A Call to Charms: What "Mind the Gap" and Tray Tables Have in Common

When I tell you to “Mind the Gap,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? If you answered Michael Strahan’s front teeth, it might be time for you to turn off the tube and take a ride on the Tube. (For those of you that are unaware, a voice says “mind the gap” when the subway doors on the London Underground open at each station.)

When I ask you to place your tray table in its upright and locked position, after giving me a gaze that says, “I’m not using a tray table”, you’d probably recall this as a pre-flight instruction on many a commercial airline.

What do “Mind the Gap” and tray tables have in common? They are both instantly-recognizable phrases that began on modes of transportation. How do they differ? Gap minding is only audibly encouraged in London, while all flyers know they darn well can’t use their tray table during take-off and landing.

Part of the charm (yes, I said it: charm!) of airlines is the vernacular that we have collectively experienced hundreds of times. Every reminder that the nearest exit may be behind us is a friendly reminder that we’re in a familiar place. Though it must not be too familiar, or we’d be expected to know where the nearest exit is by now.

Contrast this with transit, where interaction with the conductor varies from a computer speaking a stop name aloud to a muffled voice speaking…..let’s be honest…..does anyone have the slightest idea what they’re saying???

My point is this: transit stands to benefit from instantly-recognizable phrases.

Every time a tourist buys a “Mind the Gap” t-shirt or someone says “Mind the Gap” outside the American clothing giant, it is an indication that transit has impacted the culture in both London and beyond. I like to speak along with the recorded voice in Chicago as the CTA lady says, “This is a Blue line train to O’Hare.” However, neither this nor “doors open on the right” inspire unique visions of the Windy City. DC’s “Metro Opens Doors” had the potential to enter the mainstream, but it seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years. In Fort Collins, the closest we have to a recognizable phrase is, “Have you ridden the MAX?” Yes, this is just a question. But it has almost become recognizable because everyone has to ask it because NO ONE HERE RIDES THE BUS.</rant>

Phrase creation starts with the local transit agency. Due to the nature of public transit, we’re never going to have an internationally mandated safety demonstration on-board buses and subways which dishes out recycled phrases to distracted commuters. And that is a good thing! But the agency has the platform (*wink wink*) to brand themselves in more ways than their logo and that half-decade’s slogan printed on the paper maps which no one picks up. A phrase spoken on board will be heard by thousands of locals and tourists alike and, if it is powerful enough, stop them in their tracks (*wink wink*).

Have the bus driver say the same phrase every day. And not just, “Please move all the way to the back!” We’re never going to learn! If recorded voices are a must, have the e-conductor say something you’d never expect a pre-recorded voice say. Maybe it’s, “Have a great day, folks,” followed by your local wing-dinger of a phrase. Yes, these are regional solutions, but having an instantly-recognizable phrase that is unique to a single system still has the potential to have a global reach. Well-designed transit maps become icons for their city (and in the case of Portland, the airport carpet did too), so why should London be the only system with a recognizable phrase? If you want praise of your transit system to spread via word-of-mouth, what could be a better starting point than an instantly-recognizable phrase straight from the conductor’s mouth?

Sure, it will annoy some people. But so does everything.

I want to be able to land in my current city of residence, hear the phrase on my ride from the airport, and know I am home.

I want to be able to land in Portland, Vancouver, or Prague, take some rail to city center, and hear a phrase that makes me glance up at the speaker with eyebrows raised. In Prague, my confusion will be over not understanding Czech, while the others will catch my attention because the train just became more than a local mode of transit in my eyes. I’ll peer down the aisle and see a handful of passengers rolling their eyes. Then I’ll notice one passenger smirking without glancing up from a novel. It will be then that I will I just know. I will talk to the first person I meet in town about the curious and potentially recognizable phrase I heard on the train. We’ll be talking about transit outside of transit. And that is a win for transit.

Let’s put our thinking caps on, transit lovers. It’s time to start a brand.

Written on January 10, 2016