Observation: Subway Kiosks


The MTA’s subway information system (the “On the Go Travel Station”) tests the negative limit of what might be described as interactive. I hadn’t actually tried to use one before doing this observation, but in the interest of science, I walked up to one and touched its enormous and rather lovely screen.

The available options are very few, especially when compared with how the machine looks – new and nicely built, with good graphics, you expect it to be able to tell you anything you might want to know about the subway system, say perhaps the contents of the MTA’s website (full train schedules, bus info, upcoming planned service interruptions, etc.), retooled for the kiosk interface. But no. The kiosks (at Union Square, at least) give you precisely three possibilities – a map that gives you train information for the quickest way to your destination (either another subway station or one of a preset menu of points of interest):


a list of current service interruptions affecting the lines running through this particular station (but as far as I could tell, only lines running through this station):


and a guide to elevators and escalators in the station. Additionally, there’s a pretty good local street map that opens if you click on the “i” icon over Union Square on the map that figures out quick train routes, but nothing that tells you that that will happen, and nothing that points you towards it if you’re looking for it.


That’s very limited functionality for what these machines must have cost, and it showed on the faces of most of the people I saw using one. They would walk up, start pressing buttons, stand there certain they must be missing something, and then walk away.

When the machine is resting normally (i.e. nobody is using it) it displays advertising, and a helpful fourth function, a list of arrival times for the trains in the station. I believe it takes schedule data (the header of the list says “scheduled arrival times”) rather than real-time information, but that makes sense since only a relatively few lines have that capability so far.

Unfortunately there’s no way to actually call that screen up if you want to see it. Normally not a problem as it displays on rotation with the ads, but when there’s a service interruption, it replaces the resting screen with a solid service advisory screen:


with the consequence that now there’s no way to see the scheduled trains for the station. And the four functions become three once again…

But it was very interesting to watch actual humans try to interact with the machine. I noticed that a few people pulled up information they wanted and then pulled out their phones to take pictures. Mostly, though, it was just people scrolling through again and again, looking for something that wasn’t there.

I’m not sure if this limitation is just the first phase and they have plans and capabilities to add more features as the program rolls out, but the kiosks have been up for nearly two years now. It’s mystifying that they give less information than the platform bulletin boards do, but they are pretty to look at.


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