Date of Award


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Degree Name

Master of Design (MDes)




Christine M. Neuwirth


I remember as a young child being fascinated with all forms of transportation: from the Walt Disney World monorails and shuttle buses, to Busy Boats, my favorite library picture book, to my first train ride, a 20-mile one-way trip on Amtrak that became the subject of my second-grade book fair masterpiece, The Great Day. Now, quite a number of years later, that fascination remains, manifesting itself in different ways, like getting excited when I get stopped by a passing train at a railroad crossing or riding the city bus to campus every day. Being an avid newspaper reader, I followed the long public process in the winter and spring of 2006–2007 as the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the public transit entity in Pittsburgh, identified ways to reduce costs to meet a multi-million dollar budget shortfall. Being a designer, one of the things that struck me was the Port Authority’s use of visuals to communicate what routes they proposed for elimination. These diagrams, one of which is shown in Figure 1, left something to be desired. It didn’t seem to communicate a clear message amidst all the visual clutter. I spent a few weeks trying out different variations and revisions of the diagram for a class in mapping and diagramming and thought that this area of

design—user experience and complex information systems for transit—would be perfect for further study. In my preliminary review of current literature, I found studies of specific design improvements, such as a new bus map system in London (Horne, Roberts & Rose, 1986), historical reviews of iconic documents such as the London Underground diagram (Garland, 1994) and surveys of current practices by organizations such as the American Public Transportation Association (2007), an industry trade group, and the Transportation Research Board (1999). However, this research focused primarily on the document or artifact in question and only tangentially on rider information needs from an abstract perspective while ignoring the user experience. This essay will present the results of my observations and thoughts about the user experience of riders in public transportation systems. I will begin by defining a public transportation system and describing its various components and integration into the city’s transportation infrastructure. In the second section, I’ll describe users of these transit systems—the riders—and offer a series of categories and characteristics we can use to understand why they use public transportation. I’ll discuss how these riders use a public transportation system in section three, by offering a five-part model for a trip. Finally, in section four, I will analyze various aspects of the physical, printed artifacts transit systems distribute to the public to communicate what services they provide.

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