Service Changes, But Where?

[Photo: ryanbudhu/Flickr]

A new design for service change notices is needed to improve communications from the MBTA

Yet another daily struggle straphangers encounter is that of finding information about service changes. As transit systems age and regular (and irregular) repairs must be conducted, service will occasionally be rerouted to accommodate those repairs. Most transit agencies choose to do these repairs on the weekends when service disruptions will affect as few riders as possible.

Many agencies are increasing their use of the various web-based channels to alert riders of delays and service changes to take advantage of the proliferation of Internet-connected phones. This is great for alerting riders to impending delays, but not for our main issue here with informing riders about long-term service changes. RSS feeds, text messages, and tweets are all media designed to be consumed at the moment and have little 'information persistence'. In addition, these are all opt-in channels that requires riders use these additional technologies. Agencies still need a lowest common denominator to inform passengers.

The MBTA's web site comes pretty close to this lowest common denominator. Service Alerts and Service Advisories are both available at the web site. However, the design of the MBTA web site lends more attention to Alerts and doesn't really leverage Advisories. This is an issue since events related to 'Advisories' will affect riders for a considerably longer time than that disabled train on the Green Line causing 15 to 20 minute delays. Further, riders who choose to not opt-in to the MBTA's active service alerts systems (text message, RSS, and email - tweets about delays are generated based on the RSS feed but not associated with the MBTA) must check the web site for this information.

Yet lower common denominators of service alerts and 'advisories' are in-station announcements over station PA systems, LED signboards, and printed media. PA systems and LED signboards are dynamic, but that nature again makes it better suited to convey up-to-the minute information about the system and weaker at reminding riders about upcoming service changes. This brings us back to the core issue about service 'advisories' about changes in regular service.

Print, depending on where it's placed and how its distributed, is the absolute common denominator. It's persistent and the information is in context. But even here, design dictates how effective important information is leveraged.

Original Red Line Service Advisory
Original Red Line Service Advisory

One Wednesday morning I happened to notice this paper on the floor of my Red Line train.

I had picked up the paper in my frustration with other riders leaving their newspapers and inserts on the floor, thinking it was just more trash someone had managed to leave on the train in the hour since the T had started running that day. It took me two visual scans of the page and then a full read through to glean from the mammoth essay what the MBTA was trying to tell me. Even then, the formatting of the document lent itself more to that of an unofficial leaflet I'd sooner find on an elementary school bulletin board than in a transit system.

Then again, experiences with MBTA printed advisory media has led me to believe no one in Communications has any design experience or that there's actually no one obligated to distilling content for the public.

I immediately began designing a format for printed service change advisories after I made a quick transfer at Park Street, out of a habit of redesigning communications material that does anything but communicate and replace it with my own. In my design process, I was driven by the fact that from afar, I couldn't determine what the original flier was about, so I made prominent the core information that one would need to get and tried to do so in a way that would permit one to absorb this information even with a quick five second glance.

Revised Red Line Service Change Notice
Revised Red Line Service Change Notice

Without going too much into detail about this design (I'll probably do that at my personal blog in a companion post), the essential content has been distilled into a high-contrast header from which the rest of the page hangs and four full sentences detailing the actual nature of the service change. At the bottom, a footer more fitting of a transit agency where there was none. What was once seven long, verbose, and repetitive sentences is now a page that succinctly and conspicuously communicates with riders and looks official enough to have come off the desk of MBTA CEO Jeffrey B. Mullan. I promptly attached this in an email to the top brass with the intent of posting hundreds of these throughout the subway after work.

In a surprisingly prompt email exchange with MBTA Communications Director Joe Pesaturo, Deputy Director of Subway Operations Brian Dwyer, and Red Line Chief of Operations John Hynes, who still hasn't gotten back to me about this, it turns out that 'seat drops' like this are one of the few ways in which the MBTA communicates with riders in the trains themselves. Based on experience with seat drops, they tend to end up on the floor, content side down in the same way that I had fortuitously happened upon this leaflet. What's more, two seat drops on the floor or on a seat per car cannot possibly communicate with the whole captive audience of a subway car.

To be fair, Mr. Dwyer did acknowledge the other formats of communication the MBTA uses, but we've already explored how even if the MBTA re-designed those channels to better communicate Advisories that it would still be limited to the audience that opts-in and regularly checks the web site and limited in the capacity of their respective formats. How does one make an Advisory remain persistent in an RSS feed, audio announcements, or LED sign board notices without re-broadcasting ad nauseam?

It also turns out that MBTA has policy that bars...themselves...'from covering windows on any of [the] rolling stock.' In New York City, the MTA regularly places their service advisory posters in the windows of rollingstock that regularly run the services that are affected by their respective service diversions, which are frequent on weekends with one of the oldest subway systems in the country. Despite the amount of confusion (likely due to the magnitude and quantity of service changes on any given weekend), information is made readily available to riders in every car and on most every support pylon at every affected station on the system. If you don't know about a service change, it's your own fault.

Service changes are rare at the MBTA and the system isn't nearly as complex as that of New York City's, but that doesn't mean the MBTA shouldn't put more effort into organizing, distilling, and designing passenger communications. Web technologies, station announcements, and scrolling LED message boards are not substitutes for always-on, persistent print media that is properly posted on station platforms and inside of trains. Details like this make all the difference in the relationship between the MBTA and its ridership. Riders should demand better advisories about diversions now that the MBTA has made up-to-the minute alerts about transient delays easily accessible and the MBTA should strive to make communications with riders more effective because transit is on the line.

Deputy Director of Subway Operations