Home MTA Technology Improving the way we find the way

Improving the way we find the way

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA's latest wayfinding sign on the downtown platform at Union Square. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy of David Sims)

Everything old is new again. As the MTA looks to improve the way straphangers get around — an important aspect of the service the authority must provide to its customers — it has turned to something familiar to those who know their subway history.

At certain stops along the East Side IRT, Transit testing new strip maps that show riders where the subway go. The new signs, similar to the one atop this post sent to me by David Sims, a SAS reader and reporter for The Chief-Ledger, are evocative of the strip maps that used to adorn the subway map back in the 1980s. By showing riders where the train that will arrive on that track will next go, the authority helps those without an encyclopedic knowledge of the subway system find their ways around.

I asked the MTA about the new signs yesterday, and an agency spokesman had this to say:

The subway system has been around for more than 100 years, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve the way it works for our customers. Similar to our mid-2010 redesigned service change posters, we’re taking a fresh new approach to increase the availability of easy-to-read maps throughout the system. While every station already has a subway map, customers don’t always have time to locate the map or sort through all of the information it provides. We’re trying out a few ways of doing this as a pilot and we’ll decide how to move forward based on customer feedback.

The strip maps are the first part of the pilot program, and it’s hard to dispute their usefulness or visual appeal. They may be limited in that they represent peak-hour subway service only, but that’s when most people are riding. I’ll be curious to see what the next step of this pilot program resembles.

Meanwhile, as part of a more long-term effort to deliver customer service upgrades, Transit is toying with the idea of retrofitting older rolling stock with digital signs. Michael Grynbaum has the deets:

New York City Transit is looking for a way to bring some of its older subway cars into the digital age. The upgrade, if put into effect, would bring automated station announcements and digital route displays to more than 1,700 aging subway cars, including the entirety of the B, D, and Nos. 1, 3 and 7 lines.

Those amenities come standard on the system’s blue-hued modern trains. Currently, the most high-tech signage on a B train is a plastic roll sign operated via hand-crank. To subway officials, intent on improving the passenger experience, the change would bring clearer, real-time travel information to riders tired of screechy intercoms and static maps. But the end of live announcements could signal another step in the creeping dehumanization of a subway system already shedding station agents and, on some cars, train operators…

Neither a timeline nor an estimated cost for the upgrade was available on Thursday, mostly because the transit agency still needs to determine if the idea is feasible.

I don’t put much weight into the nostalgia of live announcements. While Grynbaum spoke to Harry Nugent about the more colorful conductors, I side with Andrew Albert. “I haven’t heard the robot make a mistake,” the chairman of the New York City Transit Riders Council said. “I have heard the human make a mistake.” (Of course, the robotic announcements can be loud and annoying, but we covered that complaint recently.)

If the MTA can find a cost-efficient way to upgrade rolling stock that won’t be due for replacement for the next 15 years, they should. After all, it’s all about improving the customer experience. I would have to believe, though, that it might be easier to upgrade the static route signs on the R142s and R143s to the dynamic FIND displays. Too many times do I board a 2 train with the map for a 5 train and a note saying that the route-finder isn’t in service.

Essentially, these upgrades are minor ones that can make a big difference in the way New Yorkers and visitors commute. It can take a lot of the guesswork out of finding the way around, and that focus on the customer has been sorely missing for the MTA for quite a while now.

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Jake S June 17, 2011 - 1:14 am

I have lived off the 1 and A trains, and watched with envy as their E and 2 cousins get all the shiny new hardware. As a fan of bells and whistles, I’d love to see my 1 train get electronic signs.

That said, it does seem to be a step on the road towards shedding jobs. I hope these conductors land on their feet, but I’m sure I’m being naive.

Lance June 17, 2011 - 9:51 am

As long as the trains remain 8 to 10 cars long, the conductor’s job is pretty much required since the train operator can’t see all the way to the back of the train from his/her position in the front.

pete June 17, 2011 - 2:50 pm

So how does the DC Metro do it with 10 car (600 ft) trains and a driver in the front?

Brian October 22, 2011 - 12:06 am

dc platforms are straight many in NYC are curved

Marc Shepherd June 17, 2011 - 9:58 am

The current union agreement doesn’t allow the MTA to operate without conductors on full-length trains. They can do so on shorter ones, like shuttles, which is called One Person Train Operation, or OPTO.

Conductors have other duties, besides making announcments — mainly, making sure it is safe to open and close the doors. They also sometimes override the automated announcements, when there is an unusual situation that the canned speeches can’t describe.

The technology exists to eliminate the conductor position, and this has been done in other subway systems, but in New York the union has successfully fought it tooth and nail.

Michael June 17, 2011 - 1:29 am

The London Underground has had signs like these for a long while. They’re especially helpful at points where the tunnel to the platform branches. You can easily see which way to go to get to a certain station.

al June 17, 2011 - 2:43 am

The R44 and R46 had digital signage since the late 1980’s. It seems like the MTA went too conservative in the 80’s with their new orders and are now finally upgrading them.

It seems like the MTA is very conservative with rolling stock technology. There is a whole host of designs that would increase capacity in the system that we could apply – fast articulated lightweight cars – that date back to the 1930’s. Aluminum alloys do have a problem with melting in fires when they are unprotected from heat. However, you can deal with it by using fire proof materials and insulation in critical areas.

Scott E June 17, 2011 - 9:17 am

I like the maps, but what exactly does a “pilot” of this type entail? Do they solicit customer feedback? Evaluate the maintenance (grafitti removal, updates due to service changes) required of the signs? Measure the cost to design/install them? Position interns with orange vests and clipboards to count how many times passengers look at them?

Some stations (Wall St 2/3 IRT, for instance) Have had similar maps on the columns for quite some time. They’re paper maps in picture frames, though, with the lines alternating on columns (2 on one, 3 on the next). Unfortunately, they get wet quite easily, and are often covered up by service advisory posters.

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Mark L June 17, 2011 - 9:20 am

That sign is so simple, yet hugely informative. Put them in tourist hot zones/midtown first, then spread to the rest of the system.

Like any transit improvement, there’s real economic benefit to this: every time this saves someone from taking the wrong train and being 20 minutes late, that’s 20 minutes of productivity the economy gets back. Business people don’t waste time for someone late to a meeting. Someone out on the town has time for another drink or desert.

E. Aron June 17, 2011 - 9:31 am

I’ve definitely heard the robots make mistakes. I’ve been on several F trains where the electronic signs aren’t functioning at all, and one that told the passengers at every stop that “This is Parsons Boulevard. The next stop is Sutphin Boulevard.” We were in Manhattan. Whether you consider that a mistake or a malfunction, if you weren’t a seasoned passenger of the F train, you were probably a bit confused.

That said, a human manning the announcements pretty much guarantees that all passengers will hear is a garbled, barely audible message, so I think the upgrades would be worth it.

Ferdinand Cesarano June 17, 2011 - 11:23 am

A mistake which the robot consistently makes is one which was programmed into it by some person who is evidently barely literate: transposing the “T” and the “F” sounds in “Sutphin”, so as to mispronounce it as “Suphtin”. It is astonishing that this error has gone uncorrected for so long.

I would definitely prefer human announcements to automated ones — even though I admit that I am glad that I don’t have to listen to that one ignorant conductor on the J announce “Bowery Street” anymore.

Lance June 17, 2011 - 2:19 pm

A mistake which the robot consistently makes is one which was programmed into it by some person who is evidently barely literate: transposing the “T” and the “F” sounds in “Sutphin”, so as to mispronounce it as “Suphtin”. It is astonishing that this error has gone uncorrected for so long.

It’s not any different from “Grand Av-Newton” and “Jamaica-Van Wick” on the (E) and “Briarwood-Van Wick Blvd” on the (E) and (F). The problem seems to be that there isn’t anyone proofing the announcements before they’re programmed into the trains.

Benjamin June 17, 2011 - 10:09 am

These are going to be great until someone gets on a 5 train during the weekend trying to get to Brooklyn. Why don’t they have the different timing notices with the different colored dots and all like on the strip maps on the MTA website?

Yes, most people travel during the peak and weekday hours, but those “most people” also know where they’re going and how to get there because they make the same trip daily. I understand the MTA is trying to simplify these things (see also no service table on the new subway map) but I’ve had to tell a lot of tourists recently that they’re in for a long wait for the B train to get to the natural history museum on weekends.

Daniel Howard June 20, 2011 - 2:55 pm

Amen, Benjamin! Those who need the most help travel off-peak. These signs will be most useful during peak when service shuts down and you try to puzzle out an alternate route at a transfer station.

Al D June 17, 2011 - 10:43 am

Some systems show, at the mezzanine level and before you descend to the platform, the remaining stops in the direction of travel for that specific platform. For brevity’s sake, let’s say you take the F from Av X to Coney Island. On the token booth level, next to the stairway leading up to the platform, the map will show Neptune, W. 8 and then Coney Island in a large strip map format. I’ve seen this on the T and in Prague just off the top of my head. Very effective and useful.

Metzger June 20, 2011 - 10:19 am

You can add the Madrid Metro to the list. It works very well there as well.

Christopher Stephens June 17, 2011 - 12:43 pm

I, too, have heard the “robots” make plenty of mistakes. I remember a ride on the 6 train from downtown, where the automated voice told us at each stop “This is (pause) Spring Street.” After the fourth or fifth stop, it was actually quite amusing.

Brian June 17, 2011 - 2:35 pm

Don’t see the need to put automated station announcements and digital route displays on the 7- The 7 is already getting them at the end of this year/start of 2012, when the orders for the retrofitted R142’s and the brand new R188’s start to come.

Farro June 18, 2011 - 4:22 pm

Those robots do make mistakes, and sometimes plain malfunction–I’ve noticed it especially on the E in Queens (and more on the brand new trains than on the old ones running on the 2). Now a conductor can override that, but they rarely do, and I find that the announcements on the 2 cars are actually worse than the ones on the older styles (the ones on the newer BMT/IND cars are better, and I have no memory of what the redbird announcements were like, though I imagine those were totally incomprehensible).

herenthere June 19, 2011 - 5:47 pm

If only there was enough room to show the part of the line that is before the current station; that way people would know that if they want to go uptown for say a transfer, it’s not that they’re on the wrong line, but the wrong direction…

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