The Final Countdown: Ambiguities of Real Time Information Systems
‘Directing’ the Waiting Experience in Public Transport
Kellermann, Robin (2017). The Final Countdown: Ambiguities of Real Time Information Systems
‘directing’ the Waiting Experience in Public Transport. In Freudendal-Pedersen (Ed.), M., Hartmann-
Petersen (Ed.), K., Perez Fjalland, E. (Ed.), Experiencing Networked Urban Mobilities (pp. 19-26).
New York: Routledge.
Waiting truly belongs to the greatly overlooked practices of everyday life. Among the many
fields enforcing waiting times, transportation and mobility certainly account for the most
prominent generators. Unlike hardly any other domain, transportation systems permanently
induce spatial, temporal and organizational constraints that cause passengers to be stilled
temporarily in situations of waiting for transportation or while moving.
Despite the phenomenon’s centrality for the transit experience, explicit research on waiting in
the transport and mobility context for the longest time remained a surprisingly unchallenged
and trivialized subject. Concealed by a predominant attention for moving or active subjects,
waiting phenomena have rather been treated implicitly in terms of a tacit enemy, regarded as
an imperative to be defeated by all means. As a result, we still know remarkably little about
the evolution of passengers’ in-transit experiences such as waiting in pre-trip situations at
stops or stations, particularly regarding the ambiguous ways in which digitalization and
information technologies actively change such experiences. Thus, despite a recently growing
strand of pioneering studies triggered by the ‘mobility turn’, waiting, as Harold Schweizer
summarizes, remains a “temporal region hardly mapped and badly documented” (Schweizer
This chapter questions how passengers’ waiting experiences in public transportation have
changed in the light of digitalization and the information age. Referring exemplarily to the
deployment of real time information systems (RTIS) at stops and stations, I argue for a
historically novel quality of the waiting experience induced by such systems with the result of
‘taming’ the wait, but at the same time creating a number of ambiguities and negative rebound
effects. More precisely, I argue that we are witnessing the phenomenon’s informational
transformation towards what may be termed ‘directed waiting’, illustrating an increase of
supplementary technologies facilitating the wait for public transportation and providing a
literal sense of today’s urban mobilities’ genuinely networked characteristic.
Approaching the novelty as well as the ambiguities of ‘directed waiting’, in a first step a
brief literature review on empirical studies targeting passengers’ perceptual responses to RTIS
– will provide a basic understanding of the [p.20] phenomenon’s psychological and cognitive
magnitude. Reflecting on those empirical findings, in a second step I will follow a
hypothetical approach by providing four speculative assessments regarding ambiguous side
effects prompted by the arrival of new information technologies in public transport
Engaging with passengers in the state of waiting derives from two motivations. First,
thematic attention to moments of stoppage or immobility is believed to be an inevitable
approach in following a relational and holistic understanding of mobilities (Sheller and Urry
2006). Second, the identification of the role technologies play in presently changing the
transit experience and generating benefiting (or limiting) perceptual qualities is believed to
form a needful approach in order to understand the ways in which urban mobilities are
The views presented here are part of a broader research project aiming to understand the
historical evolution of transport-induced waiting experiences in different transport modes
since the mid-nineteenth century with analytical focus on the transformative coevolution of
physical environments and social practices of waiting. Consequently, this article also aims to
encourage mobility scholars to focus thematically on formerly overlooked aspects of
everyday life mobility that might appear mundane or trivial but form a fundamental aspect of
the mobility experience.
Waiting Phenomena as Objects of Research
Since the 1970s, social psychology was spearheading the analysis of people in either enforced
or voluntary states of queuing and waiting. Therein, waiting formations were examined as
paradigmatic expressions for the social organization of access, as results of social inequalities
(Schwartz 1975) as well as for comprising qualities of ‘embryonic social systems’ (Mann
1969). As a main outcome, time distribution in service reception was found be to be strongly
asymmetric (Schwartz 1974), facilitating the acceleration of specific groups for the price of
decelerating others. More important, to wait, especially before receiving a service, was most
often considered a tedious waste of time (Dubé, Schmitt and Leclerc 1989), and, from
psychological perspectives, was consistently supposed to be a source for affective responses
such as stress, anger and uncertainty (Osuna 1985, Taylor 1994).
However, beyond numerous verifications of waiting’s preponderant negative connotation,
interim pausing of flow was also considered to play a complementary organizational role for
the provision of mass transport (Kellermann 2018). Whereas waiting for a bus on the personal
level might often appear a routine charged with negative attributions, on a more abstract level
it has been claimed a functional necessity and a required precondition for the organization of
mobility and speed. In this sense, any kind of motion depends relationally upon spatial fixities
and the organizational need of pre-structuring passengers, resulting in physical ‘moorings’
(Urry 2003), and, as I would [p.21] complement, temporal ‘moorings’ in which passengers
appear to be exposed (and tied) to other temporalities.
In recent years remarkable pioneering studies have revealed the social, experiential and bodily
complexities of waiting (Bissell 2007, Bissell and Fuller 2011, Vannini 2011, Vozyanov
2014), thus challenging the dominant narrative of mobile and active mobilities as the more
desirable relations to the world (Bissell 2007). Hence, though waiting has been traditionally
treated as the “neglected Achilles heel of modernity” (ibid., 277), we are witnessing growing
awareness that moments of relative immobility, stasis or friction (Cresswell 2014) not only
represent mobility’s inseparable twin, but form complex corporeal phenomena and active
processes. As a result, the current research continuously emphasizes conceptualizing waiting
as congenital and inherent to movement (Adey 2006, Cresswell 2012). Against this backdrop,
I focus now on how information technologies actually changed the waiting experience by
using the example of real time information systems at public transport facilities.
Real Time Information Systems (RTIS) and the Rise of ‘Directed Waiting’
RTIS are telematic-based public transport information systems that may include both
predictions about arrival and departure times, estimated waiting time, and information about
the nature and causes of disruption (Figure 3.1). Several studies have explored their effects on
the customer. And RTIS implementation has been claimed to have overwhelmingly positive
effects for both passengers and prodivers (Infopolis2 1998; BMBF 2002; Sekara and Karlsson
1997; Dziekan and Kottenhoff 2007; Chow, Block-Schachter, and Hickey 2014). Subsuming
these findings, the evolution of stops and Stations forming dynamic informational spaces can
be claimed to have drastically reshaped and mediated the waiting experience. From a long-
term perspective, RTIS's beneficial implications of increased certainty, situational control,
and processual knowledge can be considered a seminal moment in the history of passenger
experiences, which in fact has seen reasonable levels of available information by the
provision of timetables but has seen a rather constantly low level of real time information.
Since affective responses to and assessments of waiting are strongly dependent on frequent
information, RTIS, as well as passenger ' mobile devices, presently fill informational gaps
which previously couldn't be filled adequately by psychologically limited or even insufficient
capabilities of 'static' media such as conventional paper timetables. Instead, RTIS can
compensate for the absence of loudspeaker announcements in the majority of smaller waiting
environments. As a consequence, today the waiting passenger might still find similar
environments but he is well informed and-more unbound from uncertainties-is supposed to be
liberated to do other things while waiting. Passengers receive assistance, regain control, and
are not left alone any [p.22] longer, thus facilitating an atmosphere of 'directed waiting' in
which waiting times have been tamed and orchestrated, and might even become a friendlier
part of the journey.
Speculations and ambiguities of ‘directed waiting’
Despite a quantifiable increase in certainty and general trust in the system, the rise of
‘directed waiting’ may also imply ambiguous side effects that may relativize the celebratory
promises of information and communication technologies in the realm of public transport
facilities. Here are four critical speculations:
1) Reinforcing the otherness of waiting
When time is displayed on screens it is also the time value that is displayed, and more
precisely for the case of stops and stations, the value of time lost. Thereby, a prevailing
perception of waiting as a waste of time – sustained implicitly by RTIS deployment – might
reinforce the otherness of waiting [p.23] as the ‘stepchild of mobility’, which by far is too
narrow and simplistic. Despite customers’ appreciation of RTIS, such technologies might
entail the effects of confirming and complicating an already questionable temporal culture of
Western societies – centered on time efficiency, speed, and linearity – and might foster
growing opposition towards its temporal niches instead of incorporating different
temporalities more innovatively. RTIS implementation in transport environments – driven by
unilateral ‘productivist’ perceptions of waiting as an incriminatory obligation – may abet and
sustain traditional modernist notions of “quiescing time, in effect to silence it” (Bissell 2007,
278), and thus miss the actual relevance of recognizing the heterogeneous natures of waiting
as a “meaningful experience” (Gasparini 1995).
2) Increased time sensibility and new dependencies
Despite RTIS’s evident effect of reducing perceived wait times, the ‘informational turn’ in
directing the wait might – in the long run – increase passengers’ time sensibility due to
amplified centrality, visibility and thus tangibility of time regimes which are materializing in
such systems. In this vein, RTIS and the rise of ‘directed waiting’ for some may reappraise
waiting time as a ‘temporal friend’, while for others it may become another field of increased
Figure 1 – ‘Directed waiting’ - Real time information system at a Berlin bus stop (own image)
time presence, implicit time pressure, and system contingency, especially in cases where the
indicated arrival time doesn’t correspond to the operational reality and leaves passengers with
feelings of deception. Dziekan and Kottenhoff pointed out the probability that after a while
people may grow accustomed to the new actual and perceived time savings with the
consequence that “it becomes more difficult to meet their needs and expectations” in the near
future. Hence, the continuous fight for minutes and seconds might turn out to be “a losing
battle for the public transport industry” (Dziekan & Kottenhoff 2007, 499) and opens the
question of when transport operators will have reached the ‘marginal utility’ of fighting
waiting time. Additionally, sinking trust in the correctness of displayed waiting times can
easily lead to psychological rebound effects that increase or become the actual source of
evoking negative affective responses to the service provision.
3) Dislocating the wait and diffusion in activities
Instead of just going to the stop, passengers spent considerable amounts of time for loading
apps, typing, searching etc., in order to not have to wait at the actual point of departure.
Hence, pre-trip planning via Internet for the aim of reducing actual wait time at stops or
stations might turn out to be a zero-sum game in the light of the actual time spent organizing
the journey. What is believed to increase travel efficiency might rather be considered a mere
relocation of waiting into other environments or its translation into other activities. [p.24]
4) Lack of (creative) interstices
Within the technological race for time and travel efficiency we might diminish our invaluable
ability to employ these temporary discontinuities for the creative power of ‘doing nothing’
(Ehn and Löfgren 2010). According to social psychologist George Herbert Mead,
discontinuities are indispensable for experiencing our reality. “Without this break within
continuity“, he argued, “continuity would be inexperienceable“ (Mead 1929, 239). In this
respect, we might be on the verge of forfeiting the ability to be patient as an important virtue
of a person’s cultural equipment (Gasparini 1995). Instead, RTIS technology may generate a
new imperative for activities other than waiting (e.g. shopping) and might reduce
opportunities for socio-psychological needs of self-reflection or mere contemplation.
This article critically addressed the connection between information technologies and
passengers’ in-transit experiences through recognizing an ‘informational turn’ in waiting
experiences induced by real-time information systems (RTIS) at stops and stations. Arguing
for a historically novel quality such ‘directed waiting’ experiences generated by the increase
of supplementary technologies facilitating the wait, systems like RTIS – informing passengers
about live departure and arrival times – have been widely appreciated by passengers for
reducing perceived wait time and mediating positive psychological effects. Real-time
information – if reliable (!) and in complementary addition to personalised services on, for
example, smart phones – reduces uncertainty and liberates the passenger to do other things
while waiting, thus ‘taming’ the wait seminally.
However, on the other side, the rise of ‘directed waiting’ entails ambiguous side and
negative rebound effects. Through extensive implementation of RTIS we might miss
conceptualizing the temporal region of waiting beyond prevailing considerations of a
‘stepchild of mobility’ or a dreadful period. Instead, RTIS’ final countdown logic might – in
the long run – once more increase overall time sensibility, dislocate waiting into other areas,
or even diminish the psychologically and culturally necessitated ability to wait uninformed
and creatively. Despite a modernist vision of eliminating the temporal region of waiting, it
will yet remain mobility’s twin, and, will remain an anthropological constant. It is thus up for
debate when we will have reached the ‘marginal utility’ of fighting waiting time and – seen
through the lens of the temporal region of waiting – it might thus be up for debate to think
about time use differently.
Moreover, this article has called for focussing thematically on the forgotten aspects of
everyday life, illustrated by the socio-technical and psychological peculiarities of the waiting
passenger. Stipulated by the mobility turn’s impulse for assertive considerations of
experiences, usage, and mobility [p.25] practices, waiting is believed to be a fruitful approach,
both for an empirical understanding of networked urban mobilities as well as for the
theoretical exploration of the dialectics of movement and immobility.
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Figure 2 - RTIS's final countdown logic (own image)
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