CTA; An Example of Poor Way finding

Chicagoans have a love/hate relationship with their famed CTA transit system. Eight lines, recognizable due to their individual colour scheme, connect the entirety of the Greater Chicago area. Citizens are mighty proud of the iconic CTA map, although are less enthusiastic about the service.

cta-train-mapAs I delved deeper into the world of User Experience while in the Windy City, I became more and more frustrated by my daily commute. Its remarkable how inconsistent stations are from one another. From a wayfinding point of view I became more and more peeved with the experience, so much so that I started knocking out my phone whenever I was in a new station and saw an illogical or inconsistent information screen (yes, I was that guy).

Below I have highlighted some of these failures and have developed a possible solution which would be compatible with all stations and make the most sense for the user as they make their way through the city.


At the North/Clybourn red line station entrance the customer is faced with a small screen showing incoming trains. The screen displays the next two northbound arrivals, followed by the next two southbound trains, followed by a thank you message. All messages display for roughly 10 seconds on rotation.

Fault: User needs to wait for up to 20 seconds to get an update on their next train. Thank you message provides no useful actionable takeaway, second train arrivals time also is unnecessary – all customers will be getting the first train North or South bound.

At the turnstile, the customer scans their Ventra card and a green ‘Go’ screen illuminates.

IMG_1413Fault: Unlike the previous system the customer is no longer updated with their account balance.

The only screens on the platform display a ‘Thank You for riding the CTA’ message.

IMG_1263Fault: This is not pertinent information – customers should have updates on when their train is arriving.


The first interaction upon arrival at Belmont station is with the turnstile screen, which is as above.

As the customer moves through into the station the first information screen they are presented with details the buses located outside the station.

IMG_1414Fault: Seeing as the customer has just walked past the bus stop and paid entry to the train station this screen is totally irrelevant. (It should be noted that on the reverse side they also update the customers leaving the station, which is indeed applaudable).

On the platform, the screens here have a different design style from any other CTA screen. These screens are not stylized and display the next 5 arrivals to the platform (for approx. 25 seconds, they then switch to show a blank screen for approx. 45 seconds).

IMG_1270Fault: This screen is wholly inconsistent with other stations, and by disappearing for 45 seconds every minute it is not user friendly.

IMG_1424As well as the screens detailing incoming trains, other screens display rotating adverts, news bites, and updates about the status of the various CTA lines.

Underground stations

Above the steps down into underground downtown stations, screens rotate between displaying adverts and upcoming trains.

IMG_1423Fault: The screen either has a function of generating ad revenue, or providing customers with an excellent experience. By displaying adverts 80% of the time customers have very little chance of taking any utility from this screen (other than by chance).

Screens along underground transfer walkway display messages reading ‘Thank You For Riding The CTA’.

IMG_1432Fault: Again these screens provide no benefit to the customers way finding experience.

As with the screen at the North/Clybourn entrance, on the platforms downtown screens rotate between the next two northbound arrivals, followed by the next two southbound trains, followed by a thank you message.


In fact, the most common screens on the platform and around CTA stations in general are these ‘Thank You For Riding The CTA’ messages – which which are entirely useless to the customer.



Ok, so it is easy to see that individual stations vary massively and I have no doubt that is partly why the experience is so varied across stations. The primarily differences across CTA stations are:

– Numbers of passengers passing through
– Varying number of lines passing through station / frequency of trains
– Stations having either two side platforms, or one centred platform (signage needs to provide information on either one, or both directions, depending on the number of platforms).


1: New Entryway ‘Next Trains’ Screen
Next Trains Option 2This new screen design would highlight all arrivals on one screen, items are listed in order of arrival, screens would vary in size accordingly for each station – allowing user to glimpse up and see when their train is arriving as they pass through the turnstile.

2: Turnstile Screen
For years CTA users were updated with their latest balance as they entered the station, now the only feedback customers receive is a ‘Go’ or ‘Insufficient Funds’ message. This clearly not the best solution, screens should keep the user informed about how much they have remaining in their account. Seeing as the old screens are still in place, surely there must be some way to connect the two systems.

3: New Platform ‘Next Trains’ Screen
Next Trains Screen BlueThis screen should replicate the Entryway screen, however on the platform it would only display arrivals affecting that platform and could potentially circulate every 40 seconds to show the CTA system status update (for 10 seconds)

5: New ‘Transfer’ Screens
A screen above the transfer stairwell displaying the upcoming arrivals at the transfer location, would inform customers whether they need to walk or run along the connecting tunnel (this screen would be the same as at a station entry way as depicted above.

6: Transit Hub Exit Screens
IMG_1599Like at Belmont, a screen either outside or near the exit, detailing the status of bus and Metra lines which operate around the CTA station would facilitate users as they make connecting onward journeys (though these screens could be reserved for stations that have a high volume of traffic).

These changes, designed around the human utilizing the service but with CTA constraints in mind would be a massive improvement to the inconsistent and all too illogical screens which are currently in place to assist customers find their way.

2 thoughts on “CTA; An Example of Poor Way finding

  1. Do you think there are also issues with placement or rather lack of placement. I live in DC with the Metro and there is not one station where the signage is on the outside. Maybe of the entrances are several minutes away from the actual platform, with giant escalators down, turnstiles, then more escalators to the platform. While others are mainly accessed by people taking the bus and walking. Knowing how far away the next train is from farther away would reduce all of the useless sprinting or would create needed sprinting. I am working with a digital signage company in Denver (http://www.fourwindsinteractive.com) to create a proposal to Metro for just this kind of thing. Maybe it would also work in Chicago. Cheers.

    1. Yes, in the above example I’ve recommended hosting more logical displays at entrances to stations. It’s not just about having screens there, but about ensuring you use the screens correctly. In Chicago, most stations do have screens at the entrance, but they fail the commuter. It is a point in the journey where commuters experience high levels of anxiety, and it’s up to designers to understand how to relieve that stress.

      I imagine screens at distances from the station could be of benefit alright in special circumstances (such as if there was a high volume of traffic moving that direction towards the station) but in general I think these light rail networks need to ensure they provide accurate real-time information on their apps. That way a commuter can check the status of their train while leaving the office and only rely on the screens while transiting through the station.

      If you would like to chat a bit more about it, or run ideas by me, I would be interested in connecting with you on that. Drop me a mail on jbuckley1989@gmail.com – cheers, John.

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