Taking the A-Train (or Any Other Train) in New York City Would Be Even Harder Without Directional Signage
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Sign China 2015 - September 16-19, 2015 in Shanghai, China


Taking the A-Train (or Any Other Train) in New York City Would Be Even Harder Without Directional Signage

New York City Transit officials place a tremendous effort into creating a subway wayfinding system that connects its passengers to trains and exits throughout the system.

By Louis M Brill

Getting from here to there on the New York City subways can be an overwhelming experience, whether you're going cross-town, downtown or uptown. Its mazes of tunnels, hallways, mezzanines and connecting passageways can befuddle even the seasoned New Yorker if they make a wrong turn or miss a directional sign. If you're from out of town, and it's your first time, it's going to be an adventure - guaranteed.

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  • Every day in New York City, millions of people descend upon its subway system to get from one part of the city to another. Many times they'll glance at a nearby sign to confirm proper direction of travel and move onwards to their train or platform. While passengers may not think much about these signs, New York City Transit does, placing a tremendous effort into creating a subway wayfinding system that connects its passengers to trains and exits throughout the system. Managing the signs that help people get around is a 24/7 task of planning, from fabricating new signs to replacing ones that are obsolete or vandalized. The signs may 'magically' appear on the walls of the stations, but it's a lot of work and strategic thinking that finally gets them to those spots.

    Finding you way Even the statistics representing the NYC subway transit system are a bit numbing. The train system travels all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx and is represented by 660 miles of subway track which in turn has 468 subway stations for passengers to enter and leave the system. On any typical day in NYC, 4.7 million people use the system traveling to and from work, or home, or shopping or visiting friends. The most trafficked NYC subway station is 42nd Street-Times Square (7th - 8th Aves) which serves at least 13 subway lines (1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, N/R, Q, W, S).

    Original subway signs were generally screened porcelain enamel with black letters on a white background. New signs were often, tacked on to existing sign set ups with no regard to previous font styles or scale.

    On an average day, as subway passengers begin or complete their transit travels, some are veterans who do this by instinct, making left and right turns, going up one set of stairs and down another and magically arriving at their proper platform to board their subway train. For others, it's a maze of unfamiliar twists and turns and stairways that lead to anywhere but where they want to get to. First time subway travelers can be recognized clutching maps, staring at the signs and hesitantly making their way deeper into the NYC sub transit beehive hoping to find their correct train and destination (usually with a little help from nearby friendly New Yorkers).

    First off, all subway trains themselves are clearly marked with a big letter or number in the front of the train as to which train it is. These indications are on the front of the train and on the side of every subway car facing the station platform. Getting to these trains is an enormous wayfinding system of signs directing its passengers from street-side to each specific subway platform with the quickest and easiest route possible to that platform.

    The signs that lead people in and out of the New York City subways go back more than 100 years when the first subway system opened. In its beginning days the subway system was three separate service lines, each with its own sign standards and style of doing things. The basic process of implementing signs in these early years (1904 - 1940s) evolved by necessity. The wayfinding at the time, (if one could be so generous) and signage of these earlier decades were mostly ad hoc, and signs were put wherever they were needed to be. Improvements to the signage were based on the squeaky wheel principle, which is to say if enough people complained, more signs were added, which in some cases were nailed directly next to or on top of already existing signs.

    The sign on the platform edge overhang indicates the direction of travel (downtown), the type of train that stops (express and local), and which subway trains stop (2, 3). In 1967, in conjunction with the consolidation of the IND and BMT subway lines, a sign standardization program became prominent and sign shapes and sizes, text fonts and colors were collectively organized into a single unified wayfinding system. These guidelines and standards are all outlined in the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) guidebook which is used by NYC Transit department and outside contractors and consultants who also support Station Signage's continuing enhancements of the subway's way finding system.

    Showing the way
    Guiding this entire process of navigating from MetroCard booth to your final destination is the New York City Transit's Station Signage department, which is a unit of Division of Stations. Station Signage oversees the planning, surveying, fabrication, installation and once placed, the maintenance of NYC subway signs throughout its entire system.

    Station Signage is currently supervised by Director John Montemarano, Assistant Director Victoria Fischer, and Manager Herb Schonhaut. The department is formed of two units; an administrative group that surveys, designs and plans for new and replacement sign projects, and a second group, the fabrication shop which is located in Brooklyn. Here all the manufacturing of actual signage is handled by a staff of 11 sign makers and 17 sign installers, all dedicated to fabricating, installing and keeping up-to-date all subway signs for the system. Schonhaut reflected that the current department's philosophy is not to clutter a station with excessive signage and "to make our subway signs as easy as possible to read, that are always up-to-date and that they get our passengers quickly and safely to their trains."

    Station Signage's current incarnation came together in the early 1990s and initiated a consolidation of all its existing sign management programs. "Between 1992 and 1997, a capital program was initiated," says Montemarano as he delved into his department's early history, "to redo and modernize all existing subway station signage. The program was undertaken with upwards of 50 - 75 stations a year being refurbished. It took about eight years to reinvigorate the subway system with new signage and a more modern wayfinding system."

    Examples of previous generations of subway way finding signage. From way back when, the first layer of directional signage was done as tiles embedded in the wall. Later on, an enamel sign was added with more concise information including which trains stopped at the platform.

    A typical NYC subway station says Montemarano, "will have an average of about 160 signs which includes every component of the station. It begins street-side, with a sign that indicates which routes are offered (E, F, G, or 1, 2, 3 trains), the direction of travel (uptown or downtown) and the hours of access to a particular entrance. All that before a passenger even enters the system. Once they do enter, the first thing they approach is a MetroCard booth which is a purchase point for MetroCards, magnetic debit cards, which you pay anywhere from $4.00 - $80.00 for, and grants you continual access through various subway entrances."

    Clarke Systems- Slatz Capture was designed to meet the challenge of change.

    Subway Route Changes: When getting from here to there isn't what it used to be

    A subway route change is when a subway service line is altered and the line (E, F, G, or 1, 2, or 3) suddenly skips stops, makes new stops or has its hours of service changed. In all cases this means a new sign program to educate subway passengers on the modifications of where routes now go or don't go. In most cases, a route change is planned months in advance and the signs prepare for that in a timely fashion. Typically, each route change has its own schedule and requirements for what has to be changed and how long that will take, depending on the number of stations involved.

    This is a story of two New York City subway route changes: one predicted and planned for and the other unexpected with the realization of only one day's notice that a new route change was in the air and new signs were going to be needed as soon as possible for this unplanned service changes.

    "When a sign change out is long term or a permanent route change, our Station Signage shop will get involved," says shop Director John Montemarano. "For example, in 2001, we had a service change on the Manhattan Bridge where the train service switched tracks and went from one side of the Bridge to the other. To accommodate that change, we had to plan for a service pattern that affected 137 stations and had to adjust the subway signs which, for the routes affected, involved 2,650 signs (998 metal signs and 1652 vinyl decals) that we had to change out."

    "One interesting point about how we affect a station sign change is that our customers are so used to our signs, that much of their travel is by instinct." says Montemarano. "To help them notice new signage when we put it up, we may start with a reversed sign - a white background with black lettering instead of its standard look which is the opposite."

    At each point in the system there are signs to guide and instruct passengers on what to do or where to go to get to their intended trains. Past the fare booth passengers will usually encounter some kind of a mezzanine area with signs that direct the flow of people traffic between uptown and downtown service. From there, passengers descend down stairs or up to elevated platforms and emerge onto subway platforms that give them entry onto their intended trains. At that point, platform edge signs indicate the station stops, which trains stop, hours of operation, and direction of travel (uptown or downtown). The sign system also works in reverse to help people exit from the platforms to street-side.

    Obstacles in the way The creation and maintenance of all these subways signs is a continual process that emanates from Station Signage as Montemarano described its implementation process. "It all begins with surveys of existing stations to consider which signs need to be updated or changed. Once these changes are determined, work orders are cut and sent to the sign shop. The sign shop fabricates the new signs and once completed are delivered to our installers who will place them at the specified stations."

    The department provides both temporary and permanent signs to provide an uninterrupted wayfinding service. Replacing subway signs can be due to vandalism, graffiti, route changes or hours of operation changes. In the temporary replacement program, new signs can be created within 24 hours and back in the stations by the next day.

    An example of enamel on metal signage from the 1940s.

    Temporary signs, Montemarano says are done with vinyl decals "first our sign shop designs and creates the new sign decals and then silk screens vinyl letters on aluminum substrates or in certain cases Lexan plastic. The tin shop bends and pans it and forms it into its final sign shape. The finished signs are then turned over to our installers who do the placements in the subway stations. Because of the intense daytime pedestrian use with hundreds of thousands of people moving through the system, most replacement signage is put up overnight when passenger traffic is at its lowest volume."

    "In most cases, if itís only a small portion of a sign that is being changed we will only create a vinyl decal to cover that portion of the sign. At a later time, once we know the sign change is permanent, we'll go back and make a completely new replacement sign. Our preferred sign substrate for most permanent NYC subway signs is porcelain-enamel which is baked on a steel substrate. We don't do porcelain in-house so we send them to outside vendors. Once finished they are returned to us and our installers put them up."

    Despite the improvements with the subway wayfinding system, keeping it looking new is a bit of a challenge as vandalism and graffiti are the biggest counter forces that degrade the sign systems modern look. The good news according to Montemarano is that when a sign is defaced with black or white spray paint, the graffiti disappears pretty quickly.

    Today NYC Transit has a zero tolerance program for sign defacement and is forever vigilant against it. Herb Schonhaut chuckled as he recalled one instance when he sent a sign crew into a subway station to mark certain signs for replacement that a second crew would take care of. The second crew went into the station to do the change over but were unable to find the indicator marks as to which signs to change. After 15 minutes of searching around, they called back to get further instructions. The crew supervisor insisted that the station signs were marked. What happened was that after the signs were marked for change over, the marks were spotted by an anti-graffiti team who immediately painted over them. In another incident Station Signage people were preparing signs to be changed over and were spotted by Transit police who attempted to fine them until the crew convinced the police that they too were city employees just doing their job.

    Station Signage's end-of-the year report noted that their annual attention to upgrading and refining the world's largest 24-hour subway system is testimony to signage's value as an important component of keeping the wheels moving in NYC's subway system. In 2006, the MTA signage department recorded that they had fabricated, or replaced approximately 10,421 signs within the NYC MTA system. The train operators and conductors may run the trains, but it's Station Signage and its continual up-to-date wayfinding system that helps its millions of passengers to find the trains and make their way to Times Square or Wall Street with as much ease as NYC Transit Station Signage can offer.

    Subway Change on One Day Notice

    While just about every subway route change is anticipated and planned for, the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 created unexpected subway route changes that had to be dealt with immediately. Within two months of the incident, New York City's Station Signage group had surveyed, fabricated and installed replacement signage for the new subway routes which emerged from the disaster.

    During the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, one subway station (Cortlandt Street) was destroyed and 1,400 feet of subway tunnel collapsed. The result of that situation was that several routes stopping patterns and final destinations were altered. One service line, the # 1 which used to run under the World Trade Center was re-routed to Brooklyn. Another line, the # 2, previously an express, became a local train. The # 9 train was suspended from service altogether. New signage was created and installed to reflect these changes. The entire program was pushed through and completed in record time with 2,800 new signs made and installed in 110 stations within 10 days. Station Signage's speed of response in keeping its customers aware of new train routes was even praised in the local newspaper, the New York Post (October 30th, 2001) which noted the sign changes and New York City Transit's efficiency in keeping the trains running and keeping its passengers properly informed.

    Within less than a year, all repairs to the track, platforms and stations had been made. Subway service, with the exception of the #1 Cortlandt Street station, which remains closed, has been restored to its pre-9/11 status.

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