New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority is moving ahead with the second phase pilot of its On the Go! Travel Stations, digital signage wayfinding kiosks located in subway stations, according to an announcement from MTA New York City Transit.
MTA's Senior Director of Corporate and Internal Communications Paul J. Fleuranges said in a recent interview that the second phase will involve a rollout of at least 77 — and possibly more than 100 — of the kiosks to selected subway corridors across the city.
And if it goes as planned, this pilot could lead to a request-for-proposal bidding process to win the contract to deploy several thousand of the devices across all of the MTA's subway and train stations throughout the city, he said.
The five-location first phase of the pilot was launched in late 2011 in collaboration with Cisco Systems Inc., and was deemed successful enough to warrant a second phase, the MTA said in its announcement. The decision to move forward with a second proof-of-concept phase of the pilot was based on positive customer feedback to the kiosks and to determine if the network could work on a larger scale, the agency said. In February 2012, MTA Real Estate issued a Request for Expression of Interest, or RFEI, soliciting responses from agencies and companies interested in being an advertising agent or sponsor of a future, large-scale network of On the Go! Travel Stations.
As a result of the RFEI process, the MTA will enter into license agreements with CBS Outdoor and Control Group Inc. in a public/private partnership requiring that the two licensees purchase the kiosks and deliver them to NYC Transit for installation, the MTA said. CBS Outdoor will provide 30 kiosks and Control Group will provide anywhere from 47 to 90 kiosks.
The limited initial pilot went well, Fleuranges said, with about nine out of 10 riders saying they noticed the kiosks and between 60 and 90 percent saying that the kiosks made them feel more comfortable or confident about using the subway.
Just as importantly, the initial pilot provided some key lessons to take forward into the second phase and beyond:
No. 1: One just isn't enough.
"We learned early on," Fleuranges said, "that if we were going to roll this out, that you couldn't just have one machine, because it's kind of a one-to-one device."
Instead, he said, each station would need several of the devices, and in several locations within the station. Some of the larger complexes such as Grand Central or Penn Station could have 15 to 17 of the kiosks, to reach travelers as soon as they enter the station.
"So that's one of the things that we want to look at with this proof-of-concept pilot, the ability for the network to handle two or three machines in several places within a station," Fleuranges said. "We want to be able to message them at the station level if something is going on."
The MTA currently sends out email and text alerts and uses the Web and social media, he said, but its lists for alerts are a small fraction of the system's daily ridership numbers. The digital signage kiosks should allow the MTA to hit travelers with information as they enter a station, for example if a train route is delayed for a police investigation.
"If my team, the team that pushes out those messages, can push out a granular message to a rider as he enters 149th and 3rd in the Bronx, to say that the 2 and 5 aren't running because there's a police investigation, then that's a win for me, and that's something that I can't readily do now," he said. "Or if that's the case and I can tell you what the alternate is, that's even better for me, because now my customer has that information; they can make that transit decision at the point of entrance."
No. 2: "Maybe the display we have now isn't the optimal display."
The kiosk's current touchscreen ran into something of "a generational issue," Fleuranges said. Travelers below a certain age tended to pick up on the fact that the screen was a touch-enabled interface right away, he said, while others above that age range tended to look at it for a while and be uncertain about what to do with it.
So part of the RFEI for the second phase involved finding partners who could improve on the customer experience and make it clear to users that the screens are touch-enabled and how to use them, he said.
"We want to get people who are experts at engaging customers through digital signage to do this," he said. "So we're asking partners to design the customer interface so that people get that it's something they should touch and interact with, and make the customer interface more appealing."
No. 3: What to push and pull?
"We also learned that we need to think about when people pull information and when to push information," Fleuranges said.
Since the number of riders signed up email and text alerts is so small compared to overall ridership, and since there's a concurrent project to provide Wi-Fi access throughout the subway system, "does that mean that we have to push information more, or is digital signage going to be something that people pull from?" he asked.
No. 4: They won't even know that they know.
"The other thing that we learned is that the kiosks can provide information to people that they're not necessarily aware of," such as the wait time until the next subway arrives, Fleuranges said.
The kiosks' current default screen is a "service status screen," that tells if trains are on time or delayed, he said. While a "very small segment" of the subway system already has countdown clocks to let riders know when the next will arrive, he said, but it's possible the On the Go! kiosks also could fill that role in the interim between now and clocks being deployed in the other 60 percent of the system, he said. "We're looking to check to see if people will use this device for that information, and we think they will."
No. 5: Make it like their phone.
"Another lesson learned is that we have to provide — and this is something I heard at Digital Signage Expo out in Vegas a couple weeks ago — a high-quality digital customer experience," Fleuranges said.
And that's what the MTA is looking for its partners to help develop, he said, so that not only will customers use the kiosk because it has worthwhile information, but because it's easy to use, intuitive and provides them the same flexibility as their smartphone or tablet.
"That's one of the things we learned early on: It has to be what people are used to now," he said. "People are not afraid of interactive screens anymore; in fact, everything they touch is interactive, so our screen has to be as good as what you get on your phone."
Saving paper, and seeng green
The benefits of the kiosks are potentially wide-ranging in a variety of areas, from saving paper to saving — or even making — money, Fleuranges said.
"The other thing we want to do with this device is just provide information about unplanned events instead of using paper," he said.
For instance, the MTA does most of its capital work projects on weekends, starting at 11 p.m. on Friday and ending at 5 a.m. on Monday.
"We put up a lot of signage, but ... people always complain, 'I didn't know,'" he said. "I have a print shop that prints millions of pieces of paper a year; we want to be able to get that information to you in a different way that maybe you'll notice ... So a digital sign I think people will notice, and if they get used to seeing those signs and used to using it as an information source, I can cut down on the amount of paper that I print."
And the kiosks also can help ease travel for tourists, letting them use the touchscreen interface to map out their travel and look for attractions along their route, instead of trying to figure it out while deciphering a huge wall map, he said. "So That's what we want to do with this device, and we think it's going to be a win for us and also for our customers, whether they're regular customers who use the system on a daily basis, customers who use it three to five days a week, or tourists coming to town."
The second phase is scheduled to go through 2015, but there's also the possibility that it could go so well that it speeds up that timeline, Fleuranges said. If it's clear the second phase is a success after six months, he indicated the RFP could go out then. And with 460 subway stations and the possibility of adding in the MTA's train stations as well, the potential number of kiosks "could easily get up to the multiple of thousands, 2,500 to 4,000 easily," he said.
The second pilot also will allow the MTA and its advertising partners to explore potential drawbacks to the digital signage kiosks, such as the potential for "cannibalization" of its ad revenues if it is used as a de facto digital out-of-home network, Fleuranges said.
If the MTA can generate additional revenue, "that would be great," and even if it's just enough to cover maintenance and installation costs "then it's still a win," he said. But if it's the case that the devices can generate an additional revenue stream on top of what the agency already brings in though its other advertising channels, "then it'll be a huge win" for the MTA, he said.
Either way, the kiosks could be a success just by making life easier for subway travelers, he said.
"We have always said that either it could be ad-supported, or maybe not, and whether or not it's ad-supported may not actually impact on our decision to roll this out anyway, because first and foremost it's a digital customer information device."
(Images courtesy of the MTA.)
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Christopher is the editor of DigitalSignageToday.com. A longtime freelance writer and reporter, he's bringing a fresh perspective and critical take on the industry.