Metro PIDS sign. Photo by author.

Metro’s next train (PIDS) signs are a great attribute of the system. But there’s still room for improvement.

In this budget climate, it’s certainly easier for Metro to focus on incremental changes. One low cost change that could be implemented quickly and with no disruption to passengers would be a revision in the way information is displayed on the PIDS signs.

The signs currently display several different types of data:

  • Train departures: Signs display the next 3 departures and include information on the line, destination, length of the train, and estimated time until arrival.
  • Elevator outages: The signs also scroll through a list of elevator outages and include ‘shuttle from’ data.
  • Service disruptions: If rail service is being disrupted, the signs scroll through details on the disruption(s).

Throughout the day, they switch between these different formats periodically. The different types of data are never shown on the screen at the same time.

Metro used to use scrolling data, but not with arrival info. Photo by author.

All three of these pieces of information are important. But most people only care about 1 of the feeds at any given time. Yet many patrons are forced to watch quite a bit of non-relevant information before seeing how long their wait will be.

If an extra crowded train is on the platform at the time the signs are clicking through elevator outages, passengers don’t know how long it will be until the next train, and therefore whether they should try to cram onboard.

Similarly, if a passenger is going to face major delays, a full minute of next train data is close to useless (since trains are going to be delayed anyway). Getting the disruption data sooner might have given him or her enough time to make it to a bus or take some other alternate route.

A better approach is used on Berlin’s U-bahn system. The next train signs there only have two rows. If there are no system disruptions, the next two departures are shown with estimated times until arrival. If a disruption does exist, the second departure is replaced with right-to-left scrolling text explaining the disruption.

Berlin U-bahn sign with scrolling disruption data. Photo by author.

This is helpful both to passengers who care about the time until the next departure and to those who need to know about delays, since both types of information are displayed simultaneously.

Additionally, because there are only two rows, BVG, the agency operating the U-bahn has written the headers for the next train data on the sign frame. WMATA could follow this example instead of wasting the top row with a static line of digital text saying, “LN | CAR | DEST | MIN”.

With this approach, Metro’s signs could use the top three rows for next trains and the bottom row for disruptions and elevator outages. Major disruptions might warrant using the bottom 2 rows. If there are no disruptions, four next train departures could be shown.

While the agency’s passenger communications problems aren’t the biggest issues facing Metro, communications are widely recognized as falling short. This would be an excellent step forward for WMATA. It would improve the passenger experience at little cost to the agency.

Tagged: berlin, transit, wmata
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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.