• Final Mile

Chicago transit authority – Right diagnosis. Wrong Prescription


We caught this piece of communication developed by Chicago Transit Authority(CTA). The basic point of this is to tell people that the train is faster than you think. There is a scientific backing to this misjudgment of speed. Our brain underestimates the speed of large objects, including trains. Often, while crossing tracks, even after spotting a train, we tend to attempt to cross because the train appears to be moving slower. (Leibowitz hypothesis). Look at this amateur video to see this in action.

Now, how do we solve this problem ? The approach used by CTA is based on the assumption that making people aware of this shortcomings is good enough to solve this problem. The belief is that people will take in this information, process it and put it to use when they are in such situation. The same kind of thinking that automobile companies adopt when it comes to warning about the distance of objects in the rear view mirrors.

This approach in our view is flawed.

For starters, the speed perception or underestimation is a non-conscious activity. It happens through automatic processing. We don’t actually stand next to tracks and carry out an accurate estimation of speed. We are not equipped with such capabilities, which is why we use speed guns and other measurement tools to judge speed accurately. We cannot presume that we can suddenly make this non-conscious process of speed judgement in to a conscious one. And that people have the time, intention and cognitive ability to judge the speed accurately. This is expecting too much. In fact it is likely that most people will not even remember this message while crossing tracks. They are likely to be pre-occupied with many other things and are likely to be in ‘Auto’ mode. This seems like a classic case of right diagnosis, but wrong prescription. Is there a better way to deal with this problem?

If the problem, fundamentally is at a nonconscious level, the solutions should work at this nonconscious level for it to make a definite and quick impact. The solution should make the brain recalibrate the speed of the train in an ‘Auto’ mode where it doesn’t need to deliberate and expend energy. These interventions have to be at the point of action. While it might appear that inside a train is close to being on tracks, mentally these are very different contexts. Being in the train and crossing the tracks on foot are very different contexts.

How can we get the brain to recalibrate the speed and get the judgement right. We can do this by providing stationary reference points. The highly successful ‘Yellow Lines’ intervention is one where the yellow lines act as speed references.


These are lines painted across the railway tracks either side of crossings. As these yellow lines disappear under the train, the brain can instantly get the speed judgement right and take a decision not to cross the tracks. The beauty with this intervention is that it works at a nonconscious level, has an instant impact and is low cost. Most importantly, it is at the point of action. And this has worked in reducing fatalities significantly in Mumbai Suburban railway network where hundreds of thousands of people trespass across thousands of crossings in Mumbai. At an average of 10 fatalities a day, it is the largest cause of unnatural death in Mumbai city. Yellow lines, coupled with other interventions have reduced the fatalities significantly and this case is well documented. Read the story in The Boston Globe and BusinessWeek We often have this temptation to believe that making people aware of a problem will solve it. This seems to be the thinking at CTA. However, for us to see impact, we need to make it easier for people to correctly judge the speed of trains. Not by telling them that the train is faster than you think, but by helping them take a right decision quickly and easily when it matters.

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