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Testing how navigable SEPTA is, with glasses that see what riders see

With help from Penn researchers, SEPTA is studying ways to make its signage more user-friendly and tunnels more navigable, especially to newcomers.

Volunteer Cameron Adamez looks around the SEPTA Trolley Line stop at the 15th Street Station as Camille Boggan, a research assistant at Penn's Center for Safe Mobility, takes notes. The researchers are trying to get a better picture of how well riders and potential riders perceive and decipher the transit system’s signs.
Volunteer Cameron Adamez looks around the SEPTA Trolley Line stop at the 15th Street Station as Camille Boggan, a research assistant at Penn's Center for Safe Mobility, takes notes. The researchers are trying to get a better picture of how well riders and potential riders perceive and decipher the transit system’s signs.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Every step you take, every turn you make, every confused thought you think ... the glasses will be watching you.

Cameron Adamez was outfitted with Tobii Pro eye-tracker glasses on a recent Friday afternoon and dispatched to the caverns beneath City Hall Station on a mission from SEPTA to find out just how difficult it is to get around its rail transit system.

Adamez was a volunteer test subject in an experiment designed and conducted by Megan Ryerson, the UPS chair of transportation at the University of Pennsylvania, to generate data for SEPTA planners overhauling the system’s way-finding: the maps, signs, and branding that clue riders where to go for what line.

“I think of it as epidemiology for navigation,” said Ryerson, an associate professor of both city and regional planning and electrical and systems engineering at Penn.

“We wanted to determine whether people are understanding the way-finding signage, how they are navigating the space from a human perspective,” she said.

» READ MORE: Only Philadelphians can navigate SEPTA. That's going to change.

Signage on SEPTA can seem like a patchwork at times, understandable in a transit system consolidated in 1964 from various private transportation companies and railroads.

SEPTA wants its old riders back once pandemic restrictions are lifted and also wants to make new customers of those who might have been intimidated by the system’s inconsistent directions and maze of underground passageways, sudden dead-ends, rider crossovers, tiled tunnels, and platforms on multiple levels.

“The only way to do that is to make the system understandable to newcomers,” said Lex Powers, manager of strategic planning at SEPTA and director of the way-finding project.

That means consistent and clear information about SEPTA through signs, maps and smartphone apps. After all, ridesharing companies send instant alerts to customers with a driver’s location and ETA, Powers said.

He noted that freeway directional signs are consistent, governed by engineering specifications in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

“You can pretty easily drive from Philadelphia to Los Angeles without getting lost,” Powers said. “Unfortunately, there is no manual for way-finding.”

For some, it may indeed be much easier to figure out I-76 west to I-70 west to I-44 west and then I-40 west to I-15 south than to see how the Broad Street Line, the Market-Frankford Line, the City Trolleys, the Media-Sharon Hill Lines, and Norristown High Speed Line fit together.

In fact, more than 40% of respondents in a 2020 survey conducted for the transit authority reported that City Hall Station was the place they got lost most often.

To try to game out a clearer way, Ryerson and her research assistants are including in the study people new to SEPTA, residents not fluent in English, and people with disabilities in order to anticipate the information needs of as many potential riders as possible.

Illuminators in the lens frames of the high-tech glasses direct a pattern of near-infrared light at a wearer’s eyes. Two tiny cameras record what they look at and for how long, how fast the eyes move between focal points (”gaze velocity”), head movement, as well as pupil dilation. The glasses take 100 measurements a second of each parameter studied, Ryerson said, and an outward-facing camera shows the wearer’s view.

Later, geometric algorithms map every movement and crunch the data points to find patterns.

» READ MORE: Penn team seeks to make streets safer by keeping an eye on cyclists' eyes

Neuroscience research has found dilated pupils to be a reliable indicator of a person’s level of anxiety or stress, or the difficulty of a task.

When a subject’s eyes are wide open and gaze is moving rapidly while trying to decipher directions in a transit hub, that’s a sign of a failure to communicate, Ryerson said.

“A lot of scanning behavior indicates a big cognitive workload for the person,” she said. “They’re looking for information and not finding it. That’s incredibly frustrating.”

Carrying a clipboard with a script, Camille Boggan told Adamez to go inside the station for a series of exercises. First, Adamez had to locate the El and get on the right platform to travel to Fifth and Market. Next up: Find the system map and answer five questions about which services and routes to take to get to certain places.

Boggan, an Ohio native who expects to earn her master’s in city and urban planning from Penn this year and is working as a research assistant on the study, made marks on her clipboard.

Soon, she gave Adamez the first quest and they were off, moving briskly around the station, up and down stairs and passageways. The tasks got harder and harder. One of them was how to get to West Philadelphia by trolley, especially tricky because there is no stop by that name.

Adamez realized that they were going the wrong way, stopped short, and uttered a mild vulgarity. Reversing course, Adamez, with Boggan close by, kept going until foiled by a cul-de-sac of fencing. No exit. Adamez turned again.

“I’ve done this 10 times now, and I still get lost,” Boggan confided to a couple of outside observers in a near whisper.

“I started feeling like a little mouse down there,” Adamez said later, when the experiment was over. “I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to find where the cheese is,’ and couldn’t quite do it.”

Boggan thought it went pretty well, overall.

“I thought I knew my way around, and this would be great,” said Adamez, a web developer who lived and worked in three Western cities and moved to Philadelphia three years ago with their partner to be near family.

City Hall Station was hard to figure out. “I was under the impression Philadelphians kind of like it that way,” Adamez said. “You have to be an insider to understand it.”