Short, clear station names vital to transit system wayfinding

WMATA map with long station names: "they're not station names, they're committee meeting minutes."

WMATA map with long station names: “they’re not station names, they’re committee meeting minutes.”

The folks at London Reconnections have a new podcast – On Our Line. The second episode features a long conversation with two experts on transit map design and understanding, Max Roberts and Peter Lloyd.

The discussion hits on several topics about the challenges in transit map design, particularly for complicated networks. They also discuss objective measures of success in design (e.g. timing users in finding their way from point A to b on a map) and the conflicts with graphic design ideas. Another challenge is the future of the paper map and the seemingly inevitable move towards electronic map displays of some kind.

A few anecdotes stood out to me:

Touch Screen Maps: These might seem to be an obvious technological solution to mapping challenges with complex networks, frequent service changes, language barriers, etc. New York installed some touch screen maps as a part of a pilot program in 2014; despite rave reviews, no one seemed to use them. The podcast conversation (at 37:50) hits on the problems: the ad-supported model means the kiosks look like ads. Perhaps more interesting is the embarrassment of a rider using the kiosk, requiring a level of interaction that physically signals to everyone else on the platform that ‘I don’t know where I’m going.’ A static, printed map allows for consumption of information in a less obvious manner.

Station Names: Asked for examples of the worst transit maps they could think of, WMATA’s marathon-length station names are an obvious choice (at 1:07:20). Short station names are important to efficient, clear, and effective wayfinding. Roberts on WMATA’s map: “some of the stations – they’re not station names, they’re committee meeting minutes.”

File that one under “it’s funny because it’s true.”

Using the map to influence routing: Roberts obliquely mentions working with WMATA (48 minutes in) on changing the map to encourage different routing, presumably a reference to adjusting the map in order to encourage Blue Line riders from Virginia to transfer and use the Yellow Line (with excess capacity) to travel into DC.

It’s one thing for the map (or trip planner) to influence your route; it’s another for that decision to be made by an algorithm completely removed from human interaction. With driverless cars, it’s still unclear how humans will react to navigating networks in that way – adjusting human behavior is challenging enough.

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