Throughout his abbreviated tenure as CEO and Chairman of the MTA, Jay Walder has tried to focus on customer service. Even as he was forced to preside over cuts in bus and subway service and numerous layoffs, Walder has ushered through some initiatives designed to improve the customer experience, and his successor should do even more. The system’s information presentation certainly could use the overhaul.
For Walder, three intertwined initiatives aimed at improving customer service are likely to be the high points of his two years at the MTA. The new PA/CIS system — colloquially known as countdown clocks — was in the planning stages long before Walder returned from London, but he pushed the project through. Now, riders along the IRT routes know when their trains are coming and how long they must wait. Similarly, a bus tracking system is in the works, and the authority’s overhauled website along with a new commitment to open data make it slowly easier for the public to find tools that make their commutes easier.
Yet, despite the increase in information, the subway system itself can be maddeningly obtuse to navigate. The signs — remnants of the Massimo Vignelli overhaul in the 1960s — haven’t been updated in decades, and teasing information out of them can be difficult. My personal favorite is the one at right above. For the sake of visual appeal, the MTA has shortened platform to “plat” on their “No Exit” signs. Someone unfamiliar with the system sure would be excused if they didn’t know what that meant.
Another personal favorite is this one from West 4th Street:
As a regular rider of the 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, 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.”
I am not, apparently, alone. In his column this week on Sheepshead Bites, Allan Rosen delves into the world of confusing MTA signage, and he urges the authority to pay attention to customer complaints. On the same confusion regarding the B train, he writes:
Regarding signage, the IND provided timetables accurate to the half-minute at major subway stations informing passengers when trains would arrive. The MTA doesn’t wish to burden us with such details and has instead taken the path of simplicity. For example, a typical sign now reads “No B (in an orange bullet of course) Nights and Weekends.” Although useful information, what does one do at 10 or 11 p.m.? How do you know if you missed the last B train or not? I am all for simplicity and clarity, but sometimes functionality should override. While I think the IND went overboard by using half minutes, and that timetables on the stations are not really necessary today, the MTA at least should inform passengers on their signage when the first and last trains are due. “No ‘B’ before 6:20 a.m. or after 10:18 p.m., Mondays through Fridays” is far more useful information than “No ‘B’ Nights and Weekends.”
I’ve played the B train guessing game at West 4th St. before, and Transit never announces if B trains stop running or which train is the last to pass through the station. I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next person, but that is one time when I’d rather have the answer handed to me on a silver platter.
One solution is as Rosen proposes: Ask the customer. Find out which signs work and which do not. Find out what information a typical subway rider needs at various times of the day, and figure out how to deliver that information to the subway system. At West 4th St., for instance, clocks that had the wrong time in 2007 still don’t keep an accurate hour. If those could be used to notify customers of the last B train, they would be far more useful than they are today, and that is a type of customer service improvement the next MTA head should look to bring to the system.