The Information Age - Meet the San Francisco Municipal Railway

By: Phil Ting

In San Francisco, we like to think of ourselves as the capital of the information economy, but all too often our city government can feel like it's using hieroglyphics.

That’s why I was so intrigued when one member of the audience at our recent Reset Muni town hall stood up to tell why his 30 Sutter Stockton bus was so frequently slow or late – and the reason boiled down to a simple lack of understandable information.

The frustrated rider talked about how so many people on the bus, which is often used by tourists, simply didn’t know how to exit the rear door. He described the countless times his fellow bus riders would shout “Step Down, Step Down” to befuddled tourists who didn’t understand how to activate the rear door.

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The solution? He proposed a simple sign on the door in multiple languages that actually showed riders how to use the door. Since the 30 Sutter Stockton is one of the slowest lines in the Muni, which is America’s slowest major transportation system, this would be a welcome change for regular riders whose commutes are delayed by long stops.

The participant in our “user generated government” town hall drew laughter when he talked about where the few signs that show how to use the doors are now placed “on the outside of the doors.”

The panelists at our Muni Town Hall, attended by nearly 300 San Franciscans who want to work together to Reset Muni, seemed intrigued by the idea of better Muni through better signage. But since I know just how long things can take to get done in City government, I thought we might speed the process along just a bit by having the Reset Community help design the sign.

So here it is – Reset responds to a lack of information with one of the basic tools of the information age – a sign! What do you think?

Resetting San Francisco Through Better Information

There is something powerful and intriguing about Resetting through better information because we already understand that we can make our city an easier place to live in many ways by simply by providing better visual information.

Of course we all see the examples without really thinking about it. We can find our way around San Francisco and other cities because we have street signs that tell us where we are – a 19th Century innovation.

If you travel much, you see it in modern airports. Great airports can be navigated and “used” effectively in any language because they feature easy to understand signage. Imagine navigating a foreign airport without great signs that tell you where the gates are, where bathrooms are, where to go to buy a sandwich or get a taxi?

But there are so many other ways that other cities and agencies are becoming more user friendly by simply by figuring out how to get more and better information to their customers and residents.

Whether this information is delivered through a tweet, a QR code, a Facebook post or a simple sign – effective information makes our cities easier to use.

One of the best examples of information improving service is the NextMuni service that shows arrival times of the city’s buses and streetcars. For me that means a quick check before I leave the house to see when the L Taraval will arrive, so I’m not left standing at the stop for long periods. The easy to access information means I can send another email or return another call – rather than stand peering into the fog for a streetcar that doesn’t come.

More Information Raises Public Satisfaction

This is my personal experience but a recent study from Latitude Research found this to be a typical response – more information on public transit raises public satisfaction.

The NextMuni information is just the tip of the iceberg – open data, easily understood data, and easy to understand information is a fast and cost-effective way to make our city and our city government better.

When we start to look around – you can see numerous examples of data in use, and data that should be in use.

On the BART platforms if you look down, there is a diagram on the platform showing how to let passengers off before boarding. The diagram is just in constricted spaces where there are safety concerns – but it could be in use everywhere as part of a visual users manual to make BART easier to use.

Ever ride escalators and wonder why some people just don’t understand that you stand right and walk left? Perhaps one of the reasons is we don’t often place a simple sign that shows people that is the best system.

In Los Angeles, the Metro is installing signs with QR codes, that help riders understand even more about how to use the system. Now they can use their version of NextMuni to find when the bus will arrive and quickly scan a map of the system to find transfer points, fare information and other data that makes the system more user friendly.

This information doesn’t just need to be practical. I was in the area around Jack London Square in Oakland the other day. The city had installed new “street furniture” that included fascinating historic pictures of the neighborhood’s industrial past. This information certainly added to a sense of place and made me, and I bet other visitors and neighbors, feel more connected to the community.

The Resetting Credo

We talk a lot at Reset about open data and the need for transparency. But that shouldn’t just be on our computers, phones and tablets. The cityscape itself is a chance to display information that makes our lives better.

Resetting San Francisco? It can start with a visual users manual that makes our city an easier place to live, work and visit.


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Sam's picture

Great idea; Issues with proposed design

Great idea to show and tell people how to open the back door.  It would be very useful to see signs used in other cities, including international, in similar situations and any data on how well the various designs work and the typical behavior pre- and post-sign.   I don't have those data handy.  It would also be interesting to see completely different approaches.  That said, if this were the base sketch to proceed from, we can make some observations.
The proposed design is an informative start, but has a way to go.  In sum, it seems to convey: "Whoa! Be extra alert while you stride confidently out this already open door". It might even mean "Hey! Wait until the door is all the way open before walking down the stair and out".  The issues seem to be the following.
1) The diamond shape and orange-ish color are both used in several countries to convey that the sign is a warning about a potentially dangerous situation such as a deer crossing, bump in the road, or railroad tracks.  We'd like this Muni sign to be an instruction how to do something that's positive and not dangerous.  Green might be a better color choice.  With this type of color change, the diamond shape seems okay.
2) The use of mixed case is spot on for supporting word recognition, and for not being too scary, but the two clauses in the wording do not match the most usable sequence for simple scannable instructions, which is "to <x>, do <y>".  Thus: "To Open Door [line break] Step Down".  If the diamond shape is retained, the space issue caused by the rewording can be solved by running the first line of text above the graphic.
3) The graphic doesn't quite include the notion of doors opening.  It looks like there are no doors or that they're already wide open.  By conveying "hey, don't start descending the steps until the doors are all the way open" the sign may inadvertantly reinforce the behavior we're trying to eliminate.  So, the graphic needs some sense of the doors opening.  This could be conveyed by showing the inside and top edge of the two doors about three-quarters of the way open and in depth.  An additional element could be to show the figure with a hand on the door, near the middle, where people seem to naturally push.  This could reduce the behavior of riders stepping down, expecting that alone to open the door, and waiting so long that other riders yell "push the door".
4) The human figure conveys striding out of the bus more than stepping down and pausing.  It seems to be something about the shape of the stairs.  It feels more like the figure is striding off the bus.  I can't quite describe my idea for how to change the shape of the stairs.  Sorry.  The arrow which strongly conveys disembarking from standing in the aisle, rather than stepping down and then disembarking, can be removed.
I'd love to see how it's done in other cities, any next versions of this particular design, and other quite different concepts to achieve the same thing.
Keep up the Good Work!

Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137