Signs of our time – Metrolinx pilot looks to guide transit customers better

Learn the science behind wayfinding tools that will get you moving quicker.

To help you find your way, Toban Allison first needs your guidance.

The lives of our customers are getting more complicated and busier almost every day. There are an endless number of places to be and countless appointments to keep track of.

So the last thing Toban believes you should be confused about is finding your way, quickly and accurately, around the transit network.

Toban is among the Metrolinx team working on improved signs across our network. Sometimes, improving your journey can be as simple as making it easier for you to know whether you’re at the right bus stop, the closest place to pay and where to board your ride.

Whatever the question, clear and consistent wayfinding tools are the answer. And there’s a science to understanding which tools are the most helpful. These are the signs, symbols and maps that stitch together a seamless and comfortable journey, recognizable at any transit station or stop. Customers can experience more than 150 of these tools now at Pickering GO Station during the Wayfinding Harmonization Pilot.

“In many ways, our customers are leading this project – they’re telling us what works and what doesn’t,” says Toban of feedback from Pickering customers, including being able to quickly see services and businesses within walking distance.

“The aim is for passengers to take the wayfinding tools for granted, because they work so well and guide so easily.”

It may seem easy to create a sign or map to tell you the way. But it involves extensive research, to make it easy for wayfinding information to be understood across the spectrum of society. And the messages should flow from one transit point to the next.

Metrolinx is spearheading The Wayfinding Harmonization project with input from ten transit agencies across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area: Brampton Transit, Burlington Transit, Durham Region Transit, GO Transit, Hamilton Street Railway, Milton Transit, MiWay, Oakville Transit, Toronto Transit Commission and York Region Transit.

Toban has been part of this initiative for a number of years, grappling with the challenges and working with our partners on the answers. He says: “If you ride transit today and take the same route every time, by now you might not even notice the signs. You probably don’t rely on the maps or directions to get where you’re going on your daily commute but with more transit coming, changes to our well-honed travel patterns are inevitable, and exciting, because it includes new opportunities to take transit to more places.

 “So, if you’re travelling from your comfortable, known, familiar service area to a less familiar service area or route, then the signs and maps and symbols really start to matter.”

Wayfinding Harmonization ensures that the same wayfinding system is used across your entire journey. That’s the consistency and level of comfort and customer experience we are striving for.

Developing and testing new wayfinding tools presents opportunities for innovation in the type of information we can provide to customers beyond the transit service info, including better maps, with more landmarks and services.

So what’s next? The Harmonized Wayfinding Pilot is on now at Pickering GO with new tools also being tested soon at Hamilton GO, Finch GO Bus Terminal, and UP Express stations. Customer experience with the pilot will inform the process going forward.

Toban explains: “Testing the new wayfinding tools in real customer settings is crucial to understanding what’s working and where the gaps are so we can address them.

 “To capture that in-transit experience we’ve arranged independent customer surveys and something called test journeys – where we ask participants to use the new wayfinding tools to perform a task such as walking to locations within the station or to a nearby destination shown in the area map. If they can do this with the information we’re providing through signs, symbols and maps then we’ve done our job.”

New wayfinding standards will be shared with our transit partners and used in all new Metrolinx transit projects, such as the Eglinton Crosstown.

Customer feedback during the pilot can also be provided through wayfinding@metrolinx.com, or by calling 1-888-GET-ON-GO (438-6646), toll-free, or 1-800-387-3652 TTY teletypewriters only. For more information please visit metrolinx.com/wayfinding.

The Science of wayfinding

Finding our way in strange or complicated surroundings can use multiple parts of our brains – as well as many of our senses. So the science of wayfinding is more than just posting up a sign that shows people the way to the nearest bathroom.

It’s about making the unfamiliar clearly familiar.

Here are eight things – among hundreds of important elements – wayfinding experts keep in mind as they help you navigate better:

  1. As humans, our brains are constantly evaluating our spatial knowledge – do we know our way around right now, or need to get our bearings? Cutting down on the time it takes travelers to understand a layout is crucial to seamless journeys.
  2. Wayfinding often uses four stages – orientation, route decisions, route monitoring and destination recognition.
  3. Even colour choices can impact wayfinding decisions.
  4. We constantly learn to react quicker to universal signals and signs – the reason why green lights and red lights are used around the world, and a wailing siren crosses cultural boundaries. So the more uniform the cues as we make our way around new surroundings – even assuming room 401 may likely be on the fourth floor – the more ease we have in charting a correct course.
  5. Without realizing it, humans create mental roadmaps and models of the areas we’re navigating. It’s the reason why you don’t usually keep bumping into things even if you’re not staring directly at them.
  6. Wayfinding experts are masters at knowing when we coast across a landscape – even a new one – and where we have to make decisions.
  7. While we make choices on our own as we make our way in the world – “Am I hungry and want to eat or do I want to catch a GO train now?” – wayfinding also includes social cues and habits, as we often follow a line of people if they’re moving in one direction.
  8. Wayfinding has to be accessible to all kinds of people who have many different mobility needs, languages and backgrounds.

Story by Kelly Thornton, Metrolinx senior advisor, communications and public engagement.