Plentiful signage at this CTA station makes it easy to figure out which station you’re at and where you need to catch your train. Photo by Mickey B. All other images courtesy of the author.
This guest post was contributed by Rachel Hyman, a senior at the University of Chicago who studies geography. A resident of Hyde Park, she’s made it her mission to see every corner of Chicago, by bike if possible. In her free time, she edits the literary blog Banango Lit.
Almost all of my experience with urban public transit has been in Chicago, so I was excited to come out to San Francisco for a summer internship and scope out their system. to get to work I take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), essentially a subway that runs within San Francisco and in the East Bay. In Chicago, I live in Hyde Park, which doesn’t have great access to the ‘L’, so it’s nice to live closer to a train station here. Just last week, though, I had an experience which soured me a bit on BART.
BART system map.
Wayfinding, which Grid Chicago has discussed before, is a series of cues that help travelers orient themselves in space to make a journey. Put succinctly, BART has poor wayfinding. The system includes five lines running in two directions. All the lines either go towards various places in the East Bay, or south towards SFO Airport/Millbrae on the peninsula. The lines, which are colored red, orange, yellow, green, and blue, all run on the same track within San Francisco.
When you get down into a BART station, there are a few hanging signs that point you towards the East Bay on one side, and SFO/Millbrae on the other side. Oftentimes when I go into a station I have to hunt for the overhanging sign to check which side of the platform I’m supposed to be on. In Chicago, in contrast, there are plenty of signs mounted on the columns (e.g. O’Hare & Forest Park on the Blue Line) that make it easy to figure out where you need to wait.
Overhanging signs on BART are not prominent and are few and far between.
Not only does the dearth of wayfinding signs on BART make it tricky to determine where you need to wait for your train, it also makes it hard figure out whether you have to get off the train. I’ve found that Chicago takes care of this issue pretty well. When the ‘L’ train I’m riding pulls up to a platform I can easily identify where I am based on the signage outside. In San Francisco I’m forced to rely on the conductor announcing the stop (often hard to hear), or simply counting how many stops there have already been. This is a suboptimal system, particularly for visitors who are unfamiliar with the transit system.
It’s often hard to tell what station you’re at when the train pulls up.
Another difficult aspect of wayfinding on BART is that all trains look the same. Despite the system map marking lines with different colors, there are no indications on the trains themselves as to which line they are or destination they’re heading to, unlike in Chicago. Instead, when a train approaches, overhanging electronic signs that are spaced out along the platform list the ultimate destination of the train.
My unfortunate experience last week was that I got down to the platform just as a train was approaching and the sign read “Daly City.” Daly City is south on the peninsula, and that was the train I needed to get on. However, the destination points of each line — Daly City, SFO, Fremont, etc. — hadn’t quite fixed themselves in my mind after only a month in town. By the time I had sorted out my mental map enough to figure out that it was the right train, it was already pulling away. Needless to say, I was annoyed with myself but another Daly City train came shortly after that.
A BART train heading to Daly City, like the one Rachel missed due to San Francisco’s subpar wayfinding.
I take BART every day, and I still find the wayfinding to be lacking. Wayfinding is important for both residents and visitors to orient themselves, get where they’re going and, by extension, feel comfortable in a place. Chicago’s transit system may have its share of problems, but it’s legions better than the BART in the wayfinding department.