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Pointing the way to better transit

It’s Hattam Moktor’s second day in San Francisco. He arrived from Egypt yesterday and spent today seeing the sights in the city. Now he’s standing in front of an empty station agent’s booth at the Embarcadero BART station trying to get back to his brother’s East Bay apartment.

“I want to ask someone how to get there, so I came here, but there is no one to ask. So I found you! So I will ask you how to get there. Walnut Creek?” Moktor laughs.

Moktor pulls a crumpled BART map out of his back pocket, and we look at it together. What he needs is a Pittsburg-Bay Point train.

“How can I know this way, or this way?” Moktor asks.

“See that sign that says…”

“East Bay.”

“You are going to the East Bay. You’re going on the yellow line. See the sign blinking in red? That tells you the name of this train.”

“There’s many names?”


“Ok! I understand!”

“Watch the sign. When it says…”

“Pittsburg  Bay Point. I will take it. But where is the color? Where is the color? If I saw the color, it’s more easier for me.”

Even in a new city, using public transportation should not be this hard. The system should be designed in a way that’s totally intuitive. There’s actually a name for this; it’s called wayfinding.

“Wayfinding, in general, you find it as part of the process for public spaces and cities and trails – any place where you have users that are trying to connect with their environment,” explains Sue Labouvie.

She’s a graphic designer, with degrees in architecture and psychology, and she’s redesigning the way we navigate the Bay Area’s many transit systems. I meet her on the Embarcadero to look at some of the things she considers while doing this. She starts by talking about the station, pointing out some inconsistencies.

“You have MUNI coming in there, and you have BART coming in there and they're at different levels,” says Labouvie.

To the uninitiated, BART and MUNI seem like they might be the same thing. Both are trains. And in stations like Embarcadero or Civic Center, both run underground – from the same station. Labouvie’s job is to make that crystal clear to anyone who walks in. It’s part of a new MTC project called the Transit Connectivity Plan. 

“It's helping you to find your way,” says Jay Stagi, a transit planner at MTC. He’s in charge of the Wayfinding project. And he says the goals are simple: at every point where a rider might be confused, put a clear and informative sign there to tell him where to go.

“It is all about reducing stress, increasing clarity,” Labouvie says. “You don’t want people unhappy about missing their train because they couldn’t find where the train is leaving from.”

Sue Labouvie finds an example of this problem at the Embarcadero station. The station, like a huge part of the city’s transit network, is literally under our feet. But looking around, it’s not at all obvious how we’d even get to it – never mind use it. “There isn’t much that cues you, except the escalators going down,” says Labouvie.

Labouvie points out a symbol that she hopes will soon be a common sight all over the Bay Area. It’s a bright orange circle with a little letter “i” in the center. Even in a crowded urban landscape, it stands out. You can see it from at least a block away.

“They’ve used something that people can see from a distance so people know that’s where I can go and get my transit information,” says Labouvie.

The next step is to communicate that information in a way that makes sense and is easy to read. Under the orange “i” is a kiosk of maps called a Transit Information Display. This is another key part of the project. Bus lines and streetcars, BART stops and ferry terminals, Caltrain and AC Transit, are all clearly laid out on one map. On the other side is fare information and schedules. It’s much more comprehensive than what we’re used to, especially on BART.

“I think that BART station signage originally was very minimal because it was for commuter; they knew where they were going, they took the same route all the time,” says Labouvie.

I ask Labouvie to take me down into the Embarcadero BART station. Immediately, we can see what works.

We come down the stairs into BART and, like at an airport, we immediately see an overhead sign. There's only really one word on there – metro – and icons with arrows. There's a picture of a BART ticket. There's a picture of a stick figure at a counter talking to another stick figure behind the counter. Next to that: the orange circle with the little “i” in it.

Labouvie says this creates “a path that you use when you're going to a certain destination.” It's like a trail of breadcrumbs. Labouvie calls it “more sophisticated in the yellow brick road.”

In the next few months, visitors and locals alike will find hopefully find transit a little easier to navigate. It may not be quite as obvious as a yellow brick road. But it's a goal to shoot for.

Crosscurrents Transportation
Lisa Ratner is a volunteer reporter for KALW's Crosscurrents. Her favorite topics to cover are Public Transportation, Food Politics, Gender Politics, and Film.