Ian Macartney is a man on a mission. The president and founder of Lumichron, a clockmaker since 1984, wants to bring analog clocks back to public transit stations and platforms across the country.
The Grand Rapids, MI-based company is an authorized U.S. distributor for Mobatime, a Swiss company that makes synchronized time systems for public spaces and large buildings, and also makes its own stand-alone façade and tower clocks.
The minimalist Mobatime clock face is instantly recognizable: no numbers, clean hashmarks for the minutes, and a red second hand with a distinctive red dot. The aesthetic is so appealing that the design aficionados at Apple adopted the look for the iPhone 5 and iPad mini.
But even more than the clocks themselves, Macartney wants to restore the notion of public time to bus and rail stations where people now rush back and forth to their destinations, plugged into their iPods and smart phones but isolated from each other.
“Everyone has their cell phones and on every terminal display there’s the time, but it’s all digital. If you look at an analog clock, you can tell in a nanosecond how much time you have left. That’s the beauty of it,” Macartney said. “You don’t have to do the math. It’s an instant graphical representation of how much time’s left. We’re trying to get this concept of nice round clocks in airports and train stations.”
Analogs and Architecture
Macartney is finding some interested buyers for the old-fashioned analog clock. The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) in Oakland, CA, installed a large clock from Lumichron on the elevator tower of its Pleasant Hill Station, located in Contra Costa County in the East Bay of San Francisco.
The idea of a clock came up over and over in community meetings, with neighbors favoring it, said Merideth Marschak, principal with Noll & Tam Architects, the firm that worked with BART on the Pleasant Hill redesign.
“That is my station, so as I’m running to the train, it lets me know whether to start running or slow down,” said Joe Lipkos, principal architect for BART. “To me, I like that old type of appearance. For most people, you read an analog clock much quicker. You comprehend it much quicker than looking at the digital numbers.”
But as important as the design sensibilities might be, it’s equally important that all clocks in the system must be linked—synchronized—so they all show the same time throughout the system.
In Europe and Asia, it’s commonplace to find a distributed time system: a series of platform clocks all integrated into one master clock. “In Switzerland, there’s a clock every 100 feet, maybe a half dozen going down a platform,” Macartney said.
“The passengers and the drivers all need to be working on exactly the same expectations. It’s important that all the clocks within a terminal be synchronized,” said David L. Phillips, senior transportation planner with TranSystems Corporation in Chicago, which is designing the Danville, IL, Transfer Center.“The thing that’s best about them is that they’re very precise. The minute hand jumps only when the second hand hits the 12. There’s no ambiguity.”
The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) also is considering a distributed time system as part of its multi-station revamp project. Analog clocks may be part of MARTA’s remodel upgrade of its communication systems and displays. “They like the look of it. It simply looks good and it’s quick to understand,” Macartney said.
Branding, Precision, Aesthetics
Analog clocks offer a potential for branding that digital clocks can’t, because a public transit agency can place its logo in the center of the dial without obscuring the time.
“You can put the MARTA logo on the dial, for example, so it’s a brand reinforcement,” Macartney said. “It’s how much time you have left, at a glance. It’s so quick and easy. It’s just fast. For some reason, it has a high degree of comfort.”
T.R. Hickey, senior rail and transit planning manager in the Philadelphia office of the engineering firm CH2M Hill, said he thinks digital clocks provide a false sense of security. Moreover, he likes the Mobatime clocks because of their connection to the Swiss railway, which has a long association with precision.
“In Europe, you’ll see a consistent analog clock face throughout the network. It gives the customer the sense, as they go from station to station, that there’s a consistency to the reliability of the system and a recognition of the importance of time,” Hickey said. “In public transportation, there’s an assurance that comes with reliability, and that distills down to the value of time. It’s an important sales tool for public agencies and transit operators.”
Ten years ago—when Hickey was general manager at the Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO), operator of the Speedline between Lindenwold, NJ, and Philadelphia—he specified a remote controlled analog clock in a station rehabilitation that encompassed 10 stations, with about three clocks per station. At the time, he said, it was challenging to find a synchronized clock system that could be remotely set and updated for the high-speed train line, he said. Lumichron’s offering is what PATCO was looking for, being tied to the national time standard broadcast from Fort Collins, CO.
“It appalls me to go to any station where there’s no clock. Passengers want to know what time is it: ‘Should I be running or can I take a casual stroll?’” he said. “That’s the assurance we should be providing our customers throughout the station experience. . . . It’s one of those many subtle messages to get our customers to trust us.”
The analog look also fit the 1960s-era aesthetic of the rail stations. “They already had that retro Mad Men look that everybody is embracing now,” Hickey said.
Time and Money
One of the biggest challenges Macartney faces is the long planning time frame for public transit facility construction. Architects who today are specifying plans for new stations or administration buildings might not see the final results for years or even a decade.
“It’s a very long outlook. It’s measured in years, which is a little daunting, but if you don’t plant the seed now, four to five years from now you won’t have anything to show for it,” he says. “The Swiss are patient, so we’re planting these seeds.”
Looking at the stand-alone clocks, a three-foot clock, fully built with a master clock, might cost $3,600; a six-foot clock might cost $8,000. Lumichron builds all clocks to order, and standard delivery on a big clock is eight weeks.
It’s harder to calculate the expense of a distributed time system with integrated platform and building clocks because the cost depends on so many factors, including the size of the complex and the number of clocks. One double-faced illuminated clock that is two feet in diameter—such as would appear on a platform—might cost $3,000. Smaller, non-illuminated wall clocks that are part of a system might cost about $300 each. “The costs can be all over the board,” he said.
Macartney has traveled all over the U.S. to public transit conferences, including APTA’s 2012 Rail Conference, to talk with system officials about their needs and to explain the opportunity that analog clocks can provide.
“My belief is that you have to see [the opportunity]. When people see it and the availability is there, then they’re more apt to design with it,” he said.
A Global Perspective
Macartney said his journey to bring analog clocks to the U.S. began with a training trip to Switzerland to visit Mobatime, which had been supplying Lumichron with clock parts for years.
“In my mind, there’s simply nothing finer than the Swiss clock system. If you’re going to buy a clock system, where else can you get that inherent brand quality?” he asked. “It was completely exhilarating to go to the center of time presentation, where it’s made. In this little factory, they’re making the most advanced time systems in the world. It’s really neat that there are humans behind it and a craft.”
While in Switzerland, Macartney rode on a cable car system that exemplified the difference between U.S. and European design sensibilities. “The gear house: in this country, that would be underground and buried. [In Switzerland,] they encase it in glass and paint everything nice so you can see the works,” he said. “You really feel that they’re very proud of the mechanics and the achievement of what they’re doing.”
As evidence of the appeal of analog clocks for public transit, Macartney recalled a conversation at the APTA conference with the team that builds Japan’s high-speed rail system. “Inside the driver’s cab, there’s a digital display and there’s an analog clock right beside it,” he said. “The most advanced train system in the planet, and the guy at the front of the train uses—and it’s mandatory to have—a round clock display.”
In retrospect, he said, it’s difficult to trace the elimination of analog clocks and a public timepiece from public spaces and, specifically, public transit locations. “I don’t know why there was a trend to move away from clock systems in transit,” he said.
Macartney plans to continue meeting with architects, planners, public transit officials, and others sympathetic to his passion for returning analog clocks—and public time—to stations, platforms, and buildings.
“There’s something that feels right about a clock as an accouterment to your design environment,” he said. “I have not met anyone who doesn’t like a round clock on a building. Everyone likes a round clock.”
Katherine Lewis is a Maryland-based freelance writer who specializes in public transportation, among other issues.
Analog clocks need not be minimalist in design. Artist Donald Lipski designed “Time Piece,” with three functioning clocks counterbalanced within a stainless steel arch, for Los Angeles Metro’s El Monte Station.