When and where: Back to basics for public transport

The best public transit experiences provide riders with wayfinding and signaling which makes everyone, from tourist to commuter, able to navigate the system like a pro. People who are new can easily understand which train to catch, where to get on, when to transfer and when to get off. Those who ride it every day are able to relax, focus on entertainment or reading, and when their stop is reached, gracefully exit without confusion.

Every morning I ride the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train from Berkeley to San Francisco. When I was new to BART, I spent my commute worrying that I was getting on the wrong train or missing my transfer. Now that I’m a regular, I stress about running to catch my train, and wonder whether I should try to cram myself into the packed car or wait for the next one which will have space.

There are many clever solutions that would rely on location-aware smart phones, but with over 30 miles of tunnels, cell signal is unreliable, if available at all. There are apps such as iBart Live which give riders access to live BART schedules on mobile devices. When these work, some of the trouble catching the right train and transferring is alleviated. When they don’t, because there is no signal or because the data is inaccurate, riders feel stranded and annoyed. At some point, the telecom infrastructure will be reliable enough to provide consistent, good information; but even then, there’s will be more to be done to make things straightforward and easy for riders.

Outside the station

Riders have no visibility into the live train schedule until they reach the platform. Often this means running down the escalator as soon as you realize the train with the open doors is YOUR train, only to have the doors close before you can reach them.

On the outside there is no way to know which train is approaching the station

Give a heads-up to people before they enter the station. Knowing that my train is due in one minute I’d rush sooner and be able to make my train. Knowing that that the train I hear isn’t mine would allow me to step aside to let those who are tying to catch it move ahead.

Once inside, on the platform, when the tracks are empty

BART relies on two methods to help people figure out what trains to board, when to transfer and when to exit. Scrolling status boards are mounted above the platform, perpendicular to the track looping through a list the trains approaching the station.

Scrolling schedules are hard to track and read

Station public announcements deliver audio versions of the same information. Both of these intersperse the list of trains with information about BART, public safety warnings, and occasionally information about events.

The scrolling status boards are frustrating. If you miss the schedule, you are forced to stand staring at the board, reading irrelevant messages as they scroll by, waiting until the schedule list appears again.

trivial information
Schedules are interspersed with public safety warnings and other non-critical information

Dedicate the status board to the schedule. It is reassuring to look up and see how many minutes until my train arrives.

I can access the information at a glance when I want to and go back to reading my book. Don’t make me wait while you deliver more trivial information.

Which train do I get on?

When a train stops in the station the loop stops and is replaced by the destination of the train. This remains until the train starts moving out of the station when the loop resumes again.

sf bound

Clarify the distinction between line and destination. With 104 miles of track, radiating out in 5 different directions, through 26 cities at 43 stations, most riders probably couldn’t find the terminus stations, or the towns in which they are located on a map. BART uses the terminus station name to identify the train, and when schedules call for a shorter run, the terminus station changes, as does the identification of the train. Pittsburg/Baypoint becomes Concord, Fremont becomes Hayward. This is really useful to those who usually ride past this point, but for the rest of us the change in name is just plain confusing.


Including the train line with the terminus would clear things up. Pittsburg/Baypoint and Concord are on the same line. Color is an easy way to “brand” a line, people can just look for the the color of the line. But because some people are color blind, add a specific letter designation to the color to make sure everyone can easily distinguish between lines. For those who are transferring in Oakland, all we need to know is take any train displaying orange or just look for the C-line.

When the train arrives

When a train arrives it’s important to know where it’s headed. Display the destination, but add information about the next opportunity to catch a train on this line.


A quick glance will help me decide if I need to cram into the crowded car, or if I can wait for the next train that is just a few minutes away. Seeing what my options are allows me to make more informed decisions.

Once on the train there are no visual cues to the destination of the train. There are no visual indicators what the next station is, or when to transfer.

getting on
Inside the car there are no easy visual cues to track trip progress

Each car has a single static wall mounted map on a train. During commute times the map is often obscured from view, because people crowd near the doors.

All stop and transfer announcements are delivered by the train operator using the public address system. BART trains are incredibly loud spaces, screeching around corners, in concrete tunnels that echo the sounds of the wheels right back into the cars. Many riders wear ear-plugs or wear headphones to drown out the sound. It’s easy to miss the announcements with things in your ears.

If you are not paying attention it is easy to loose track of the stops, and there is no easy way to visually reorient. Most underground stations have similar plain architecture, frustrating easy visual identification.

hard to see
The brightly lit interior makes the station sign hard to read, its height makes it impossible to see while standing

Station identification signage which is readable through the dark windows is either poorly placed or non-existent. Many riders will stick their heads out the door reading from the station status boards to verify which station they are in.

Where do I transfer?

Sometimes the most time efficient route is to take one line and transfer to another. Certain stations are designated transfer points, but it takes time to learn.


Help new riders by alerting them to transfer points as the train approaches the station.
Provide in-car alerts about which transfers can be made at the upcoming station.

When do I get off?

Most BART cars have maps, but at commute time it may be impossible to get to the map, or even view it through the crowd of people who are standing in front of it. London’s Underground solves the problem with cars dedicated to the particular line. Each car has a “map” of the line with station names above each door. Moscow’s Metro train system improves on the idea, including LEDs that indicate which stations remain to be visited. Get rid of the huge system-wide maps. Borrow from the London Underground but instead of printed placards with LEDs, use the screen that displays the station name. Display line maps and progress along the route. Indicate the direction of travel to assist with quick glance checks of the display.

Display the name of the upcoming station while the train is moving.

Make it clear which station the car is pulling into. When travelling underground, most stations look more or less the same. Some lines of the Paris metro line have visually distinct architecture, making it easier to distinguish between stations. This is helpful for regular riders, but no so much for newbies or tourists. Someone who is less familiar with the route needs to know the name of the station. Station names are most useful when inside the car.

Display the current station when the train stops.

Good planning before leaving home could also solve some of these problems, but travel tends to present riders with dynamically shifting variables which can’t be planned much in advance. The best travel help is just-in-time, based on current data. The ideal solutions would be available to all riders, regardless of what equipment they personally own. It would be dynamic, updating to reflect current conditions. It would be placed in contexts that deliver information when it is most useful and actionable.

Stefan Klocek

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