All Aboard! : Usability of Public Transit Signs
By Ann Sunhachawee on Feb 12, 2008
When people tell me about their travels to foreign countries, I generally ask how they get around, especially if they don't speak the language. Personally, I've pored over paper-based tables with highlighter, gesticulated and tried to interpret the ticket booth attendee's broken English, or followed blindly when I'm visiting a friend who knows the system.
In a recent visit to Tokyo, I was very pleased to find the public transportation signage easy to follow and more useful than I expected. Newer trains in the Tokyo subway system include a LCD display above each door like the following, which alternated between the Japanese and English (unfortunately, this picture was taken when the Japanese characters were up):
Wow! An indication of minutes to arrival, where the train is, and where it's going ... in real time! But wait.. there's more!
To make your trip even more efficient, while at the station, take a glance at the guide to train cars, transfers, stops, and services available at each station on the line. I feel like Edward Tufte might have had a hand in this guide.
These examples are the more "high tech" ones that I saw, but even older trains and buses had some ability to display the current location and upcoming location, which is a far cry from what we find in U.S. public transportation, which consist of mostly garbled announcements.
Here's just one example of public transportation snafu of the many I've experienced in the U.S.. The San Francisco International Airport "AirTrain" shuttles people between places like terminals and rental car lots. A few years ago, I spent minutes quizzically looking at an all-English map that showed the two AirTrain lines - red and blue - which go in opposite directions, around mostly the same loop route. However, it missed a key feature - the direction which each line took! This looks approximately like part of the map I was looking at:
Thankfully, I notice that at least the SFO airport website has addressed this.
I credit the usability of the Tokyo transportation system to a few things:
- The Japanese are culturally aware of time, efficiency, and technology.
- The Tokyo public transportation and related signage has had time and iterations to evolve, unlike places that lack good mass transit, such as the U.S.
- The Japanese want to foster good relations with their international businesspeople and tourists so they translate key signs for non-Japanese speaking, especially for those who read and understand English.
Some nice side effects also come into play when increasing the usability of signs. It fosters good feelings about the country and people and helps those hard of hearing for whatever reason (Japanese or otherwise) by having clear visual diplays in addition to audio feedback.
Arigato gozaimas, Japan!