Better Real-Time Maps Coming Soon to All Nine Muni Metro Stations

IMG_0510.jpgNew map software at Castro station. New real-time maps, already being tested in several stations, will soon be up in all nine Muni Metro stations. Photo: Michael Rhodes

It’s a familiar scene for many Muni riders: standing in a huge crowd on a Muni Metro station platform, scrutinizing the archaic-looking map on the mounted LCD, hoping for a two-car LL or a one-car J. Since those displays first went up at Embarcadero station in the late 1990s, and the other eight stations in 2007, they’ve given waiting customers something to ponder while waiting for a particularly tardy train, but have been far too cryptic to reach their full potential in keeping riders informed. Within the next few months, however, displays in all nine Muni Metro stations will switch over to a much more legible map.

The new, more helpful map software is already in use on some displays at Embarcadero, Van Ness, and West Portal stations, said MTA spokesperson Judson True. One was also recently installed at Castro station. It was first piloted in May 2008, and from a design standpoint, True said it’s been getting praise from some riders. The MTA commissioned the new Flash-based map software from NextBus, which the agency contracts with to provide NextMuni real-time arrival data.

Muni received complaints initially about the accuracy of the data on the new maps. NextBus data isn’t available because GPS doesn’t work in the tunnels, and Advanced Train Control System (ATCS) train location data can’t smoothly be transferred to the NextMuni system until an upgrade to a key component of the ATCS is completed, which will take three years.

The old maps don’t have this challenge because they’re taken from
screenshots of the ATCS software, which was designed for operators,
not the general public. The MTA has been working to tweak and patch the
data on the new maps in the meantime, however, and True said the agency
now receives few complaints about their accuracy.

2238053229_59322f77a8.jpgThe old ATCS-based map, still in use at most stations. Flickr photo: bradlauster

In addition to having a more readable map, the updated display software shows a table of arrival times for each line, something the ATCS screenshots lacked. "People seem to like it," said True. "They like the prediction table as part of the map, for example, as opposed to just a map."

Though the new maps are undoubtedly a leap forward from the old ones, a city with as much design and computer science talent as San Francisco will undoubtedly produce some incisive critiques and suggestions. The MTA is "always open to suggestions, absolutely," said True, as long as they’re "advisable," and funding is available.

IMG_0509.jpgThe new map software at Castro station. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Of course, with independently-designed tools like the $4 iPhone application Routesy popping up and making life a little easier for Muni riders, it’s hard not to wonder what the next generation of in-station map software could look like if Muni were to open up the process to any software developer interested in giving it a try.

Have you seen the new map software at other Muni Metro stations? Is the arrival time data on the new maps reliable, or still on the fritz? Still spotting the Blue Screen of Death pop up on the LCDs? Let us know what you’re seeing in the comments section below.

  • Rick Fletcher

    I prefer the old map over the new one for one reason — one that you even mentioned in your article. The new ones don’t tell you how many cars are in each train. I wait at different (preferred) spots on the platform for a 2-car than I do for a 1-car. When it’s crowded it can even mean the difference between being able to squeeze onto that train or having to wait for another.

    Hopefully the old map stays available online, so I can keep referencing it from my phone once it’s unavailable on the platform.

  • Muni wayfinding issues are not going to be helped by adding yet one more sign in the confusing jumble that exists already. That it’s an even bigger and flashier map just proves that the point is being lost on the decision makers.

    It will require taking a step back from trying to make a map pretty and find out what information riders want and what information they actually need. In the photo above by Michael Rhodes showing both the old and new maps stacked (if you go down to the outbound platform at Castro, these are what you’d face at the bottom of the stairs) see if you can find where it says if this is the platform to get downtown. It’s a trick question because neither sign does, but now there is about twice as much information to sort through.

  • I think this map is easier to read, and I like how you can see all the cars in the entire system, not just West Portal through Embarcadero. I still don’t like it when it tells me that no car is coming for another ten minutes, though.

    For neophyte riders, Muni signage is lacking system-wide.

  • Jamison, I agree there’s not clear enough signage about which side is which (a problem shared by most transit systems, BTW).

    But this display isn’t trying to address wayfinding (in the urban planning sense). It’s meant to give people who want more information about the state of the entire Muni system than is provided by the arrival signs a way to obtain it. i.e., has the bluegrass festival/a breakdown/the existence of the J-Church totally hosed the system.

    Given the amount of information that has to be displayed, it’s surprisingly concise; well done NextBus.

    It would be much easier to add a large OUTBOUND sign on the platform than to customize the map display for every direction at every station.

  • OUTBOUND… everytime I get to the station I have to think about what that means…

    The Caltrain platforms say “SAN JOSE” or “SAN FRANCISCO”, not SOUTHBOUND/NORTHBNOUND. Much better. Not surprising for an outfit that, while not perfect, is definitely the price/performance leader in Bay Area transit.

  • Theo, if a sign on the platform does not address wayfinding issues it doesn’t belong on the platform.

    People often don’t really want what they tell you they want. When you’re waiting for a train, do you really want to know the status of the entire system? Isn’t what you want an accurate prediction of when the next train will arrive? Very little screen real estate is being given to the prediction times, which are less accurate (because of how NextBus gets data from ATCS) than the overhead LED signs which are spaced about every 200′ along the platform and positioned so you can read them while looking down the track.

    The new monitors are actually a step backwards because they are not as conveniently located on the platforms where you can look at them while waiting, the small arrival times mean you have to get very close to read them. There’s already a static map that shows the lines at eye level and given what’s already in place and what’s needed, I’ve seen two different designers come up with nearly the exact same solution: give over the entire display to just providing arrival times as large as possible to make them readable from further away and there would be an alternate designs for when there’s problems or guide people to big events.

    And as for yet another, bigger OUTBOUND sign, that still doesn’t address that Outbound is a confusing term that means different things for different lines. If you’re going to make a new sign, just say what you mean: “Trains to: West Portal, Zoo, Balboa Park”

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Jamison is right. Just display the next arrival in huge letters, permanently. Don’t scroll it. Don’t flash it. Don’t intersperse it with stupid messages about suspicious packages and the Bay Bridge closure.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed! Muni should focus on the most essential information, when there’s a train coming. It is embarassing that Muni is neglecting all those broken, cracked and dirt covered signs on the platform and dropping money on shamefully designed maps (it’s not like there’s a lack of competent designers in the Bay Area, this looks like something a committee of engineers came up with) in shamefully designed plastic boxes that look like they are about to fall off the wall and hanging from exposed conduit.

  • I agree with everyone above. Also, the new map totally looks like a robot claw.

  • I live right by Church Street Station. I think most people will think the new maps are clearer, but what Chruch Street Station really needs is maps at the station portals, so people know whether to bother walking all the way down to the platform or just wait for a J, N or F on the surface.

    Also, *still* has the useless extra steps of needing to select Northern California and Muni. I have most of the lines bookmarked on my ‘phone so it doesn’t bother me that often, but sheesh, how the hell did that make it past QA?!

  • I agree with Jamison. I am not excited about either map. They show too much information mostly useless to the riders. The only useful part is the little rectangle that show K is coming in 5 min. It should be magnified to occupy the whole screen so that it is legible 50 ft away.

    Inbound / outbound is a very confusing jargon. It should use the destination like K-downtown / K-Ingleside. This is the notation used in many other systems in the world. The display should show the letter prominently for frequent riders. The destination can be in a smaller font for people who need extra information.

    Instead of contracting the new display to outside firm, MUNI should just run a high school competition. The winning team will get one year of free MUNI pass. Not only can MUNI do this out of nothing, it also provide an opportunity to empower our young minds to improve our outmoded system.

  • The Missed Connection to the MARKET STREET LINE is a Missed and lost opportunity once  
    it’s built.Makes no sense not connecting there.


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