The transparency of public transportation

My favorite thing about New York city? The subway.

The New York city subway system is very decentralized. Its stations are the only front-facing components while its technical infrastructure is obscured from view. As a result, public consciousness of the system depends on how easily navigable the subway stations are and how transient the experience of using it is. And the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) has achieved both navigability and transience with splendid iconography.

Use Google Maps or ask someone nearby to get yourself near a subway station in New York. Once you’re closer, look out for the signature black signboards with white lettering, sober typography, all highlighted by a unique color palette of blue, orange, green, red, yellow and purple – one for each line. These installations are so effective at fetching people either in reveries or deliria (or both, depending on the time of day) off the streets of New York and into the tunnels and then back out elsewhere that people take them for granted. I know I do.

The entrance to a subway station in New York. Image: featurepics.com
The entrance to a subway station in New York. Image: featurepics.com

To go from Harlem, where I live, to Cooper Square, where my classes at NYU are, I take the D train from 125 St and get off at Broadway-Lafayette St. On weekdays, the train is immensely overcrowded between 8 am and 9 am, and I can’t ever hope of finding a seat next to a window so I can look out and see if the train’s at Broadway-Lafayette yet. Sure, there’s an announcer who speaks on the train’s intercom but I don’t always understand his/her accent.

The iconography comes to the rescue. The white-on-black boards are mounted on all pillars, evenly spaced, and larger ones are suspended from beams. The contrast between the text and its background is easy to catch. No other similar font stylization, coloration or similarly sized installation is allowed near the signboards or at the same height; advertisement is clearly demarcated. Also, the station number is painted on the white-tiled walls on either side of the tunnel.

The station name/number painted on the tunnel wall. Image: Kevin Dooler/Flickr.
The station name/number painted on the tunnel wall. Image: Kevin Dooley/Flickr (License)

When the D train stops at 59 St (Columbus Circle), where the traffic flux is highest on the route, I need only catch a glimpse of the world outside. Something will catch my eye.

Such extensive use of signs is more apparent in multi-terminal airports. A show produced by National Geographic that aired in September 2013 explains how the engineers who build them address passenger navigability and transience during the planning and construction phases.

Broadly speaking, say a passenger, Alice, has just disembarked from a flight through Gate 1 and now has to make her way to Gate 50 to catch a second flight. As far as the airport is concerned, Alice should only be thinking about making it to her flight on time, not about finding her way there. So, wherever she chooses to look in her hurry, she must find a helpful sign that leads her on her way, and she must not be forced to spend time asking other people for directions.

Therefore, the positioning of signs must be optimized. Each sign must serve everyone who is interested in finding and using that sign, and everyone must be served at the same time, too. This is just what the signs around the New York city subway system accomplish, too, using their design and arrangement.

The Kickstarter

Their introduction in 1970 must have played a big role in organizing one of the world’s largest urban conglomerations around the subway system. I learnt of the icons’ origins through a Kickstarter project centered around the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual, Standards Manual for short, designed by a Massimo Vignelli. The manual set down the specifications that the signs continue to abide by to this day.

The Kickstarter is to raise funds for a reissue of the manual’s first edition by two city-based designers, who found the precious tome in the basement of a design firm, specifically “in a locker beneath old gym clothes”. They’ve since raised almost $744,000 of their $108,000 goal with a week to go. It’s no wonder at least 6,000 people – its backers – think this book should be more popular.

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