Why Those Green Line Countdown Clocks Make Your Commute So Much Better

With the MBTA rolling out countdown clocks on the Green Line, the impact on your psychology will improve your ride.

MBTA Green Line photo uploaded by Eric Fischer on Flickr

MBTA Green Line photo uploaded by Eric Fischer on Flickr

If the MBTA can’t make our trains run on time, at least it can make the wait more endurable. Blissfully, the MBTA revealed this April that riders would start seeing countdown clocks on Green Line platforms this summer. Today, all Riverside Line stops in Brookline saw their clocks turned on. After an arduous winter of train riding, this is welcome news; the benefits of the countdown clocks, after all, have been psychologically proven.

In 1985, psychologist Edgar Elías Osuna showed that we grow frustrated during long waits for two reasons: we’re annoyed at how much time we’ve already spent waiting, and we’re unsure of how much more time we’ll have to put in. But when people are told exactly how long they’d have to wait, they basically stop accumulating the psychological distress that comes from not knowing. Anyone who has used the countdown clocks on other T lines intuitively knows this to be true. Especially on a train line as erratic as the Green, half the stress of waiting is wondering whether your ride will come at all. Take that out of the equation, and you can accept that you’ve got an 18-minute wait ahead of you and go get coffee while you wait.

But the countdown clocks don’t just minimize our frustration; they actually make our wait seem shorter and more pleasant. According to a 1996 study, when we see our wait time, we tend to overestimate how grueling it will feel. By the time it’s over, we’re often surprised at how quickly it passed. This is great news for the Green Line because installing countdown clocks does exactly nothing to improve the performance of the train itself. Our wait times aren’t actually getting shorter, so any steps the MBTA can take to make those waits seem shorter, they should take.

The question then, is why it took the MBTA so long to jump on research like this and get the clocks in place. The answer, as it so often is in things MBTA-related, is “aging technology.” The Green Line, unlike its red, blue, and orange cousins, wasn’t equipped until recently to provide real-time data that could be harnessed into a countdown clock. Starting last year, though, the MBTA began installing the new system in train cars and underground passageways so that passengers could pinpoint the exact arrival times of the Green Line using smartphone apps. That technology was then used to create countdown clocks. After the winter the MBTA had, the new perk couldn’t have come at a better time.