Home View from Underground For customers, the sign’s the thing

For customers, the sign’s the thing

by Benjamin Kabak

Signs as clear and as informative as this one are rare throughout the subway system. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The MTA has long had a tough relationship with signs. It has struggled over the years to present Weekend Service Changes in a graphically-pleasing yet easy-to-read format, and it recently rebranded its house ads to better promote system-wide improvements. Now, its signage is again coming under question as construction sites around the city remain shrouded in mystery.

The problem is one of explication and explanation. At too many sites around the city, the MTA doesn’t adequately explain what work they’re doing, how long construction will last and what the final outcome will be. Signs are often haphazardly hung in odd places and feature long-gone completion dates with no nod to reality. In fact, signs I noticed this week at the 7th Ave. stop in Midtown claim that work is being done to improve service along the E/V route. The V, of course, hasn’t run since last June.

Andrew Grossman, the Wall Street Journal’s transit writer, tackled the issue of signs earlier this week. He writes:

Tunneling for the first phase of the Second Avenue subway will be finished by summer. Or possibly next spring. Much of the 96th Street subway station being built along the line will wrap up this summer, too. Or maybe winter 2013.

That’s the conflicting guidance on signs posted along the massive construction zone on Manhattan’s East Side. And confusing as they may be, they offer more details than riders and pedestrians get at many other Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects…

The MTA has made efforts to improve its subway communication. Last year, the agency started using a new system of clearer, centrally located signs listing service changes. Sometimes, when staircases are closed, paper signs tell people why they’re closed and when they’ll reopen. New screens revealing the wait for an approaching train got high marks when the authority surveyed riders last year.

The authority is starting to post some newly designed construction signs that are “uniform and provide consistent information,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said on Tuesday. On projects funded with federal stimulus money, the agency displays signs noting the federal government’s role—though some completion dates are no longer accurate. And it also requires contractors to post notices when station stairways and entrances are closed.

Of course, problems creep up when weeks fly by. Elevators are often shuttered long past the dates promised on the signs, and those who have worked with the MTA recognize the challenge. “I think for these big agencies, they’ve got a lot on their plate—to their credit perhaps,” David Gibson, a one-time MTA consultant on signage, said. “You can get very involved in the perspective of the project people, the construction people, and you kind of forget that this is all about customers. It takes a rigorous concern for customers to get this stuff right.”

The customers — those folks who need the system to work — are often left in the dark. “It seems like it’s never-ending,” a woman attempting to navigate Fulton Street said to The Journal. “They should post some signs somewhere…the extent of it and how long, so people don’t wonder.”

Ultimately, as Gibson notes, this is about the passenger, and it’s about communicating effectively with the passenger. Historically, the MTA has struggled to do that. It’s true that the system is vast and construction projects often do not wrap when promised. But as capital work continues, the MTA should make sure those who have only a passing interest in what goes on underground and care more about getting from Point A to Point B are well informed. It is, after all, all about the customer.

You may also like


Chicken Underwear April 7, 2011 - 2:18 pm

I saw that sign today.

Rehab is going to seem endless in a system that is 100 years old and has to run (kinda) 24/7. But I got issues with maintenance.


Edward April 7, 2011 - 2:35 pm

Yowza, those pics tell quite the story. Filthy, filthy, filthy, and that douche parking on the sidewalk makes one want to throw a brick thru his window. If any confirmation is needed that the MTA, in the end, just doesn’t care about its riders, your link is it.

Benjamin Kabak April 7, 2011 - 2:36 pm

Yah. That is a fantastic post.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 4:11 pm

“How about fixing the fucking door. It has been broken for 2 weeks.”

Caused an LOL for some reason.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 4:39 pm

We should take the dead birds, skeletal remains and syringes and put them in a box and dump them in the lobby of 2 Broadway where the MTA has it super-luxurious offices. A total disgrace.

Chicken Underwear April 7, 2011 - 9:56 pm

The bird was alive and kincking

Chicken Underwear April 7, 2011 - 9:56 pm


Leftovers: Apps, station maintenance, service advisories :: Second Ave. Sagas April 8, 2011 - 6:22 pm

[…] posted by SAS commenter Chicken Underwear at his own blog. Picking up on the theme of inadequate signage, the post looks at the very sorry state of the MTA’s physical plant. Doors remain broken for […]

MTA Trashes Wordy Old Garbage Cans | www.greenerliving.co.za April 21, 2011 - 3:04 pm

[…] has been doing a lot of toying with its signage, from the new service announcements to its overall graphics redesign. And honestly? We’re kind of digging the simplified look (though we don’t want to go […]


Leave a Comment