Small interventions: The Subway

This is the first in a series of posts about possible interventions in the urban landscape. Each will be followed by my best efforts to actually test and learn from the ideas. Please follow along!

After expending a lot of mental energy in finishing my MFA Interaction Design thesis project I’ve found that I’m casting about for new challenges. One of the most important things I learned at SVA is the practice of interrogating everything that we encounter on a daily basis in hopes of improving our experiences, and by extension the experiences of others.

Lately I’ve been staring at the digital signage in the New York subway system. Here’s what it looks like on newer trains in the fleet:

The information on this screen is very helpful. It cycles through the following things:

  • Final destination
  • Next stop
  • Current time
  • System-wide notices or reminders (i.e. random bag checks and the like)
  • Current train line

When I moved to New York, I was returning after 3.5 years living in Barcelona. Barcelona’s a lovely city for many reasons, one of which is its excellent public transportation system. For example, here’s a picture of a subway car interior (pardon the stock photography, it’s the best I could find):

Notice anything different from the picture from NYC?

Here, this should help:

Like the NYC subway, Barcelona’s subway cars open on one side or the other depending on the station. Those three little arrows show on which side the doors will open at the upcoming station.

It’s a subtle difference in signage, but I found that it allowed for efficient disembarkation; as the train neared the upcoming station, many passengers would glance at the arrows and move towards the doors on that side of the train. People standing in the way would sense this shift and move away from the doors, which allowed for quicker egress and entry. Simple, right?

As a 2-year New Yorker, I have the stops on the F (and their corresponding sides) pretty well memorized. However, for many visitors or for locals who are on an unfamiliar train it can be disorienting and frustrating not knowing where to stand. Granted, some don’t care about this sort of thing, but most of us do; we don’t like to be in the way, we like to be informed, and we like to get to our destination as quickly as possible.

Modern NYC subway cars lack the extra screens that would permit an exact copy of the system in Barcelona. However, they do have a wide, multi-color LCD screen that can be changed.

As such, I propose a small intervention. With a tweak in the display, we could show passengers the same information seen in Barcelona.


Version A:

Version B:

All variations:

Here are a couple mockups, in situ:

Now, the subway doesn’t exactly come with a “user manual” for each rider, so it might seem important to communicate this change to passengers. This would be easy enough with a small marketing campaign but I think that for anybody who’s attentive and alert the pattern of arrows + doors opening would become clear quickly. That’s how it works in Barcelona.

If you like this idea, please share it (here’s a link: I was heavily inspired by my classmate Nikki’s work on “To Park or Not to Park.” I was also (obviously) inspired by Barcelona’s excellent transportation system. Think of this as an homage, or a cross-cultural exchange.

I believe that this small intervention could lead to significant improvements in boarding times, which would reduce strain on an already overtaxed transportation system. By providing more and clearer information to the millions of passengers who take the subway each day, we could provide a more polite and efficient ride for all.

Stand clear of the closing doors, please!

Originally published at on July 8, 2015.

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