It’s been nearly eight years since I started this site, and in that time, the MTA has repeatedly struggled with communicating its service diversions to the public in a way that’s clear, concise and easy to comprehend. In late 2006 when I launched Second Ave. Sagas, the signs looked like this; in 2007, the MTA rolled out redesigns; and inspired by London, in 2010, Jay Walder introduced our current set of signage. Despite these advances, a recent report levied a new round of criticism toward New York City Transit and the way the agency communicates an ever-increasingly complex set of service diversions to its growing off-peak and weekend ridership.
The latest report comes to us from the New York City Transit Riders Council and is available online as a PDF. In a series of surveys conducted over a span of three months in early 2014, NYCTRC surveyors canvassed the subway system for signage, explanations and generally adequate information for riders both in the system and out. As expected, certain findings were adequate and others less so. Ultimately, the MTA has to communicate information to millions of riders who often aren’t willing to digest it in an easy-to-understand why, and although the agency has taken steps to improve messaging, it still isn’t perfect.
The report itself is worth the read because the NYCTRC offers a summary of why the MTA needs to perform so much work. Essentially, after years of maintaining track mileage, upgrading rolling stock and keeping stations in some state of repair, the infrastructure demands became so overwhelming that the MTA is going to spend a significant portion of its next few capital plans on repairing and modernizing antiquated signal systems. These repairs necessarily demand inconvenient service changes. But there are of course mitigating factors, including winter storms, that lead Transit to cancel these General Orders, or GOs, before they begin but after they’re announced.
It’s here — providing information on the go and also on the fly — where the MTA ostensibly suffers. According to the survey, some stations didn’t have signs posted before fare control while none of the trains surveyed had signs posted about service diversions. Yet, when diversions had been canceled, automated announcements still contained information about service patterns during the diversion. In other words, a train saying it was running express as part of a (canceled GO) would actually run local, thus confusing passengers trying to get anywhere. Here’s the report’s summary:
When station signage was not posted at all key points with stations, finding service diversion information was a challenge. Key points within stations include station entranc- es, on walls and columns approaching turnstiles, near turnstiles, and on station platform walls and columns. If signage is not posted consistently at all key points, information can be missed by passengers, leading to confusion and preventing passengers from making informed decisions.
The continued placement of weekday and weekend directories before passengers swipe their MetroCards is vital. The directories, in addition to station-specific signage helps to in- form passengers of system-wide service diversions. Also, if service diversion signage is not posted adequately in train cars, a passenger’s ability to replan their route when they learn of a change is limited.
To improve communications, the Riders Council offered up nine suggestions. They ranged from the basic and common sense — a better training program concerning GOs for customer-facing employees and better internal communication alerting station agents of cancellations to diversions — to the obvious — better signage in along the path of entry and a timely removal of signs once GOs are over. Interestingly, the Riders Council also recommend a more visual approach to signs announcing diversions. They urged the MTA to include clear diagrams concerning alternate routing and add information on parallel subway and bus lines. Such an approach would include expanding the Weekender to weekdays — something the MTA has already done.
For many travel is inherently visual. We use maps rather than descriptions to get around, and that’s especially true of transit systems and their service diagrams. The MTA has used maps to positive results in displaying diversions related to FASTRACK and such an addition to the weekend guides and signs would assist people in interpreting wordy and confusing signs.
Ultimately, it’s a tough give-and-take between presenting information that people will read and presenting information that they’ll absorb. The MTA can’t force its customers to read signs they’ll inclined to ignore but a map at least makes it easier to see. As weekend and off-peak ridership continues to grow but the demands of a signal system overhaul remain, communicating alternate routes, GOs and other changes to service changes will become more important, and Transit would be wise to heed the advice of its Riders Council.