How TransitScreen made DC Metro’s SafeTrack more tolerable

Washington DC Metro’s SafeTrack has come and gone. SafeTrack was an attempt to cram three years’ worth of maintenance and track work into one year, closing some sections of lines for weeks and running 20-minute wait times between trains.

The hardship to Metro riders was significant, but we’re hopeful that Metro has turned the corner, despite the low bar set by the name of their current Back2Good repair program — how about getting Back2Great, folks?

With the importance of SafeTrack to the DC region we decided we needed to add SafeTrack service alerts to every screen in the area. The key to service changes is to let people know at the point when they are making their decision, not once they’ve already decided to take the train and have bypassed other options to get there. Our users appreciated it:

These advisories were placed on all affected screens and updated according to that week’s track work.
Just one example of the feedback we received when this feature was added.

One lesson learned from SafeTrack is that information needs to be in the right place. During SafeTrack, Metro’s notifications about closures were on signboards located inside the station, once people had already descended the escalators. And Metro’s upcoming departure times are only shown, typically, once you pay your fare and are standing on the platform waiting. So after a few months of unhappy customers, Metro had to reprogram their entire fare collection system to add a grace period for people to exit the station without cost.

We found it wasn’t too much work for us to keep up with SafeTrack, even though the information provided by Metro wasn’t always formatted to be succinct and readable, and the schedule changed on several occasions. Anyway, it’s much easier for us to make the effort than 500,000 Metro riders, all of whom have other things to think about!

Now New York’s subway system appears to be entering a similar reliability crisis — even Governor Cuomo had to admit it was a state of emergency. We’ve learned some lessons of our own about how to implement clear, legible service alerts, and we’re ready to keep our users apprised of the most up-to-date information possible.

These service alerts would be placed on all affected New York-area screens in order to help commuters during the state of emergency.

The biggest lesson we learned was how much people value commute reliability, an idea backed up by some recent commuter research. Information, especially real-time service alerts like we did for SafeTrack, lets people understand ahead of time if their commute won’t be reliable and act to reduce unpredictability. People need accurate information about how they travel, and we’re here to provide it.