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E-paper displays are ready for prime-time transit

New sign technology is poised to remake transit stop communication

By Matt Schroeder
Director of Marketing, ETA Transit Systems

Join me for a brief trip down memory lane.

From 2006-2009, I served as the Creative Director for a group of 13 regional newspapers spanning the Front Range of Colorado. My tenure at the paper marked the beginning and the end of the Great Recession. If you remember your not-too-distant history, you will recall that the bulk of the newspaper industry largely collapsed during this time, with hundreds of the media outlets shuttering their operations across the country.

The reasons for their failure was … layered, and I will not go into any of the details—save one.

At our newspaper group the single biggest cause of our demise was not the fall of ad revenues.

It was not an attack on credibility that is seen in today’s political arena.

It was the cost of paper.

Newsprint—if you have never seen it—comes in giant rolls that weighed around one ton each at our operation. Each roll could print the weekly distribution of one of our newspapers, so each week we had roughly 13 tons of newsprint delivered to our presses.

As fuel prices rose during the Great Recession, so did the cost of transporting the newspaper—on average our cost doubled every six months over the course of three years.

What does any of this have to do with public transportation?

During this time, we caught wind of a new technology called ‘e-paper.’ As it was pitched to us, this was a light, flexible LCD screen upon which information could be displayed, deleted, and reloaded. I saw a demo. It was amazing. The idea was that everyone would have this thin roll of ‘digital ink’ that could would read like a newspaper, but people would swipe left or right to navigate; linkable text on the page could pull up websites, give more information about an ad—the sky was the limit.

It would save the newspaper industry. Or so we hoped.

Right around that time, Apple® introduced a little product called the iPad that relegated the ‘e-paper’ concept for newspapers to the recycle bin.

The re-emergence of e-paper technology … for transit communications

Communicating with passengers at stations has largely been limited to large LED-based signs—with large amber letters, a lot of scrolling, and very little curb appeal. Agencies with deeper pockets could afford to place high definition color LCD displays at select signs and drive rich-media infotainment via some sort of Internet or physical connection to a computer or device. Very cool, but very pricey and delicate, often requiring some sort of bulky protective enclosure to protect against the elements, vandalism, and theft.

But now, the technology we only got a taste of back in 2009 is fully developed and back in play in a major way with ramifications for the public transit market. The e-paper solution has emerged in the transit space as a happy medium between the old-school LED signs and the colorful, yet expensive HD LCD screens.

Often available as a black-and-white display (though some options do exist for color deployments), e-paper screens can largely solve the portability problem that plagues the deployment of traditional connected sign technology. Making e-paper more attractive is the cost of the technology itself. On balance, they are less expensive* than either LED or HD LCD screens, which makes the process of deploying these screens across more stops and stations more palatable to frugal budgets. The long-term cost savings are further realized in the following areas:

  • They do not require substantial infrastructure for installation.
    Screens are wireless and can be mounted to an existing pole or shelter.
  • They do not require wired connection to the Internet.
    E-paper displays have cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth connectivity options.
  • They do not require wired power.
    They are incredibly efficient. Easily powered using a small solar panel and/or a rechargeable battery.

*Depending upon selected options and configurations

Currently, the e-paper technology accounts for roughly 12 percent of all transit stop signage in use. The implementation rate is expected to jump to as many as 78 percent within the next five years, with 41 percent of transit agencies reporting e-paper as their preferred solution for bus stop signage.**

**Source: Papercast infographic, The Digital Bus Stop Market—Past, Present and Future (2019)

Infographic featuring Papercast statistics.

At ETA, we have seen and tested multiple offerings from various sign manufacturers. Hands-down the best solution we have found are the screens from Papercast®. These powerful screens:

  • Support real-time arrival predictions
  • Offer superior readability in all lighting conditions
  • Are triggered by motion and light sensors
  • Require no battery replacement
  • Leverage ultra-low power LED technology
  • Are virtually maintenance free
  • Support multiple sign configurations, pages, and layouts
  • Include online content management, health, and status monitoring
  • Are easily updated in real time
  • Support push-button text-to-speech for ADA compliance
  • Offer custom branding options such as logo placement and colored enclosures
  • Operate efficiently in any weather condition or temperature; are waterproof
  • Available in a variety of sizes and orientations from 13” to 57”
An image of three sizes of Papercast options, a single 13-inch display on left, double screen in the middle, and a triple-high sign on the right.
Papercast® 13-inch single (left), double (middle), and triple (right) displays.

The next evolution of station signage is here

The potential of e-paper technology was apparent to me as early as 2008. It did not become available in time to become a reliable option for the newspaper industry, but with a few years of seasoning and additional development the idea has been born anew. It represents a significant advancement in closing the communication loop between transit operators and their passengers.

It is exciting to see the many ways this technology can be applied. We have seen firsthand how well it works at our deployments at the Miami International Airport and Long Beach Transit. We see how our customers’ eyes light up when we demo the technology and they start to imagine the impact it would have on their riders.

If you have not heard of this technology before, download this information sheet to learn more.

What do you think? Does e-paper represent a viable communication solution within the transit industry? In what unique ways might you want to apply this technology to meet your specific needs?