Home MTA Absurdity The signs of a customer-focused approach

The signs of a customer-focused approach

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA's budget problems apparently rendered the rest of platform too expensive for this sign.

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.

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Lawrence Velázquez August 3, 2011 - 1:37 am

Hm. I believe signs at some Flushing Line stations have precise times for the peak-direction 7 express.

John-2 August 3, 2011 - 8:12 am

When the federally-mandates new style signs debuted in the early 1970s, most of them had information which — if not down to the minute — at least narrowed the time down to a 5-10 minute window as to when part-time lines like the EE ended their runs. Whether it was the MTA’s infrastructure problems over the years that hampered the ability to maintain regular service schedules, or advice from some agency lawyer not to be too precise on the times in order to avoid any liability problems, the more specific signs have given way to the current generic descriptions of when part-time routes do and don’t operate.

Andrew August 3, 2011 - 10:01 pm

I don’t think those signs were federally mandated.

What was federally mandated was ADA, which, as I understand it, specified a minimum font size for the signs. The text got much bigger, and there was no longer space in most cases for detailed times.

I liked the smaller font better also, but ADA didn’t.

Alex C August 3, 2011 - 1:55 am

I have a pretty good (and endlessly annoying) example of this. During rush hours, close to every other F train turns at Kings Highway. A decade ago, this was mentioned on platform signs where the F stops. For some reason, they’ve *removed* that piece of information. Again, it isn’t just a few, a lot of them turn at Kings Highway during rush hours because Coney Island can’t handle the capacity. This doesn’t affect regular riders, but unfortunately I still see way too many confused/scared riders unsure of what to do because the train is announcing that it’s bound for Kings Highway. I have no clue why they would actually remove that useful piece of information from the platform signs.

Jason B August 3, 2011 - 2:58 am

Same thing with Bronx-bound 4 trains in the AM turning around at Burnside after going express. The train timetable says it (who even reads that though) and the automated system calls it a “Burnside Avenue-bound 4 express train” but that information is lacking and results in the conductor making loud announcements at EVERY stop.

Andrew August 3, 2011 - 10:05 pm

Kings Highway? I don’t see the big problem. If you’re going past Kings Highway, get off and wait for the next train.

Burnside? That certainly shouldn’t be posted – it’s a handful of trains in the reverse-peak direction. Posting that on signs would just confuse everybody else.

There are plenty of weird service variants, especially on the IRT – 1’s to 137th, 2’s to New Lots, 5’s to Utica. None of them are explicitly mentioned on signs, but people make do. Or do you not think the signs are confusing enough already?

Alex C August 4, 2011 - 12:42 am

The Kings Highway complaint is that the info *WAS* there. In the biggest font available. It didn’t add anything weird other than that trains also went to Kings Highway. They removed it. And yes, plenty of people who don’t ride the line regularly do the “World is Ending!” panic when they hear Kings Highway. My point is there was no reason to remove it, especially considering that unlike Burnside 4’s, 95 St R’s, this is a service pattern that has ~1/2 rush hour trains turning there.

Jason B August 3, 2011 - 2:56 am

Getting to the Queens Blvd local line is a nightmare between 11:30pm and 12:30am. Thankfully I asked a customer service agent when the last R was at 57th Street and remembered it, but if not, it was at least one or two transfers to get to the E local (if it started going local) or G (when it ran).

And as an aside, the “Exit middle of plat” sign has existed long before the current budget woes.

Kid Twist August 3, 2011 - 8:27 am

In an era of relatively cheap electronic screens, they shouldn’t need metal signs. Ideally, they could take down the signs and put up bright, legible LEDs that would show only what’s stopping at that track at that time.

Also, ideally, these screns would never be vandalized and would be repaired quickly when they malfunctioned.

OK, never mind.

John Paul N. August 3, 2011 - 2:02 pm

Switching to electronic signage eliminates the biggest limitation of metal signs: space. The information that was lacking – frequency of service, first/last trains, etc. – can now be shown, with rotation amongst the multiple lines. But if every platform requires, say, 10 signs for each track, costs will be huge. Lines with easy-to-understand service patterns like the L and the shuttles (when they have normal service) wouldn’t need the fancy treatment.

The signs that are being posted on columns may be the next best method for conveying detailed service info. (As I was searching for the link, I found it interesting that you used the same headline in a post a few days later, Ben. Curious.)

Bolwerk August 3, 2011 - 2:13 pm

This sounds like a good idea in some key stations, and the price of screens can probably be somewhat offset by advertising.

SEAN August 3, 2011 - 2:49 pm

There’s a company called Adspace Networks that installs & opperates plazma signs at malls across the country. You could adapt that consept for the transit system.

Queens Center, Garden State Plaza, Freehold Raceway & Danbury Fair Malls have those signs in opperation.

Tyler August 3, 2011 - 9:09 am

Anyone know when the countdown clocks that were turned off due to heat are going to be turned back on ????

Andrew August 3, 2011 - 10:09 pm

Presumably when the air conditioners that broke are repaired or replaced.

Brian H August 3, 2011 - 9:30 am

Costumer-based? Like, they’re improving the experience of the Improv Everywhere people?

=) Sorry, I shouldn’t tease, but sometimes there are typos, and sometimes there are AWESOME typos.

Al D August 3, 2011 - 9:45 am

I thought that the MTA was there to serve itself. At least that’s the impression they give because the customer is rarely thought of first. The first priority is operational savings, job protection…customer service is far down on the list.

Christopher August 3, 2011 - 9:57 am

When exiting Broad this morning I noticed a sign that said, “All service other platform” or something like that. And thought … well depends on what you mean by service. People exiting the last train seems like a service to me. So part of the problem there is the language is not clear enough, it’s overly formal.

Chris O'Leary August 3, 2011 - 10:50 am

It would also be helpful if they brought back the service guide on that map that gave specific times when rush-hour/evening service stopped running.

Why they did that completely baffles me. Getting rid of it has caused me a lot of grief, and I consider myself an pretty well-versed subway rider.

Bruce M August 3, 2011 - 3:38 pm

I couldn’t agree more. At least it would be possible to look up how each line is supposed to operate depending upon when you’re travelling: AM Rush, Midday, late nights, etc.
I wish they would use the back of the map to show what weekend service looks like. If I need a map of the LIRR/MNRR, then make one separately available.
And because the sign dept. is so beholden to maintaining a certain “graphic” appearance (no more than three lines of type allowed EVER!), the space constraints cause nearly unintelligible abbreviations. Whenever I come across an old photo where you can see an old pre-war sign, I will agree it ain’t too pretty, but it tells you so much more information about where & when the train is going!

JD12 August 3, 2011 - 12:53 pm

The MTA’s bus destination sign abbreviations are no better. Every bus purchased since 2004 has been equipped with modern LED digital signage which offers various typeface size programming options, but we still get 1990’s-era sign readings such as ‘B44 LTD SHEPSHD BAY KNAPP ST’, ‘M4 WSHNGTN HTS CLOISTRS’ and ‘Q24 BWAY JCT VN SNDRN AV’ that were designed for buses with more primitive electronic signs.

Name August 3, 2011 - 3:42 pm

Highway sign typefaces are kept at consistent sizes for readability and, uh, consistency. Why shouldn’t those reasons apply for the bus signs? I’d hope that if you’re looking for a specific bus, you’d know enough about that bus to decipher those abbreviations.

BrooklynBus August 3, 2011 - 5:04 pm

Because when reading a highway sign you are moving at a high rate of speed so you need extreme clarity, hence the lack of variation in typeface size. The same is not true when standing still reading a bus sign. There is no reason why the typeface should not vary. The entire purpose of the switch to digital was to display more info than permitted on a roll sign as well as flexibility. The route and destination should be described in as much detail as possible. It would also encourage ridership by making the route less of a mystery. Someone waiting for a cab in Manhattan theoretically could see a clear bus sign and decide to take it. With the current signs, yes you would use the bus only if you were looking for a specific one. The signs are primarily for occasional riders not regular ones and that’s what you have to keep in mind.

ajedrez August 3, 2011 - 5:55 pm

Even for regular riders, the signs are useful when you have short-turns, branches, or loops where buses in opposite directions travel.

But yes, you’re right that it should be made clear what streets the bus travels on.

John Paul N. August 3, 2011 - 2:28 pm

With the MTA promoting and encouraging the use of mobile apps, I would not be surprised if one of the reasons for doing so is so that the third-party apps can provide the customer service that it itself cannot do as effectively. This is not a slam to the customer service operations of the MTA, but there is only so much that department can do within its budget, and only so much that passengers have expected from the authority.

As my app (SchedNYC) provides the subway schedule on Android devices, it has made the schedule more accessible for riders. While I have yet to publish a simpler service guide, that should be coming along in the near future. Till then, just browse the schedules to seek what you want, like the first/last trains to a station. There have to be other similar apps for the iPhone and non-Android devices.

Name August 3, 2011 - 3:34 pm

Here’s the thing, though. Not everybody has a smartphone. Not everybody is willing or able to pay $50/month for a cell phone contract and instead uses a simple prepaid phone. Yes, the budget situation sucks, but keeping customers informed is supposed to be one of their priorities, and pawning that off to the smartphone is just lazy of them. If they can post new weekend service changes every week, they can post a 24-hour service guide with specific times.

ajedrez August 3, 2011 - 5:58 pm

Agreed. I barely carry a regular cell phone, let alone a smartphone.

Bob August 3, 2011 - 6:57 pm

Ben writes: “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.”

This is not true. When Walder came on board the system was about 5 months from the first activations. He pushed to speed up the process but that was done with overtime – always approved if the boss wants something done – not any brilliant management. I know this from people who worked on the project.

To put it in simple terms: If Jay Walder had never joined MTA, or had never even been born, the train arrival clocks would still be out there, just like they are today. I don’t see how that makes him a hero, but clearly I’m in the minority on this one.

As to signs with exact times on the platforms: They had these, I’m old enough to remember. The policy was changed (I think it was Gunn, but not definately sure) because, even on good days, the trains are not that precise. (Not to mention your watch could be a couple of minutes off.) The IND may have provided schedules to the half minute, but could they consistently run trains to that level of accuracy? I doubt it. There is no easy answer here.

As to the opening photo: Clearly there was an effort to keep the across dimension of the sign limited. I can’t tell why from the photo, but there are plenty of signs much larger than they need to be. In truth, “No Exit” alone should be sufficient. Someone tried to add a bit more information, and they get lambasted for it.

BrooklynBus August 3, 2011 - 7:22 pm

I doubt it if the IND was that accurate, but the fact that they had those signs showed that they believed they could stick to it and were proud of it.

BrooklynBus August 3, 2011 - 9:37 pm

I disagree that the current administration places a high value on a consumer-based approach. If that were the case, the D would start stopping at Delkalb when the B stops running. There is no reason for a 90 minute gap in Sixth avenue service at DeKalb Avenue each evening.

While Walder does deserve credit for redoing the service change notices, a friend of mine does not believe that the timeclocks were instituted as a customer convenience, but to make future service cuts more pallatable. You don’t really need them when trains are running every three or four minutes, but you do need them when they are running less frequently. I’m all for the GPS bus pilots but I really doubt if they will ever be extended systemwide because of the costs involved in doing that.

If that should ever come to pass and they were also used to minimize bus bunching, then I will believe that the MTA really places a high priority on customer service.

Andrew August 3, 2011 - 9:58 pm

I could be wrong, but wasn’t the DeKalb evening gap closed a few years ago, when the B span was extended? Of course, there’s still a gap all weekend.

The PA/CIS contract was awarded when the economy was doing well. There was no talk of service cuts back then. If anything, that may have been around the time of the talk of service expansions.

Bob August 3, 2011 - 9:59 pm

PA/CIS actually originated as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It requires that major audio announcements have a visual component for the deaf. When that passed what was a speaker upgrade project became much much bigger. That first phase put in a lot of signs but the software was a disaster. You saw the signs for years, giving time and date. On the IND & BMT that is still seen, unless they’ve been hooked up as new annunciators (“train is one station away”) which Walder does deserve credit for.

The follow-on PA/CIS concentrated on the IRT since the ATS project was underway. With ATS operational you can do real train arrival info, because for the first time you have a computerized system that knows both the train location and what it’s routing is. In NY that matters with all the merges and diverges. Other places are not as complex. London put in a system that tells you what the schedule is – when something goes wrong it just says “see train for destination”. It was assumed that NYers would not stand for something like that. If they would it could have been much quicker and cheaper.

CBTC integrates it all as one system, so the L line had this capability first.

These decisions are at least a decade old, some stuff two decades. Yes, it really was (and is) seen as an improvement for customers. There is no way to make service cutbacks palatable. They happen for budgetary reasons. If they could be avoided it would make the lives of TA execs much more pleasant.

I know it’s fun to imagine TA employees and managers as sadists who delight in making your travel difficult. But that isn’t true. A lot work very very hard just to keep things moving. And quite a few work in conditions with significant danger (live 3rd rail, up on elevated structures).

BrooklynBus August 4, 2011 - 8:37 am

I would just like to echo your last paragraph. That is only something that is recognized by an employee or former employee like myself. I only criticize the MTA when I believe a decision was made that was not the best one that could have been made.


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