Why people run for a train that won’t leave for 5 minutes, and what we can do about it

It’s a scene that plays itself out at subway stations thousands of times a day: A train is sitting at the station, doors open, waitSubwaying to depart.  A person walks into the station, and not knowing when the train is about to go, sprints towards the first open door.

It’s the result of a personal calculation that transit riders make.  Not knowing if the train is about to close its doors and depart, the best thing they can do is run for the train, just in case.  It’s the best they can do with the limited information they have.

This isn’t really a problem at most stations or bus stops, where the train or bus isn’t waiting around for several minutes before leaving.  It’s only a problem at terminal stations at the end of the line.

On many American transit systems, it’s common for the bus/train to leave the terminal with no warning.  There are several things wrong with this:

•Passengers decide to run, regardless of whether they have to or not.  This is stressful and makes the public transit experience less pleasant.

•It’s frustrating to run for a train that then sits there for 10 minutes.

•It’s frustrating to walk through the station and have the train leave before you can get on board.

•If everyone things the train is about to depart and gets in the first door they can, the first car they reach will be full, and subsequent cars will be empty. It messes with load distribution.

In the past decade, transit agencies have started to install signage that tells customers when the next vehicle is going to depart.  This is great, but it will be a long time before every terminal rail station is equipped with these and their readings are accurate.  We may never reach the point where the end of every bus line has these signs.

But there’s a much simpler solution.  In order to prevent leaving behind passengers or forcing them to run through the station unnecessarily, all that needs to happen is some kind of warning that the train is about to depart.  I’m not talking about the beep-beep-doors-closing alarm.  By the point those go off, it’s already too late for a lot of people.

In the olden days, it was common practice on many streetcar systems for the motorman to ring the gong 1 minute or 30 seconds before leaving the terminal.  This was the sign to any straggling passengers that they’d better hurry up. And that way,

This practice continues today in some places.  At Hoboken Terminal, in addition to departure screens, the HBLR cars sound the bell about 30 seconds before departing.

There is no practical equivalent for buses.  Should bus operators honk their horn 30 seconds before pulling out?  Probably not.

And as for the New York City subway, there are many stations where a sound-the-horn or ring-the-bell could do wonders to make the commuting experience easier.  And while we’re at it, let’s have the MTA move some of the departure screens to station entrances, so that people can know if they have to run or if they can slow down.

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