MTA’s countdown clocks: some suggestions

The MTA’s subway countdown clocks provide important psychological benefits. Gone – from the lines served, anyway – are the days of peering down a dark tunnel, seeking that glimmer of headlight from an approaching train. We can make rational decisions on whether to wait or to seek an alternative mode of transportation.

This assumes we have perfect information, though. Recently, I did not – and it spurred me to write about all the small thoughts I’ve amassed over the years on how the system could work just a little better.

Station announcements

Every so often, the MTA plays canned announcements over the station speakers: “Protect your personal belongings.” “Backpacks and other large containers are subject to random search by the police.” Service changes. Et cetera.

For hearing-impaired users, the announcement is displayed on the countdown clock in place of the second line. The next-arriving train stands firm on the top slot.

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Here’s where this is problematic: let’s say you’re riding an downtown 6 at Grand Central. You have no way to tell when the next downtown express train will arrive. Do you get off or stay on? Advantage of information: neutralized.

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If the information is not pivotal (e.g., the backpack thing), the MTA should just shut off the announcement and resume it after the train arrives. It should also rotate through the trains on the top line.

Duplicate trains

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Are you going to wait for the second 2 train? This just delays getting to the important stuff.

The love of the next

The next train to arrive is always the top line, no matter how many tracks are present. At a place like Nevins Street, where two completely different lines share a platform, this makes no sense.

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This is a problem if you’re outside the station, and it shows all of the arriving trains. That’s a total of eight trains on two lines of text: the next to arrive on top, and the next seven(!) rotating through on the bottom.

The MTA should show the next two trains on each track, one at a time. At Nevins, the uptown displays might look like this:

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Service changes

Here’s what happened to spur this post: I was traveling to Manhattan from Grand Army Plaza on a Sunday. When I entered the subway at 6:40, I saw a ten-minute wait for the next train, a 2. A little long, even for a weekend, but ok.

After seven minutes, I realized the 2 train had disappeared from the clock. Gone! Without a trace! The next possibility was a Harlem-bound 3 train in 8 minutes. Not a big deal.

Then it, too, disappeared. It became clear the trains were running express from Franklin Avenue to Atlantic Avenue. But no one bothered telling the hordes of wannabe riders gathered on the platform.

There’s little the countdown clocks can do on their own; they just read the location of the next train and calculate accordingly. Someone should have made an official announcement about the change. The countdown clocks just gave a false sense of hope.

But they redeem themselves on those occasions when they save your bacon altogether.

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