Home MTA Technology Building a better countdown clock

Building a better countdown clock

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA has added more useful information to its countdown clocks. (Photo by Rolando Pujol)

As far as transit technology goes, the MTA’s shiny new countdown clocks leave much to be desired. While the authority now has access to tons of real-time information about train location, its only public presentation of that data is via the countdown clocks, and they suffer from a basic rudimentariness.

The first problem I noticed with the new clocks concerned island platforms. At, for instance, Grand Army Plaza, the uptown and downtown trains pull in on opposite sides of the sole island platform, but the countdown clocks are for the entire station. If I’m heading to Manhattan, I don’t particularly care when the next Flatbush Ave.-bound 2 train is coming. Yet, that’s how the information is presented.

The next complaint is one of design. Most of the signs rotate through only two trains, and it takes a concerted effort to find the next train at times. Furthermore, the green arrows are tough to read at a glance, and the destination indicators — which way is New Lots Ave.? — make a rider think too much about which train they need.

That said, the MTA is not resting on its laurels. They’re upgrading the countdown clocks. In a release late Wednesday, the authority announced the UI changes. “To remove some of the confusion in the busier stations serving multiple train lines we have added express (EXP) and local (LCL) icons to help riders identify arriving trains,” the authority said.

The PA/CIS signs now have a visual representation of the train direction. (Photo via New York City Transit)

With 110 signs now up throughout the system, the authority has been able to see what works and what doesn’t. At stations with only one type of service and island platforms — generally express stops in Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan — the signs will differentiate between uptown and Brooklyn-bound service. The release explains the upgrades:

Depending on the station configuration, signs will include direction and/or service type (express or local) information, as appropriate. So at Wall Street, only the 2 and 3 trains stop there—no locals. These are express trains traveling in different directions, so the signs only display uptown (UP) or Brooklyn (BKL). At 14th Street, the island platform is common for all trains going in the same direction so we show local or express.

The addition of the icons is just a little bit more of a good thing for customers waiting for their trains. The changes were made initially at the Wall Street, 14th Street and 34th Street Stations on the West Side IRT. Stations were chosen where the Countdown Clocks are required to display multiple services and directions. The upgrade is also being performed at Chambers Street on the No.1 as well as Franklin Ave., Nevins Street and Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. The ability to include the additional information was available in the system and deployed at no additional cost.

It’s a welcome change for a technology far too many years in the waiting. By the end of the year, all 153 stations will be equipped with the clocks, and then we wait for the B Division rollout, however that will look and whenever it will be. The next step though in the MTA’s technological renaissance will be access to real-time train location information. The countdown clocks might make our waits more tolerable, but knowing where a train is at what time would revolutionize trip planning across the city.

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Ray March 10, 2011 - 5:02 am

Nice effort. These signs clearly have capabilities that are still to be exploited.

I’m not a fan of abbreviations, they are unclear to most. I’d suggest the MTA animate the full words UPTOWN and BROOKLYN, crawling them in full caps inside the box. UP and BKL are not commonly understood by visitors and frankly, isn’t that a key audience. UPTOWN is arguably more useful than the lines terminus at Wakefield-241St.

I’d suggest the same for EXP or LCL, although that’s a bit easier to figure out. We locals know the difference all ready by number or letter.

I’m in agreement, arrows are hard to read. Animation or alternate color may help.

That said, the MTA needs to carefully monitor their styles for these electronic signs and be consistent. The R160 center overheads have become home to an inconsistent mix of animations for safety and rider courtesy announcements.. Some rising, others crawling, even some flashing. Seems off brand for a big agency that has something important to say. I’d suggest rising, as that’s what these station info signs do. Pick one consistent style.

David in NY March 10, 2011 - 1:30 pm

And what’s with the first numbers: 1,2,3 and then the subway line number? That’s confusing and redundant since the countdown minutes tell what order the trains will be coming. Duh.
And GREEN letters/numbers?! White should be the only “color” since it’s easiest to read especially for the color blind….

Nathanael March 20, 2011 - 8:58 pm

The first numbers are either the platform numbers or specify the order the trains are coming in. If it’s the latter, they should be removed. If it’s the former, the platform numbers should be clearly displayed somewhere!

gash22 March 11, 2011 - 8:15 am

EXP and LCL make sense as does UP but BKL is an odd choice for Brooklyn, I would have gone with BRK, its a more intuitive abbreviation, also I am pretty sure tha

gash22 March 11, 2011 - 8:17 am

EXP and LCL make sense as does UP but BKL is an odd choice for Brooklyn, I would have gone with BRK, or BRKL, both intuitive choices. Also I am pretty sure that BRK is what is used in FIND system inside cars.

Biebs March 10, 2011 - 7:34 am

How long does it take for a countdown clock to be turned on? I believe countdown clocks were installed at 51st st over the summer (though someone on this site said it was September), either way, they were installed 6 months ago, at the very least, and still have not been turned on! Is this a specific issue with 51st St, or is this how long it takes to turn them on after installation?

AlexB March 10, 2011 - 11:22 am

I don’t know, but I’d guess it’s more than a matter of flipping a switch. They probably have to connect it to something else and program it. It’ll probably happen soon.

digamma March 10, 2011 - 8:12 am

The L train has had countdown clocks for four years and the information still isn’t anywhere on the web. That’s amazing. How many person-hours have been spent in hot and cold stations that could have been spent at home?

Edward March 10, 2011 - 9:26 am

Still don’t understand the need to list trains in order of arrival AND give the ETA in minutes. This isn’t a racetrack, so I don’t really need to know which train is coming in first, the place and show.

Take a look at that first picture. The sign reads “1.3 EXP New Lots Ave 5 mins” Heck, I’m born-n-raised here and I had to read it twice to figure it out; I can only imagine some poor tourist looking for the 1.3 train. And seriously, does an out-of-towner have any idea that New Lots is in Brooklyn? Heck, there are people who’ve lived in NYC for 10 years and don’t know that!

Instead, how about this: “3 EXPRESS TO BROOKLYN 5 MINS”? Simple and easy is best.

Phil March 10, 2011 - 10:01 am

I didn’t get it at first as well, but I believe that it’s because the second line cycles between the three following trains, so the first number clarifies that the next train may not be in 20min, it just happens to be the second listed for those 5 seconds.

Todd March 10, 2011 - 11:02 am

Agree completely. I understand the reasoning for the first number before the train line number, but I think the confusion and unreadability it creates nullifies its usefulness. Also, how many in the station cares about a train arriving in 20 minutes if there’s a train on the same line arriving in 5 minutes? They need to get rid of that first number and just have the next train(s) to arrive shown on the sign with the wait times. Sometimes simple clarity is all you need.

Jay March 10, 2011 - 9:30 am

the countdown clocks are fantastic!

While they are stll a work in progress and haven’t even been rolled out 100%; they already provide major benefits that might even be unintended.

-they help keep trains on time , especially during rush hour, you dont go into the local, then everyone holds the doors when the express comes in and vice versa. Peple just wait semi-patiently for the right train.
-having people not running up and down to catch trains or switch from the express to local will save alot of $$$ from slips and falls. I’m talking about you , Penn Station. Riders can see which train is next and make their choice.
-At crowded stations, riders can decide to what for the next train instead of everyone squeezing on and the conductor telling you there is a train right behind. I am taking about you , 6 train.
When you are waiting for someone , you know when the next trains arrive.
-They havent been turned on at TS yet, but clocks will have a major effect on the efficiency and safety at this station, even with bugs and quirks. I am talking about you, staircase going to the downtown n,Q,R train.

chemster March 10, 2011 - 11:05 am

There’s still a bit of work to be done at Penn Station: There’s one entrance where the big sign still just says “LCL” and “EXP” (before you go up the stairs to the platform); I’d really rather see the UP or BKL designation there, so I can decide whether it’s worth my while to go over to the local track, or if I should try the express.) Strangely enough, on the actual platform, it designates UP or BKL, when I don’t really care – I know what side my train is on, and at that point I usually don’t feel like running across to the local platform even if I see a train coming in there.

BrooklynBus March 10, 2011 - 10:37 am

I agree with you about Grand Army Plaza, but doesn’t putting both directions on one sign cut the number of signs needed in half at such stations and I’m assuming cost was a factor?

Adam March 10, 2011 - 11:18 am

I wish they kept them simple, the way Edward suggested would be a great improvement. But they do their job reasonably well and I’m thankful we have any signs at all.

But even more than that, I wish they wouldn’t lie in their info-posters in the trains. They say, referring to the signs, that you can know what trains are coming, and when, BEFORE you pay your fare. This is a lie. I have not been to a station yet where the countdown signs are present – or even visible – before you get into the platform area, after you’ve paid your fare. It’s fine if they’re not going to do that, but it’d be nice if they’d refrain from lying about it.

Benjamin Kabak March 10, 2011 - 11:19 am

The vast majority of IRT stations have countdown clocks that are visible before you pay the fare. I don’t think Wall St. does, but most of the rest do.

Alon Levy March 10, 2011 - 11:26 am

At major local/express transfer stations, they should also have clocks visible from the trains. When my train enters 96th, I want to know whether I stay on the local or switch.

Adam Ernst March 10, 2011 - 11:20 am

It would make more sense to just have the Uptown/Downtown/Brooklyn designation, with the actual destination secondary–instead of the other way around. e.g.:

3. 2 UPTOWN (241)

or, for Wall St

2. 2 UPTOWN (241)

Anonymoose March 10, 2011 - 4:46 pm

The problem is multiple destinations in the same direction (A to Lefferts vs Far Rockaway, 5 to Nereid Av or Eastchester, etc..)

Nathanael March 20, 2011 - 9:02 pm

That’s still the right order to list things in though. First the “intermediate” location (Brooklyn), then the final destination (Lefferts). More people care about the “intermediate” location than care which branch it’s headed for.

SEAN March 10, 2011 - 12:18 pm

Ever here of listening to the anouncements? It’s the same as what is displayed on the screen.

David in NY March 10, 2011 - 1:32 pm

I don’t understand indifferent gibberish.

Erik March 10, 2011 - 2:13 pm

The idea of countdown clocks is great, but given the current switching system and the cost to implement (and how frequently the ones on the L are already down), it’s not worth it.

We should all try signing up for the “Subway Arrival” App, which is using smartphones as a crowd-sourced mechanism to achieve this goal. Yes, there are those that don’t have smart phones today, but in a few years that is all you will be able to purchase (before these countdown clocks are even all installed!) Yes, there will be a population of elderly who never adopt, but I think this is one are where we can let the margins be.

Crowd source the data. Publish it online. Let people tear into APIs.

The MTA should run the trains on time to product the data. There are enough open source developers to deal with consuming the data.

Benjamin Kabak March 10, 2011 - 2:16 pm

The idea of countdown clocks is great, but given the current switching system and the cost to implement (and how frequently the ones on the L are already down), it’s not worth it.

This is sort of a silly blanket statement to make considering how the countdown clocks are an ancillary benefit of an internal MTA effort to upgrade its communications system. As two MTA folks explained this past weekend at Transportation Camp, the PA/CIS system can handle the complexities of the switching system, and the authority is spending the money on necessary upgrades for the communications network anyway. Your complaints about whether or not the countdown clocks are “worth it” should be framed by that knowledge.

AK March 10, 2011 - 5:17 pm

I agree with Erik re: cost. As we’ve discussed here before, the cost of the clocks ALONE (independent and in addition to the needed structural improvements to the communications/signalling system) is over $100 million.

Alon Levy March 10, 2011 - 5:41 pm

$100 million is still amazingly cost-effective. Amortized over 20 years, with further benefits free, it’s about $0.66 per hour saved of perceived travel time. To get the highest cost-effectiveness rate from the FTA, the limit is $11.50, and few new rail projects meet it.

The calculation is as follows: according to the MTA ridership model, a minute spent waiting is perceived to count 1.75 times as much as a minute spent in motion. Total IRT ridership is about 40% of total system ridership. Let’s say that countdown clocks cut the transfer penalty factor to 1.5, and that average IRT passenger headway is 6 minutes, including transfers. Then it provides average perceived savings of 45 seconds per trip to about 600,000,000 annual trips, i.e. a total of 150 million hours over 20 years.

AK March 10, 2011 - 10:48 pm

This is all great and I’m glad someone is doing the analysis, but I am generally unwilling to craft social policy around “perceived savings.” I care about getting someone from A to B as quickly as possible, not as quickly as the passenger THINKS (even though I acknowledge that clocks have other benefits– I’ve never denied that). But hey, that’s just me.

Alon Levy March 11, 2011 - 11:53 am

If you don’t care about perceived savings, there are other policies that could work – for example, dropping one-seat rides. The transfer penalty is strictly speaking entirely perceived, too.

Nathanael March 20, 2011 - 9:03 pm

The countdown clocks cause people to complain less about waiting.

Increased customer satisfaction should eventually be measurable in fewer complaints, higher funding, etc….

Bruce March 10, 2011 - 2:44 pm

The “old” electronic signs used to display the current time. Couldn’t the new signs cycle through & show the current time once a minute? In addition to seeing how many more minutes I have to wait for the next train, I could then also tell how late I already am.

Joe Steindam March 10, 2011 - 8:35 pm

Well that’s the benefit of most IRT trains being newer stock and having clocks inside the car. True, it shouldn’t be difficult for the new countdown clocks to add a time clock as well. These clocks seem flexible enough that this feature can be added.

Quinn Hue March 10, 2011 - 9:27 pm

They do.

jay April 11, 2011 - 10:00 pm

So when are the countdown clocks going to be in use on the 2 and 5 line from 149 st grand concourse – E 180 st cause they have been already installed over their? Also when are they gonna actual build and install the countdown clock on the 2 line from E 180 st – 241 st , and on the 5 line from E 180 st – Dyre Av cause they have it on the 1, 4 and 6 line but not on the 2 and 5 line .

chris April 20, 2011 - 9:51 pm

they will be on sometime this summer, the clocks need too run with ATS and its not done on the WPR lines just yet. 3rd ave 149th should be working soon because 149th gg is already online.

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