Designing Effective Countdown Clocks for the MTA

Over the course of 2017, the MTA, overlord of New York’s transit system, took on the big and much-needed project of installing countdown clocks on all of its train lines, in every station. While they were an upgrade from nothing, the clocks showed very little consideration for the specific ways trains and customers of the NYC subway operate.

I’ve been building a personal list of complaints with the MTA’s train countdown clocks for a while, but seeing this tweet was what tipped me over the edge to actually putting pen to paper on a better solution:

For those not from the area or who haven’t noticed this issue, what he’s talking about is the second row on this display. It cycles through the next six trains to arrive, showing you their estimated arrival time and destination.

This is a (lazy, obvious) solution that works for stations where more than two types of trains pass through, but this particular station is served only by the 7, in two directions. The sign should always be displaying the next train to Manhattan and the next train to Queens.

In its current form, you may have to wait as much as 30 seconds to see the next train in your direction if it isn’t in the number one spot.

What makes a good countdown clock?

We do need some way to see more than the next two trains – at many stations, multiple trains run along the same track, and many platforms serve two tracks – an express and a local. Being able to see what other trains are further down the line can help commuters make decisions: take the local that’s arriving now, or wait for the express?

Despite the complexity of the NYC Subway’s design, the fundamental design of the countdown clocks is the same as those used in simpler systems like Paris’, where, with rare exception, every platform serves only one track and only one type of train. NYC Subway stations need a countdown clock designed with the Subway’s specific and unique service patterns and commuter needs in mind. So let’s do it.

With the aid of the excellent subway track map by vanshnookenraggen, I studied the entire system until I was sure I had a good grip on the most complex possible scenario for one of these countdown clocks: A clock positioned at the mezzannine level of a station with local and express service in both directions, with as many as three trains on a single track. For example, 57th St station on the Broadway line is served in both directions by the Q on the express track, and the N, R, and W trains on the local track:

Small improvements add up.

Let’s start by simply improving the typography of the sign to be more legible at a distance, and to better align with the MTA signage guidelines:

From here, we can make a clear functional improvement by using the horizontal space to show the next train on the track:

The black and white sections are potentially confusing here, it turns out. Nearly everyone I showed this design to first read the black section as being the time of the next train, though they quickly understood the actual meaning upon another second’s look. Not good enough. I decided to turn the cells into overlapping cards, giving a slight shadow and affordance to them to reinforce the idea that these trains are behind each other on the track.

Combined with the basic knowledge of how trains operate, reading the times left to right, and the visual cue of having one card “behind” another, slightly de-emphasized, everyone grasped this design much more easily.

However, as I found earlier, there is a sweet spot of knowing the next three trains to come: in regular service, three is the upper limit of the number of train types that may arrive on one track. By stacking the repetitive “min” indicator under the numbers, I made more room for more trains and actually increased the size of the text, making it easier to see at a distance.

It’s still possible that your train wouldn’t be listed (for example, if there were two C trains and an A train first in line, the D would be fourth and not displayed). However, in this case you likely have all the information you need to make a decision anyway – your train will not be here very soon.

For one-track platforms, the single row affords more white-space and larger type, just making the information design better.


I know New Yorkers won’t hold back if they see this – and I want to hear it. Did I crack it? Did I blow it? How could this be improved upon further? I’m on Twitter @AdamFC, please let me have it.

Handsome image of Adam Fisher-Cox smiling in an autumn setting. Adam Fisher‑Cox

I’m a pragmatic product and user experience designer with an interest in user-focused, public-good projects. I’m currently on the product team at The Wall Street Journal, working on the video and audio platforms.

Around the web, I’m posting photos on Instagram, work-in-progress on Dribbble, and writing about design on Medium.

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