Public Transit Information Overload: A Lesson

Philadelphia is replacing, or at least promising to replace, the trains that run the commuter rail system. The new trains are 35-40 years newer than the usual fair, and are replete with "new technologies," one of which is an automated (I believe GPS-based) announcement system, which figures out what station is next, and which line you're on. This is great in theory, but there's a problem.

This system gives you too much information. Trains in Philly are named by their terminus, and all trains converge (and pass through) downtown. There's history here which makes things a bit easier to understand if you're a transit geek, but after every stop--including outlying stops--the train tells you what line you're on, and which stops it makes or skips. The problems:

  • At most outlying stations, you can tell by the station you're at, which line you're on. It's sometimes useful to know where the train you're on is headed, but the trains only tell you that on the outside of the train, until you get downtown, when the announcements change from "where you've been," to "where you're going."
  • The "this is the train you're on," announcements don't change as you pass stops, so you hear where the train's been at every stop after even you passed the relevant stops. The announcements make sense, as there are 5 or six "main line" stops that some trains stop on, and others don't, so as you're heading towards doubtful stops, it's useful information, when you're passed them: less so.
  • All announcements are displayed on screens in written form and read by a speech synthesizer. I understand the accessibility concerns, but there are still conductors and I'm not sure that the information is presented in a way that is usable by people who don't already have a significant understanding of the transit system.

Given this background, as a technical writer, and someone who geeks out on information presentation, I felt that there are a number of things that can be learned from this case:

  • More information is sometimes confusing, and can make concepts harder to grasp.
  • Figuring out what people need to know in any given situation is more important (and more difficult) than figuring out what is true or correct.
  • Sometimes multi-modal presentation may not actually add value in proportion with the amount of annoyance it generates.
  • Presentation matters. The speech synthesizer does not sound very good and it's inefficient.
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