This is a guest post from reader Rob Mayo. It first appeared here.

Too often, as designers and operators of public transport infrastructure and services, we ignore the roles that psychology and behavioural science play to make the PT environment human-centered and thereby attractive to people. We too often pay both sciences lip service and as a result, we regularly fail to adequately cope during a service disruption, be it small or large.

By failing to understand and appreciate the various aspects that make up the human condition, we keep on creating places that work against us – train stations and bus stops that look and feel like a prison or like an uninsulated shed during a storm, PT boarding and alighting points that have inadequate shelter, that do not cater for any degree of visual impairment, that provide no communication during service disruptions, that give no sense of where you are on the network and where you’re heading and are in summary, just downright unfriendly and uncomfortable places to be in.

Not so however in Japan. Here, all aspects of the public transport service user experience are taken seriously and improvements are made based on psychology and behavioural science. Simply put, in Japan the emphasis is on human-centered design thinking – research, solution ideation, rapid prototyping, solution iteration, reviewing, tweaking, deploying a solution, reviewing it and including large numbers of users in the review process, then tweaking the solution again and again after deployment. PT service user experience solutions in Japan are invariably a hybrid of the physical and the digital. No one in Japan ever thinks that all problems can be solved with an app…from the Japanese point of view, that’s never how the real world works.

As this article points out, preventing small or large disruptions is crucial to the efficient functioning of a mass transit network in Japan and its the simple solutions generated from such an approach that are the most effective – blue lighting to reduce anxiety and stress while waiting for a bus and a train, pleasant-to-the-ear yet noticeable melodies and sounds for train / bus departure and through-station train passing, sounds to indicate the position of stairs, escalators, lifts etc, wayfinding that makes navigation of any PT service easy and stress-free…and retail outlets both small and large in exactly the places people would love them to be.

Outside of Japan and North Asia, we need to stop thinking that PT network service disruption is an inevitable by-product of network development – something to be put up with. There is a lot we can learn from Japan about its ‘nudge theory’ approach to service disruption management, human-centered place-making design and place-affirming service provision.

Japan is pointing out to us, that equal in priority to facilitating and managing large numbers of people through a PT network daily, is providing the mechanisms to ‘traffic calm’ – to reduce human stress and anxiety as that ‘calming’ not only keeps PT service users safe, it contributes positively to their mental wellbeing….and incidentally, when you’re calm, you’re more in the mood to buy things / buy more things. Japan as we know, remains number one in the world for Transit-oriented Development and for non-farebox revenue generation….”Yes Sir / Madam, you can absolutely have fries with that.”

Apply a behavioural science and psychology approach to service disruption prevention and we will get reduction in both occurrence and disruption after-effects. Do that and we can then apply the same approach to place-affirming service offerings and the ongoing revenue streams that flow from there.

We as transport service designers and operators must constantly remind ourselves that with this human behavioural science approach to problem resolution and opportunity development, we go from good to great. Without it, we’re just managing the status quo.

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  1. I am eternally amazed, that with only one train every two days leaving Wellington for Auckland, that it departs late every single day.

    The easiest departure in the world. Only one platform to manage. 48 hours to prepare for departure. And still they screw it up every time. Amazing.

    1. Strange, the Northern Explorer is scheduled to depart The Strand at 7:45am, my train is scheduled to enter Britomart at 7:44, yet I vary rarely see the NE at the platform.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Rob. Can we quickly get some legislation in place to ban using sounds to disperse ‘potentially disruptive’ teenagers that the older passengers can’t hear! Don’t forget, there’s no such thing as age-related hearing loss in the jungle; we get deafer because we abuse our hearing.

    1. I’m personally not a fan of using high frequency sound as a deterrence tool but I can certainly attest to the value of deploying pleasant-to-the-ear sounds in stations and service interchanges, as specific location identifiers, passenger safety alerts, etiquette nudges and service arrival / departure markers. Japan stations have such sounds designed as a ‘sound-set’ and these sets not only perform their individual functions very well – they overall, make stations vibrant, comfortable and reassuring places to be in. Sound design in stations and interchanges is a key aspect of behavioural science we outside of Japan need to make use of to prevent / minimise service disruption and create a more comfortable built environment for passengers.

      1. Incidentally, sound design involves not only creating new sounds but identifying the value of reapplying sounds created for use in other situations. An NEC office desktop phone ringtone has been reapplied by Tokyu Rail as the warning sound for trains passing through stations at speed. Its a pleasant to the ear sound but its tonality and pitch is such that its a very effective alert, even when heard at a distance.

        1. Don’t the Japanese also have music in the lavatories? 🙂 Only thing to be wary of at our bus and train stations is being stranded for hours by a service disruption and having to hear the same sounds over and over. It might change a soothing sound into something not so welcome… and it’s probably a valid NZ-specific concern?

        2. There are Exeloo type public toilets in Japan with piped music but like in NZ, they are in the minority. Some models of toilets for Japanese homes have a music play function but that is easily switched off. In JP stations in the countryside where you can often wait 30-60 minutes between services, the only regular sound you hear coming through the PA speakers, is birdsong – audio navigation for blind people from the lift to the centre of the platform. Heard at regular intervals, the pitch and melody of the birdsong is such that it never, ever grates, even when you’re stressed. As I indicated above, its all about the thoughtful design of each sound for the location and situation. The Japanese are very good at this and we can learn a lot from them on how best to apply this in NZ, including satisfactorily addressing the concern you have raised here.

        3. I thought that almost all the Exceloos had piped music – and they ALL play “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love . . . ” C’mon Exceloo, how about buying the rights to at least one more tune. Or even two . . . ?

  3. On Sunday we visited Washington DC. For accommodation we chose a small town on the MARC commuter line intending to use that for transport but found that there is no weekend service. We drove to the Shady Grove at the end of the Metro red line. After getting there we found that due to weekend work on the tracks there was a bus substitution for part of the route. It was well organised for the inward journey, albeit slow. The return was somwhat shambolic. One bus to meet an 8 car train meant that many were left behind and at the other end the train left before all of the bus passengers could board. We would have saved an awful lot of time by driving all the way.

    Tomorrow morning it’s Amtrak to Houston. I am looking forward to it.

    1. What you experienced in DC on a Sunday is unfortunately a familiar story these days in many cities around the world and as per what I have written above, these occurences can be prevented or the effects minimised through applying a behavioural science approach.

  4. Nice post. Always interested in the quirks of Japanese transit and why we don’t adopt some of their practices that seem to work well.

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