Three ways of looking at the Twinkle Train

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Every year Metro Transit decorates a bus and a train car with holiday lights.

I discovered the Twinkle Train by accident. Last year, I was getting on the Green Line one evening and just happened across the decor: some lights spread around the light-rail window, a wreath centered on the wall, and red tape candy-striped around the hand-held railings. Last month, it happened again, a pleasant sign of the seasons for a regular transit rider like me.

Every year Metro Transit decorates five buses, two light-rail cars, and some of the Northstar line with holiday lights and swag, using in-house technicians and some basic decor, running them from mid-November until early January. It might not seem like much, but in some ways, seemingly mundane details like these can be the key to building a transit-centered city.

With a tip-off from Metro Transit, letting me know exactly where the Twinkle Train (aka “LRV 255”) would be on Tuesday night, I went on board to ask riders what they thought about the decorations. I wanted to find out how many different ways people viewed the small touch of transit spirit.

The transit “user experience”

 “User experience” (UX) is a term that comes out of the online design world, where a lot of work goes into designing the user experience of, for example, an app or a website. But for a long time, transit planners have left UX at the end of the priority list. With cash-strapped budgets, most agencies prioritize basic service over things like signage, communication, shelters or subtleties of design.

But that’s beginning to change, as agencies realize the importance of growing their ridership beyond the transit dependent (who don’t have much of a choice about taking the bus in the first place). To me, the Twinkle Train is kind of like the way that Google offers Google Doodles on its website, a bit of seasonal variation and interactivity with its users. And a lot of people like it.

“It’s nice, I like it,” a young man named D. told me. D. lives on St. Paul’s West Side, and was riding the Twinkle Train westward while working on “sticking” hair for a weave, kind of a part-time job.

“Don’t have many thoughts on it,” D. said. “It’s just festive. Yeah, I noticed it for the last couple of days. Not all the cars have it. Little candy cane, it’s nice. There’s no snow yet, so it’s nice to get the holiday cheer with the Twinkle Train.”

Thinking about transit UX helps explain something transit planners call “rail bias,” or the seemingly strange reason so many people seem to prefer trains over buses. There are a lot of theories about the existence of rail bias — nostalgia, security, predictability — but to me it comes down to improved UX. Little things like muffled street noise, having more space, the amount of inches you have to step to get on the vehicle, and the relative lack of lateral turning force add up to a vastly different experience for the end user. It’s like comparing two restaurants with the same food, but different atmospheres. One serves the hamburger on a paper plate with plasticy fixed chairs, next to a loud humming cooler; the other offers you silverware, music and art on the walls. (Which hamburger tastes better?)

In transit planning, you often hear the argument that buses are far more practical, and much cheaper, than trains, and that U.S. cities would be well served to spend much more money on the bus system rather than light rail or streetcars. But to think merely through the metrics of time and speed and cost is to miss out on the importance of design.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
To me, the Twinkle Train is a good example of a little way that transit planners can improve the UX, making it more interactive and playful.

To me, the Twinkle Train is a good example of a little way that transit planners can improve the UX, making it more interactive and playful. Along with other improvements around the Twin Cities — especially real-time signage and more shelters (many with heat) — transit systems might finally be starting to pay attention to the importance of design.

The broadest possible audience

“I was honestly surprised when I saw it,” Riley, a first-year student at the University of Minnesota, told me. “I didn’t know they would do that. It makes things more interesting, and honestly without any snow around its good to be reminded that it is actually the holiday season.”

It’s hard to think of anything in the Twin Cities that bridges so many of our social gaps as the light-rail train. Sitting in the twinkle car for an hour, I watched people of all ages and backgrounds coexist, everyone from a young white couple dressed to the nines out on the town (a tweed suit!) to a half dozen young bored African-Americans hanging out, headed all the way from downtown to downtown. On a typical Green Line train, you’ll see college students hopping between campuses, tourists from a downtown hotel, a man on his way to the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul, a group of suburbanites heading to a hockey game, and people lugging home their Walmart shopping. Only a city park or a sidewalk might equal the spectrum of race, class and geography that you find on the light rail.

That makes designing anything for transit a challenge. (See for example, Metro Transit’s new safety and etiquette campaign, featuring “shape people” based on Roger Hargreaves books.)
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Sitting in the twinkle car for an hour, I watched people of all ages and backgrounds coexist.

“Pretty tight. Can we have the lights?” Drew replied when I asked what he thought of the Twinkle Train, only half-joking. “No, it’s pretty cool. It’s creative.”

“I was in a real bad depression but then I got on this, and now I’m all better,” agreed his friend Peter. They were both obviously messing with me. But we chatted a bit more and Drew and Peter began asking me some questions, and admitted that they had seen the Twinkle Bus (the trains’ fossil-fueled compatriot, which runs on the No. 21 route). I guess they’d noticed the agency’s efforts, despite the nonchalance.

Maintenance and malice

The point, though, is that many people’s first reaction when they see the Twinkle Train is to start to mess with it. I watched as one bored young person began pulling out one of the blue lights, turning the string around the window on and off. (“That bitch was messing with my eyes. It had to go,” he told his friend.) Eventually he got tired of the exercise, and simply threw the little blue light at his buddy across the aisle.

Later on the ride, two guys got on at the University of Minnesota campus and began swinging from the rails on the ceiling, doing gym exercises and making the rails wobble quite a bit. (I thought they might pull off the ceiling.) At some point the man reclining on the seat across the way visibly glared, and the kids settled down.

Because they run at all hours of the night, interacting with thousands of people for years, transit facilities have to be designed to take a lot of abuse. But keeping the train or bus working, and comfortable for everyone, also depends on a kind of informal social contract. Bus drivers can’t do everything, and nobody wants the Metro Transit police to get involved. (And on the LRT car, there’s nobody of authority even available.)

Instead, transit is a case study of what’s called “eyes on the street,” a safety concept from Jane Jacobs’ magisterial 1960 book “The Death and Life of Great America Cities.” Safety, security and the prevention of vandalism depends on the subtle checks of other people.

In the end, I suppose the Twinkle Train isn’t that big a deal. Many people hardly notice it, on their way around the city, staring at their phones or out the window.

“It’s really underwhelming,” Arthur, a young man heading back to Minneapolis told me. “It’s not much. I mean, they could have done more, making a holiday train car. It’s not noticeable.”

Maybe Arthur is right, and Metro Transit could do more to interact with its customers, and to think about user experience. But given the challenges, maybe the Twinkle Train is a pretty good compromise. If you notice yourself riding it this month, consider yourself a little bit lucky. Not everyone does.

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