Home Service Advisories Report: Service Diversion communication leaves much to be desired

Report: Service Diversion communication leaves much to be desired

by Benjamin Kabak
In a report, the New York City Transit Riders Council has proposed an overhaul of MTA signs announcing service diversions.

In a report, the New York City Transit Riders Council has proposed an overhaul of MTA signs announcing service diversions.

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.

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Abba August 12, 2014 - 12:42 am

A little unrelated but MTA subway time tonight dosent have any info tonight whatsoever about the 2 train it seems.At least at Franklin ave.

Nyland8 August 12, 2014 - 6:06 am

I just ran into a fascinating new – at least new for me – poor communication example while switching trains at the Yankee Stadium station. Around noontime yesterday, I took a northbound D Train and attempted to switch to a northbound 4 train. So … up the stairs to the large mezzanine, then over to the long escalator that moves people from the subway to the elevated line, then around the corner to the stairs … which are then blocked off with a tape and a sign announcing that there would be no northbound 4 service for the next few hours.


It was a printed sign, so the outage was planned.

A) There should have been announcements on the D telling customers to stay on that train up the Grand Concourse because there would be no available 4 Train alternate along Jerome Avenue.

B) Whatever signage was implemented, people should not have had to ascend all the way to the elevated mezzanine before finding out they must go all the way back down from whence they came, only to wait for another train like the one they just got off.

Ideally, there should have been an MTA employee on the lower mezzanine level simply announcing to anyone emerging from the B/D Line that there was no northbound 4 Train service at that time. Instead there was a small parade of people who, like me, exited their D Train, made the trek almost to the top, only to be turned around and sent back down below ground. It added about 12 unnecessary minutes to my trip.

Here was a case where the location of the sign, not the signage itself, was the weak link in the communications. And, needless to say, northbound D Train riders should never have thought to disembark from that train to begin with.

Michael August 12, 2014 - 12:23 pm

I suppose my statement is an example of a communication problem that the Riders Council hopes to

In the previous message, it is said that “there is no uptown service at 161st Street”, and that there was a sign and tape across the entrance.

Simply by that description I’m left wondering if a) the #4 train was simply running express where a trip downtown 1 stop to 149th Street-Grand Concourse would allow a person to ride an uptown train that by-passed some local stops, or b) the entire #4 line is shut down requiring riders to use either the D-train or buses (or a combination).

The provision of alternatives is very important in my view. Just saying “No service here” – is often just not helpful enough!


As a general thought, the “Planned Service Changes” board is great when one wants to get a overall view of the upcoming changes. It can be “information busy” at times, but it refers to a complicated subway system. Line specific signage where it is needed and most helpful & instantly informative on lines/stations directly affected by the outage is needed and required in my view.

There are several improvements as the Riders Council report suggests. At the Astor Place station recently I saw the large screen interactive panels that hope to display information about the subways and changes. I’m hoping it is possible to use such displays where there are changes at those direct stations. While it would be costly to such panels at every station – several goals could be accomplished at the same time.



Spiderpig August 12, 2014 - 9:49 am

Unfortunately, that map means nothing without reading the text unless it is positioned in the direction of travel. Using a map like FASTRACK where it shows an inset of the actual map where service is affected would be more effective.

Keith Williams August 12, 2014 - 10:20 am

Here’s an example I threw together in about 5 minutes. I’m sure the MTA, with access to the original file, could do a much better job

In case it won’t allow me to embed, here’s the original image

Ivan August 12, 2014 - 10:30 am

I confess my ignorance of the geography near the termini of many subway lines. So when I see a sign saying “service changes between station X and station Y”, and I have no idea where X and Y are, I’m always left wondering whether I’m affected or not. A map would definitely help. Or even saying “between X and Y in borough Z”.

Simon August 12, 2014 - 11:17 am

The report is interesting, but I don’t like their proposed signs any better. The “before” and “after” signs in the report are not even for a similar service change. The calendar, while it might help some people, takes up WAY too much space.

I’ve always found it best to plan ahead by looking online rather than depending on paper signs. Cancellations are still a problem, and I can see how it would be a problem for people without internet access.

By the way, why do you say that the MTA has expanded the Weekender to weekdays? I’ve seen ads on the subway saying “The Weekender is now 24/7” but it definitely does not display anything other than weekend service changes.

sonicboy678 August 12, 2014 - 12:45 pm

That’s because the Weekender is now accessible at a moment’s notice instead of having to wait until Friday rolls around.

Lance August 12, 2014 - 9:30 pm

But it’s been like that for a while now. You could type in mta.info/weekender and it popped up regardless of what day of the week it is. I seem to recall doing this as far back as mid-to-late 2012, so this isn’t a recent development.

Simon August 13, 2014 - 8:08 am


Matthias August 12, 2014 - 2:45 pm

Not to mention that “No Bronx-bound service” makes no sense in the Bronx and “assitance” is misspelled. Even the ‘improvement’ leaves much to be desired.

Clarke August 12, 2014 - 11:45 am

I still miss the days of the Subway Weekender blog…easy-to-use map which you could use to plan a trip and see if there were any issues along the way. MTA’s Weekender remains nearly useless for me…you can see your route, but then you still have to process the described service changes.

EN August 12, 2014 - 12:23 pm Reply
Abba August 12, 2014 - 12:58 pm

Wow is this the same guy that did that old site

Lance August 12, 2014 - 9:12 pm

Nope, it’s me from NYCTF. I took over posting the weekly service maps after Shawn Lynch (the creator of the original Subway Weekender) decided to stop making the maps sometime in mid-2012.

There needs to be a map depicting actual service, or at the very least, actual planned service, for the time in question. Riders don’t need a bunch of blinking dots on a map that literally translates into anything from a local/express run to absolutely no service at all.

Nathanael August 17, 2014 - 6:40 am

The MTA should have hired Shawn Lynch.

Or you.

Clarke August 12, 2014 - 3:19 pm

I was aware of that, but wasn’t sure it was still running (I feel like there were a few weeks missed a long long time ago and I kind of gave up on it). Good to know!

sonicboy678 August 12, 2014 - 12:46 pm

That makes it sound more like you’re simply too lazy to look at the available maps (including the one for the Weekender, which shows affected routes and stations with flashing dots).

Clarke August 12, 2014 - 3:17 pm

As stated, the Weekender map does show affected routes and stations with flashing dots…but not exactly how the route is affected, without instead having to read and digest information (and then figure out if that means that, perhaps, there is no service in the desired direction at that station). This isn’t laziness, it’s poor presentation of information. You really think that the MTA’s flashing dots are more informative than a map that changes to reflect the current state of service?

Spendmor Wastemor August 12, 2014 - 11:45 pm

Maybe the answer is a volunteer effort. There are probably some design – savvy transit buffs who would be happy to maintain a website/write mobile apps with tourist-readable service change notices. They could also do design for the signs in exchange for a credit tag along the lines of “designed by MyRadSkillzCo”. I’d sell that as being small biz friendly.

MTA would still have to print and place the signs, obv.

An even better fix would be to fully shut lines or parts of lines one week per year and do the *&%@ jobs right, rather than futzing around in 4 hour windows in which about 90 minutes worth of work will get done. That is just an insane way to do construction work.

It could even be done with service somewhat intact: shut down a 2 mile stretch in one direction, run trains on the middle track, put up a temp barrier and positive train blockouts so the workers can’t get an arm caught in a passing middle track train etc. Work in 3 shifts to there equipment stays in place, the job is then handed off rather than started and stopped. Have the work done to a better standard, instead of pouring concrete that starts crumbling 3 days later and laying rails that are a little out of line after the 1st train rolls.

Announce the disruption months in advance, and explain that it replaces months worth of part-day detours.

Simon August 13, 2014 - 8:12 am

What you’re describing sounds like the new “Fastrack” and “Fix and Fortify” ways of doing work, and I suspect it will become the norm (although not necessary for smaller jobs where a quick express run is needed to fix a cable somewhere).

tacony August 13, 2014 - 12:06 pm

To me a fatal flaw is the fact that the MTA is very concerned with reporting that certain stations are being skipped due to work but not at all concerned with reporting that work will increase travel times otherwise due to congestion on the open track or other general issues. If a train isn’t running I hear about it all weekend as I crawl along the local track of what would otherwise be a speedy express trip. Work often affects travel beyond the stations that are directly feeling the lack of service. If my origin and destination stations are still open but it’ll take me twice as long to get there that’s an issue I need to plan ahead for, but it can often be tough to figure that out ahead of time.

Michael August 13, 2014 - 1:55 pm

Voters do not like when subway stations are closed without notice, they will right letters to political folk, etc. It is the “Why didn’t you tell us!” response and demands from the public – to a public agency that requires an immediate correct response.

Riders simply do not like waiting at a subway platform and there is no service, and especially when there is no notification.

In some parts of NYC the distances between stations can make it difficult to just “walk to the next station” – as well as adding to the amount of commuting time. Thus there have been legal requirements put in place to announce the changes in service at transit stations. Since the MTA often PLANS to close or reduce at stations that are under repair – not notifying the public is seen as MUCH WORSE. So there is more effort announcing station service changes.

The reasoning goes that if the public is alerted to service changes at particular stations – they can modify their behavior – leave earlier, take a different route if available, use the shuttle buses if provided, “go backward to go forward”, etc. Thus puts the onus on the riding public since they have been notified.



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