An Ethnographic Information Design Approach II


Summary of four types of commuters that most frequently use the Northeast Corridor Line during rush hour from Monday to Friday.

Since I have taken new challenges, my commute has changed quite a bit. However, my research+info design mind hasn’t. I can’t help paying attention to emerging patterns during my morning and afternoon commutes (among other daily situations). Last week, I was re-reading some of my old blog posts, and remembered the one I wrote illustrating the underlying structure of the morning rush commute in the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground while living in the UK.

Back then, the four categories I used to make sense of my observations emerged from my analysis. This time, I decided to use the same ethnographic information design approach but this time to test those categories. In other words, those four categories constituted the initial analytical framework I used to analyse my current commute. By doing this, my hope was to determine whether those categories were also valid and could be applied under different variables: different country and different type of rail commute (long-distance).

Case study: Understanding Commuters of the Northeast Corridor Line (NY-Trenton, US)

For over two years, I have been combining both my ethnographic and information design knowledge to elicit the most of my 2-day week commute in the Northeast Corridor Line. The following are some of the insights I gained from the analysis:

  1. Commuting Communities. NJ Transit trains have four diverse commuting communities mostly based on frequency. The following communities were observed during morning and afternoon rush hours:
    • Daily Commuters: These are mainly workers who travel every day going to work often carrying backpacks and laptops. They mostly commute solo.
    • Frequent Commuters: These are mainly workers and graduate students who travel at least twice a week to go to work or attend classes at University (Rutgers or Princeton). They often commute solo.
    • Infrequent Commuters: These are workers, students or people who have taken the train before but now only travel sporadically, less than twice a week.
    • One-time Commuters: These are mainly tourists or residents going to the airport, or residents just going somewhere. They often commute in groups.
  2. Community Slots. Each of these communities appear to use the train at specific time-slots, and board the train in specific cars. Trains before 8am and between 3.30 and 6.30 pm are often quite crowded and getting a seat requires some planning and strategic thinking.
  3. Train Cars: In this line of NT Transit trains, the first and last cars are always “Silent Cars” (no loud conversations, no use of phones), which tend to be the wanted option for daily and frequent commuters. Like in tube rides, these commuters know exactly where to position themselves in the platform so they can travel in their preferred cars. However, specific characteristics of cars are only known by the most frequent commuters. Too often, one-time commuters board in silent cars but are quickly asked to move to another car as they are having conversations in the phone or with friends.
  4. The Platform: A difference from the tube, choosing strategic spots alongside the platform is more related to comfort than to saving time. Both in the mornings and afternoons, having the “right” spot on the platform can help secure a seat or transfer more smoothly between transport systems like PATH or other NJ Transit train lines. Interestingly, the first two communities do position themselves strategically alongside the platform. During rush hours, the race to board in the silent cars is truly noticeable.
  5. Commuting Activities: Another difference from tube rides is that this train commute is much longer, often the shortest ride being of 25 minutes:
    • Daily and Frequent Commuters are always prepared. Most of them have laptops and the train provides a unique opportunity of uninterrupted work or watching a movie. Others have books and spend the trip reading or writing. In the morning and late commutes, some of them just sleep.
    • Infrequent and One-time Commuters are often the ones fidgeting and playing with phones or talking to someone. One-time commuters tend to be in groups and spend the train trip talking. Those who are traveling alone, just stare through the window as if making sure that they don’t miss their stop.
  6. The Journey: Although commuting by tube could be seen as similar to commuting by train, these are two quite different types of journeys. Commuting time is a key factor that has an impact in the characteristics of trains. Long-distance trains have bathrooms and different types of cars while in tubes all cars look the same. These differences affect the way commuters cope with their journeys and even why they commute. For example, tourists (One-time Commuters) are more likely to use the tube to navigate a city and only use rail services when they arrive or leave a city.

Comparing short and long distance commutes

Overall, the initial four categories helped make sense of the empirical evidence gathered from NY-NJ commutes. However, two new categories also emerged: Commuting Activities and Train Cars. Trains infrastructure, time and purpose seem to be differentiating factors behind these two transport systems: London Underground (short-distance commutes) and NJ Transit Rails (long-distance commutes).  Below is a summary of categories that are common to both transport systems, and those that seem to pertain to longer distance commutes.


This non-scientific case study (How do commuters use the Northeast Corridor Line?) is meant to illustrate how an ethnographic information design approach could be applied to make sense of every day situations. But it also indicates how a better understanding of daily patterns (e.g. commuting) could help increase comfort, and find ways to deal with frequent frustrating situations so people can get the most of an experience and minimise any possible level of stress (e.g. have a productive commute). In this case, this analysis could also be used by NJ Transit to make improvements in the service.

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