Atlantic Cities

Why All of Grand Central's Clocks Are Wrong

Why All of Grand Central's Clocks Are Wrong
Reuters
Today is the centennial of Grand Central Terminal, the nation's most iconic -- and certainly its most beautiful -- train station.
 
One of the most telling features of the station, having spent my fair share of time there, is what one might politely call the place's "flow" and what one might more accurately call the place's TOTAL CRAZINESS: Passengers zoom and zig and zag around each other, briefcases and backpacks and duffel bags and roller bags in tow, via criss-crossed pathways that if charted would probably resemble a Jackson Pollock painting. On the bright side, this explosion of out-of-my-way-I'm-about-to-miss-my-train effusiveness is a wonder of human ergonomics much like the city that surrounds it. On the other hand, it's a chaotic energy guided by social Darwinism and a collective assumption that racing the clock also means racing one's fellow passengers.
 
There is very little to be done about all this when space is limited, crowds are large, and humans always -- always -- put things off until the last minute. But Grand Central, for years now, has relied on a system meant to mitigate, if not prevent, all the crazy. It is this: The times displayed on Grand Central's departure boards are wrong -- by a full minute. This is permanent. It is also purposeful.
 
The idea is that passengers rushing to catch trains they're about to miss can actually be dangerous -- to themselves, and to each other. So conductors will pull out of the station exactly one minute after their trains' posted departure times. That minute of extra time won't be enough to disconcert passengers too much when they compare it to their own watches or smartphones ... but it is enough, the thinking goes, to buy late-running train-catchers just that liiiiiitle bit of extra time that will make them calm down a bit. Fast clocks make for slower passengers. "Instead of yelling for customers to hurry up," the Epoch Times notes, "the conductors instead tell everyone to slow down."
 
You might call this time-hacking; you might call it behavioral engineering; you might call it comical. Regardless, it seems to be working. Grand Central boasts the fewest slips, trips, and falls of any station in the country -- quite a feat given how many of its floors are made of marble. And given how many of the passengers treading those floors are, despite their grace period, cutting it thisthisclose to missing their trains.
 
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media. All posts »

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