ORIGINAL SOURCE: NYTimes
Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan is such a confusing, multilevel maze of corridors lined with pizza parlors and coffee shops that even veteran commuters occasionally get lost.
Starting on Wednesday, Amtrak, the national railroad that serves as the station’s landlord, will offer a guiding light in the form of a smartphone app. The free app, FindYourWay, was designed to help travelers navigate the labyrinthine station and to avoid the crowds that form around the electronic boards that provide train information.
“The experience in Penn Station, if you’re not there every day, can be daunting,” said Bob Dorsch, an Amtrak executive who oversaw the creation of the app. “We know that a ton of our customers stand at that big board and wait for the train gate to come up and scurry off to the ramp.”
Herds of passengers forming around the boards and then stampeding toward narrow staircases to catch trains is “somewhat of a security risk,” Mr. Dorsch said. Providing gate assignments in real time through the app should reduce the size of those gatherings and lower the overall level of anxiety within the station, he said.
The app could also spare the police officers in the station from having to provide directions to so many disoriented travelers, said Lenka Hennessy, marketing director for Amtrak.
“People are always asking: Where is my gate? Where is the restroom? Where is the A.T.M.?” Ms. Hennessy said, while offering a demonstration of the app’s wayfinding function on her phone.
Designed for Amtrak by Zyter, the app works much like Google Maps, inviting users to detail what they would like to find, then mapping the most direct route and guiding them along it. Once it is in wide use, it will also show where the crowds are and how to get around them, Ms. Hennessy said.
Zyter has installed more than 300 small beacons in Amtrak’s section of the station and plans to install 300 more in the areas that are managed by the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit. The beacons allow the app to recognize pinpoint a user’s location within the station, data that Ms. Hennessy said would not be stored afterward.
Initially, the app will provide real-time information about only Amtrak trains, but Mr. Dorsch said Amtrak hoped eventually to include information about the commuter trains as well. And Ms. Hennessy said Amtrak hoped to add other stations around the country to the app.
“If we’re able to implement something here, doing it in Boston, doing it in Chicago, doing it in Philadelphia is almost a piece of cake,” she said, alluding to the complexity of Penn Station and the 650,000 people who pass through it on a typical weekday.
As Hope Miller Goodell, a regular user of the station, can attest, even seasoned commuters find the partitioned building and its jumble of inconsistent signs frustrating.
“I know my way around New York,” said Ms. Goodell, who commutes daily from South Orange, N.J., to her job as a college textbook designer in Manhattan. But inside Penn Station, she said, “I have to depend solely on the landmarks of stores. There’s the Dunkin’ Donuts and then the bookstore.”
Ms. Goodell, 40, said she used her smartphone to look up train information on New Jersey Transit’s website, but usually double-checked the video screens she passed on her way to the platform. She said she probably would download the FindYourWay app and “maybe try it in those moments of desperation where I have to deviate from my already-learned paths.”
But she was wary about spending too much time staring at her phone among the shifting tides of harried commuters. “You don’t want to get stuck standing still and having to look down at your screen,” Ms. Goodell said, “because you’re going to get knocked over.”