, and the first D that is indicated as stopping at DeKalb Avenue is about 10:52pm or so (time point is Pacific Street at 10:55pm). Similarly, in the early morning there is no gap in 6th Avenue service from DeKalb Avenue. This was, I believe, in response to public requests/comments, etc.

Unfortunately, many have also requested that D trains stop at DeKalb Avenue all weekend when the B doesn’t run; while this would be useful, it is trickier with daytime volumes of trains passing through the area. While there are switches as has been mentioned that would allow trains to operate express on 4th Avenue and then stop at DeKalb Avenue, they are very slow and located on a curve and are usually avoided for regular service (ok incidentally or in an emergency, not particularly suitable for constant use).

As for the signs, I think they only mention Pacific Street because it applies at all times so as to avoid (even more) confusion or clutter on the signs. As an aside, wouldn’t it be cool to have electronic, variable-message signs in those locations to tell you exactly what train is coming and what it’s doing, that would be changeable if a train is rerouted, etc!

Jonathan March 5, 2010 - 10:12 am

Perhaps the signs could change depending on the service being offered. Electronic signs, maybe? Or flip signs that could be operated remotely. I suspect that most people just want to know which service is being offered on which track at the time that they’re waiting.

As for your first example, I think “Exit behind you” is more concise and means the same thing.

SEAN March 5, 2010 - 10:23 am

In the Penn Station example, the easyest thing to remember is that NJT mostly uses tracks 1-12, LIRR uses tracks 16-21 mostly & Amtrak uses tracks 5-15 most of the time. Tracks 13-15 are shared between all users & quite often NJT will use tracks 1-4 especially at off peak times. Getting through Penn Station, now that is another story!

John March 5, 2010 - 12:56 pm

As an out-of-towner, I don’t remember having much trouble with Penn Station. Sure the subway is kinda far from LIRR and Amtrak, but it was pretty straightforward to get from one to the other. But I’m pretty obsessive about signs and even if there’s only one I’m likely to spot it.

Brian March 5, 2010 - 1:16 pm

Speaking of signs and their cost, the MTA a year or two ago decided to put a sign on every subway station entrance, at street level, prohibiting bikes from being locked to them. I haven’t seen an entrance that doesn’t have the sign, and I wonder if it was such a problem that it justifies whatever it cost.

Adam March 5, 2010 - 1:52 pm

How about “exit mid-platform.” It’s actually one less character.

mike March 5, 2010 - 10:20 pm

The problem with “exit mid-platform” is that there’s nowhere to put the line breaks to split it into three approximately-equal pieces as on the existing sign. It’s not just about number of characters but also about which of those characters are spaes.

Paul Payton March 6, 2010 - 10:57 pm

There are some wonderful anachronisms in full view in the subway system. At E. 149th St. in the Bronx, there is still a tile sign directing people to the 3rd Avenue El, which closed in 1957; and at the E. 14th St. station on the 6th Ave. line, there are tile signs to the PATH trains using their old name, the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad(the directions are still right, but the name is outdated by several decades). Speaking of PATH, the “E” capping the columns in the Newport-Pavonia station is for “Erie”; that station originally served the long-gone Erie RR Terminal at that location. Back in NYC, Penn Station has a few original tile signs, too, but these remain accurate. Quite honestly, as a subway user and fan, I hope these classics remain in full view forever. They’re part of what gives the system its unique character.

Andrew March 7, 2010 - 10:30 am

Those “Exit middle of plat” signs were installed in recent years, as I recall in response to a fire at a station with an exit at only one end (York Street, maybe?) at which passengers were sent the wrong way to get out.

They were generally installed on the reverse side of preexisting signs. The standard “Exit” sign is narrow, so in many cases there wasn’t much room to spell out words in full.

Hence the abbreviated “platform”.

I don’t see a problem with the B/D signs, but they should be supplemented with timetables posted on the columns, or at least an explicit statement of the hours of B operation, and of D local operation, at this station. Trying to cram the times onto the main sign would be confusing to anybody not traveling at a potentially ambiguous time of day.

bob March 10, 2010 - 5:28 pm

I have to say I think your first photo is a bit unfair, given that the issue is the width.

Maybe most readers here haven’t been in the city long enough, but 25 years ago the signage was much much worse. In many places non-existant. I LIKE the subways and I once spent 20 minutes wandering around the Chambers St. IND station looking for the connection to the Park Place IRT. It was on the maps, but there was zero clues. I didn’t find it that day. Yes, I’ve found it since, and it’s well marked now.

I don’t think they started putting the station ID’s on columns until the 70s. Before that you were just supposed to know, or catch the tile sign as you pulled in.

Also, there was a time when they put exact times for the end of service on signs. But really, even on the good days, who can say the last train scheduled for 9:12 didn’t come at 9:10, or if it’s 9:15 it will be here in a minute? And is your watch in tune with thiers? It wasn’t really helping.

Any complaints should be taken in the context of how far we have come.

ARC Fallout: Remodeling Penn Station :: Second Ave. Sagas December 23, 2010 - 11:42 am

[…] According to Grossman, the LIRR has a list of improvements it wants to make. Some are easier to implement than others while some would require long-term disruptions. They include “better signage, improved passenger flow, higher ceilings and natural light.” Signage has, as I wrote in March, long been a challenge for the MTA. […]

The signs of a costumer-focused approach :: Second Ave. Sagas August 3, 2011 - 1:22 am

[…] B and D, I know what this confusing array of words means. In an attempt to decipher the text in a missive on signs I published last March, I wrote: “The B train stops at W 4th St., except when it doesn’t, […]

Photo: A ‘form’-less Plat :: Second Ave. Sagas November 28, 2012 - 3:47 pm

[…] remain, and a few signs just don’t work. I’ve written before about my issues with late-night service pattern explanations which require an extensive knowledge of the subway system and also, seemingly, 99-percentile […]

A glimpse inside Transit’s Graphics Standards Manual :: Second Ave. Sagas May 15, 2013 - 1:05 am

[…] system doesn’t always work properly. I’ve been critical of the information presented on signs discussing divergent routes. It takes some base level of knowledge, for instance, to understand the way the B and D run after […]


Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy