Making Mass Transit Sound Good

Garbled railway announcements have been fodder for screenwriters ever since movies got sound. Klaxon-like PA horns assault travelers in echoic subway tunnels and glass-ceilinged train stations, turning needed information into gibberish. Connections missed, boy loses girl, comedy, mayhem ensues.

Or not. Those kinds of frustrating scenarios are becoming a relic of an earlier era in mass transit thanks to advances in the technologies used for communications and messaging, and as importantly, the ongoing convergence of multiple media platforms, including audio, video and digital signage.

The technology used in individual audio-video system components has substantially evolved in recent years. For instance, flat-panel video displays mean that information in the form of digital signage can be placed virtually anywhere, at far lower costs than older CRT technology and with far lower maintenance costs.

Horn-type speakers are being replaced with fixed arrays of multiple smaller speakers. These can be aimed very precisely, keeping the energy they produce away from reflective surfaces such as train and bus station walls. That significantly improves intelligibility, the acoustical gold standard in assessing how well information can be understood by listeners.

Municipal and regional mass transit systems have been utilizing advances in AV and acoustical technology to make their environments more pleasant, more inviting and safer. One excellent example is the main train terminal in St. Gallen, in northeast Switzerland. Using speakers tuned specifically for the environment they’re used in to maximize intelligibility, a BSS Soundweb DSP digital signal processing device and microphones constantly monitors ambient sound levels throughout the station and automatically adjusts the system’s volume as needed.

Announcements made during the passing of a train are automatically increased in volume and lowered when the trains are not moving. A special timing option abates the volume correction at night in consideration of the quality of life of the local residents.

Improvements like these stem from consumer demand for better sound in other areas of their life. Some observers point to the establishment of the THX standards for cinema sound 30 years ago, when Star Wars producer George Lucas realized that all the effort he was putting into the sound of those pictures was being lost in movie theaters where a poor sound system could negatively affect the audience’s impression of the movie. Once cinema sound got better, consumers began demanding better sound in other places, from restaurants to houses of worship. Mass transit hubs and stations represent perhaps the last, possibly the most challenging, but almost certainly the most potentially beneficial major frontier in the pursuit of good sound.


Better Audio And Video Are Worth The Effort

Addressing acoustical and AV systems solutions in tens of thousands of locations through the nation’s mass transit systems is an expensive proposition, but there are very compelling reasons to undertake this mission. Mass transit usage is on the increase, up 1.5 percent in 2012 over the previous year. That equates to 10.5 billion trips taken nationally, the highest since 2008 and the second-highest total since 1957.

In the wake of an extended period of economic downturn, more people look to mass transit to get them to and from work. More people returning to urban cores to work and live also augurs for increased use of mass transit. Studies show that people who live in areas with convenient access to public transportation not only save a substantial amount on transportation costs, but experience an increase in their property value as well.

Gen-Y and Millennials — those aged 18 to 34 — have turned into one of the strongest demographics to endorse public transit. According to “Transportation and the New Generation,” a study by the Frontier Group released in 2012 that uses data from the Federal Highway Administration, the share of 14- to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license was 26 percent in 2010, up from 21 percent in 2000. In 2009, the 16- to 34-year-old cohort took 24 percent more bike trips than in 2001, even as their population shrank by two percent. The same age group walked to more destinations in 2009 than in 2001, and the distance they traveled by public transit increased 40 percent.

This is the same generation that has revolutionized how media is accessed, distributed and consumed, and that’s going to have an impact on how mass transit looks and sounds. They want media available all the time, everywhere, on their own devices. This extends from their own music and video to messages delivered by advertisers and government, from news about a favorite band or a new restaurant, to notifications about transportation schedule changes and delays. And if all of this additional information is going to be mixed in with the media they’re already consuming, it’s going to have to look and sound good to get noticed.


A new level of information

That creates a considerable opportunity for advertisers and those who operate mass-transit systems. Digital signage systems don’t have to display transit information every second; advertising and other information can be inserted in between informational updates to schedules. Digital signage can also use “tickers” running underneath or to the sides of user information. Mass transit operators can take a cue from how airports and airlines use this kind of platform, rotating information about the upcoming flight on LCD displays at departure gates with promotional information about the airline itself. Airports have become incubators of a number of AV and digital signage trends that mass-transit operators can emulate, such as connecting the AV systems of retailers in the airport with the paging and life-safety notification systems maintained by the airport authority.

System-wide Wi-Fi capability is important for implementation of personal devices aboard mass-transit and to extend messaging. This has been recognized by cities like New York, where the governor announced an extension of a Wi-Fi system to all subway stations. London introduced Wi-Fi service to 120 Tube stations, and Tokyo, Hong Kong and New Delhi have limited Wi-Fi services in place.

Agencies generate revenues on their audio and video systems and improve their economic situation by using better media systems to support a sense of value of mass transit by the public.

These AV technologies and available and are more affordable than ever. Using them to make mass transit environments more inviting encourages greater use of mass transit facilities and more reliable funding, which can be used to make it even more enjoyable. MT

Paul Chavez is the director of systems applications for the professional division of Harman, a manufacturer of products for professional, consumer and automotive sound, lighting and infotainment.