Cities, by nature, are multilingual. New York City (especially Queens) is one of the most linguistically-diverse places on Earth. On top of that, major cities such as New York attract (when there isn’t a pandemic happening) tens of millions of visitors every year from around the world, further adding to the number of languages being spoken in the city. The signs we use to navigate public transit should reflect this. On some transit systems this is already the case: signs and announcements may include translations into the languages of neighboring countries, and English in addition—but wayfinding on New York City’s transit, and many other US transit systems, is mostly English-only. Work to make public transit fully accessible must include the addition of multilingual signage and announcements to existing ones.
The Paris Example
Paris’ Métro and RER systems provide an example of how crucial information can be provided multilingually. Informational announcements—such as an unusually large platform gap at an upcoming station—are typically announced in at least three languages: French, English, and one of either German, Italian, or Spanish. (Announcements on Métro Line 1, which serves many of the city’s major tourist sites, also adds Japanese). This is carried over to more general platform announcements, such as advice for traveling in hot weather, and reminders to be aware of pickpocketing. Service interruptions or changes, such a suspension of trains to Charles de Gaulle Airport, or the fact that some trains are shorter than the platform length, are also provided in several languages.
While our MetroCard vending machines offer multilingual interfaces, we could probably make more obvious that they are, in fact, fare machines: other than the scrolling LED sign (which is too often warning you that some functionality of the machine isn’t available) our MetroCard vending machines don’t actually advertise very obviously from a distance that they are where you buy fares. With the new fare payment system, OMNY, being rolled out, and the increasing de-emphasis on in-person fare transactions, we should look to follow international examples in making clearer where riders buy fares.
What NYC Should Do
To the MTA’s credit, a large amount of their temporary printed signage—such as posters for service changes—is multilingual. Typically, longer-term rather than short-term service changes are advertised multilingually; there are few examples of permanent multilingual signs.
While the MTA website can be translated by Google Translate into any of the 109 languages on that service, this function is kept pretty hidden at the very bottom of the website’s pages—rather than at the top of the page, where it is easy to identify. While keeping Google Translate as an option for many languages may be beneficial, for those most commonly spoken in New York City, it might be worthwhile to have a dedicated site for those languages and a staff to ensure pages are translated accurately.
We should add multilingual announcements and permanent information signs. New York’s subway system employs most of the typical subway informational announcements—mind the gap, et cetera—that are multilingual in Paris; they should be multilingual here as well. The ones which we don’t employ already—such as health advice for high-heat days, common on European systems—should be added, as they apply equally here. One of the reasons such system-wide general announcements have not been used in the past is because the system has, until relatively recently, lacked the infrastructure to push messaged from control centers to passengers in stations. There remain 76 stations on the subway which remain equipped only with analog public address systems, but the MTA has provided funding in the current capital plan (p.67) for these stations to be upgraded to the newer, centralized PA/CIS system. We should take this opportunity to provide better, and multilingual, informational announcements to passengers. In order to keep announcements reasonably concise, this would also entail shortening existing scripts of said announcements, which I don’t think anyone would complain about.
Wherever possible, we should eliminate “walls of text” in wayfinding and informational signs, and lean more heavily on universally-recognizable subway symbology such as line bullets. The recent addition of digital strip maps to platform advertising screens is a hugely positive step in this direction: these allow passengers to see which stations arriving trains stop at—and whether their destination is served—without having to decipher text describing service patterns of each line. Reinforcing digital signage with more permanent line strip maps, which are employed by many metro systems, in certain locations would also be beneficial.
Other information which can significantly change the way people interact with our transit system should be multilingual as well. One example of this—again, carried over from Paris—is alerting riders of shorter trains. There are many platforms on the subway which regularly serve trains shorter than their platforms’ lengths (the entire 6th Avenue line and Queens Boulevard local stops, for example, not to mention the infamous G train). At bus stops, information about frequency of buses, and about the span of service (for example, lack of late night or weekend service) should also be translated. The MTA already uses information about local demographics to translate service change posters into languages appropriate for given neighborhoods, and the same method should be carried over for bus stops.
The example provided by Paris is not perfectly suited to New York City, given its normally extremely high degree of linguistic diversity, in addition to high tourism, but a similar implementation of multilingualism is still possible in NYC. In addition to multilingual service change posters in specific neighborhoods, the MTA also uses a common set of languages—English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Haitian Creole—on some signs (such as some of the subway etiquette information, COVID-19 posters, safety posters, and legal notices). These should be the basis for multilingual announcements, and the combination used at specific stations, and on specific lines, can be determined by languages spoken in the surrounding community. The MTA should trial multilingual announcements on existing trains, and include them in the under-production R211 fleet. Additionally, focusing on quality translations of the MTA’s website into these languages would be a good way of making the website more accessible.
In terms of more permanent signs, travel to and from the region’s airports is a likely need for visitors to the city. Information on airport travel from central stations should be translated on signs, and readily available on the website—visitors to the city who feel comfortable using public transit to get into the city for the first time are probably more likely to continue using it throughout their time in the city. At busier stations, safety information—platform gaps, advice not to wait in certain parts of platforms—should be translated on permanent signs.
Of all of the things which US transit agencies should to do increase transit’s mode share, this may seem relatively small. But that’s also (kind of) the point here: this is not a proposal for a major capital project or top-to-bottom upheaval of agency structure. Making signage and announcements multilingual is something that can be accomplished without great cost, but can go a long way to making both native New Yorkers and those new to the city and subway system feel more welcome and more comfortable with navigating the subway. Public transit is an important—for many, necessary—way of getting around the city and accessing employment or education. Inevitably there will be people who, because signage is confusing, opt not to use public transit, but taxis, ride-sharing services, or private automobiles instead, if they are able to—because they can be sure that they will reach their destination without confusion or stressful navigation. This is a failure of transit agencies to make their systems fully-accessible.
This focused on New York and Paris because they are two systems which I’ve used. But the examples here could be—and should be—exported equally to other US transit systems, most of which have overwhemingly-English-only signage despite covering far more diverse areas. As a change which can be made relatively easily, multilingual signage deserves more attention from policymakers looking to expand the accessibility and appeal of public transit.