The consistency of announcements

I just got back from a trip to London after 5 years break. The city amazes me with its capacity in reinventing itself and looks more dynamic than ever. Underground stations are being rehabilitated, road work noise is everywhere, new buildings seem to emerge from every corner of the city (how do they still find space to build new things? Apparently, this city isn't afraid in demolishing the old bricks). In one word, this city, just never stops! New York you've got serious competition here!

But what would London be without its famous tube! It is always a pleasant surprise although a majority would complain about public transportation (hey it's an easy rant) but I personally love it. I love how consistent the system is even when it's on strike and I did live that experience a whole week one time.

Subway trains announce on every stop, what line you are onto, what stop you are currently at, what stop is coming up next and to mind the gap when you should mind the gap! It's a consistent flow of information that keeps every traveler informed no matter if he/she's a local or in transit. The voice is sometimes automated but more often than not you'll find a human voice with a megaphone-saturated tone giving the information or explaining the disruptions.

The flow of information is consistent, it is there. It would be missed if it weren't there. Why wouldn't it be anyway? I can imagine it is not that difficult to automate the system. It surely is very unnerving if a conductor had to repeat his/her path all through his/her work shift. But this is why automation is here. One sensor, one trigger, one message, easy peasy.

Back to Paris, I could feel the shift. There was no one telling users to mind the gap, not even in the most conservative French language! Consistency wasn't there. Some metro lines do have automated stops messages or light indicators telling travelers where they are and what's the next stop. But sometimes none of this information is active. Why? What's the cost of turning this system on? Why is it ok not to give the information that could be offered just with a flip of a switch?

Is the system assuming that most travelers do not need the information and could easily live without it? In the end most people are locals right? They'll find their way! Hmm, wrong. no matter if you're a hardcore local or a passing by traveler, the information is relevant. It can give you with a glimpse of an eye or just a quick message an ETA. Your focus would be on enjoying the ride and not stress out that you'll miss the next exit because of a lack of attention. What if there was a unified way to tell these types of announcements, current stop, next stops, line changes, landmark exits, just like in the tube?

But let's take the commute information a level higher. What if there was a possibility for travelers to have a big picture on the whole public transportation system from any station. What if disruptions or good service weren't only closed to the line in question. What if the whole public transportation system was an ecosystem, a living and dynamic organism with its ups and downs with travelers an essential part of the play. These systems are the pillars of the smart cities of today and tomorrow.

A traveler enters the system, the system generates data that generates statistics which in turn give a feedback to the traveler on his/her usage and on the best time to leave to get from point A to point B. This system can feedback into databases but also smartphone applications.

Imagine you're traveling with a change from a line to the other to be made. Your journey starts smoothly but what you didn't know is that an incident occurred on one of the stations on the next line you're taking. In today's system, you'll find the disruption once you've changed lines and while standing on the platform trying to find another route. But with a smart and consistent system, the network will alert you (feedback loop) and route you towards a more efficient path to be on time.

Consistency in such systems is crucial. Systems become more human and more "caring" when giving feedback to its users. These travelers will feel in control and not just waiting for their stop to pop up. No one nagged of having too much information (or did they?). By giving information, systems take information too. They study traveling patterns, travelers flows in and out of the station, corridors will feel less jammed with confused travelers not knowing which way to exit. Less confusion equals less energy waisted while the train is parked at its stop waiting for the hesitant traveler to get on board or not.

Public transportations are living organisms and complex systems with consistency as its rhythm.

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