Monday, October 26, 2009

Spatial, narrative and habit navigation

I may be covering things that have already been discussed, but this is something I haven't seen elsewhere before, so if you have, please point me to it.

Jarrett's recent post about spatial vs. narrative navigation, and Angus's reaction, got me thinking about something I've been trying to put into words for a long time. When some transit advocates talk about navigation tools, sometimes it seems like they think there's only one kind of user for any given transit facility. Meanwhile, I can think of four: old-time regular users, new regulars, occasional users and tourists. Each group has its own wayfinding needs, and what helps one group may be useless to another.

Tourists and occasional users are the most likely to use spatial navigation. They have an origin, a destination and a set of landmarks. They can consult the map on the wall, or the map in their heads, and plot out a good route. Of course, plenty of them get narrative directions from a regular user or from a trip planning program, which they can then memorize, write down or print out.

I would argue that regular, long-time users go beyond narrative navigation to something else, especially if they have a set routine. They walk the same way from their home to the station or stop, maybe picking up coffee or a newspaper along the way. They prewalk to the spot that will put them in the best place when the train stops. They often know the conductor and the other regular passengers. They know the best route to transfer, and their routine at the work end is similarly predictable.

These old-time regulars don't need maps or even timetables. They show up in the same place at the same time every day, and either the train comes or it's late. They usually know the times of the trains before and after, in case they're a little early or late.

New regulars often get shown the trip by the old regulars, but they may also find their way through spatial or narrative navigation methods. After they've taken the trip enough times, though, they become old regulars and everything is done by habit.

Some transit agencies go out of their ways to help tourists, like the ones in New York, London, etc. They not only have maps on the walls, but have free system maps and timetables in every station. Others may post a map or have a timetable available, but leave out critical information. In some places, the system maps are only available in a central location. Many jitney systems have no published information at all, and rely entirely on word of mouth. Just about every travel book involving transit has a scene or two where the traveler is confronted with a complicated system and absolutely no documentation.

For a transit geek, a lack of information can be positive or negative. It definitely makes learning the system more challenging. This can be fun if we don't have to get anywhere soon, and if the system doesn't wind up marooning us in some suburb when rush hour ends. But if we actually want to learn the system in a reasonable amount of time it can be maddening.

Many transit customer service people don't know how to deal with an explorer. I can't tell you the number of times I've asked about a route and been asked in response, "where do you want to go?" It's hard to explain that I don't want to go anywhere right now, but am wondering if I'll find out someplace interesting to visit along this route. I usually just mumble something and excuse myself, since there's a line of people behind me who actually have to go somewhere in particular.

I've also had the experience of finding the person who has access to the cabinet in the central office where the map booklets have been sitting, and they're quite pleased that someone actually wants the schedule for the elusive #10Y bus. I think these two experiences point to something that is worth stressing: that in the vast majority of transit systems, most passengers are old-time regulars. In other words, if you took away all the maps, timetables and brochures, only a small number of people would notice.

Now I'm going to ask a difficult question: do these people matter? Clearly not, to some of the transit systems, or else they would have made more of an effort to develop good materials and put them out there where people can see them. The dollar vans in New Jersey make plenty of money without published maps and schedules, so why go to that extra expense?

Do they matter to us? Well, only as far as they fulfill our goals of access for all and getting people out of their cars. First of all, if there's a class of people that wants to use the transit service but is being systematically excluded through insufficient information, then that's bad. For example, a Mexican living in Sunset Park who spends an hour on the train to Corona to visit relatives but could get there in half an hour if he knew about the Chinatown vans. Any community with a high level of illiteracy can also be a challenge for outreach.

As far as getting people out of their cars, we need to look again at which people need more information: tourists, occasional users and new regulars. There are plenty of cities with perfectly functional transit systems that are shunned by tourists - but there are also possible class issues involved as well. There are people who will use the train or bus for their regular commute but drive or take taxis to all other destinations, even though they may be more convenient by transit. Finally, there are people who make a trip by car every day and never learn that they could be taking transit. Remember all the stories from last year's oil price spike with people who said, "I never realized that the bus was so easy; I'm not going back to driving!"

I think the proportions are different in each town, but each transit agency should sit down and look at the number of potential customers they could be getting from tourists, occasional users and regulars, and then survey those populations to see what it would take to get them to use the system. One agency may discover that they could capture a big chunk of the tourist market that currently gets stuck in traffic driving to XYZLand. Another may realize that their commuter passengers could be converted into nightlife passengers. A third could find that there are frustrated commuter drivers that just need to know about the 28X express service.

On the other hand, it may just be that everyone who needs to know about the system finds out by word of mouth, and nobody needs to waste time. That transit geek who wants to find out where the G33 goes? He can stop by the central office and pick up a wad of timetables.


Jarrett at said...

Great post. I agree that the regular rider is no longer consciously thinking in either narrative or spatial terms, but I think those categories are still relevant to explain what they do in the event of a disruption or surprise. Great information -- including great information about disruptions -- provides the same information in both map and narrative forms for this reason.

I suspect most transit agencies' thinking on this is overly influenced by (a) the personal navigational preferences of their own staff and (b) the navigational preferences of the people who call them regularly. People who navigate by narrative are much more likely to call asking for help, becuase, well, it's hard to convey maps over the phone.

When it comes to studying their markets as you suggest, transit agencies need to have a dose of humility about what they can realistically survey or count. Too often, they just survey who's already on the buses, which of course doesn't tell them what markets they're missing. But it's becoming almost impossible to get statistically valid surveys of the public using traditional phone survey methods, and even that doesn't capture tourists.

Silli said...

I'm a "transit tourist" and it's often very difficult to get a comprehensive understanding of the system. NYC has "the big map" but in lots of other cities one needs to pick up 10+ brochures, each describing separate bus lines. Here in Stamford, CT, for the longest time I relied on a Spanish language bus system map because it was the only one that they had copies of at the transit center.