New York is all about the subway. Every day is World Carfree Day for most of us New Yorkers. Even – gasp – Hollywood celebrities take the subway. I’m usually celebrity-blind, but last month I saw some guy who was a dead ringer for the baddie in the new Star Wars
movie series chatting away on the uptown B. Pretty sure it was him, and no, I didn’t ask. My clever friend George schmoozes Broadway stars all the time on the subway (it helps that he was on Broadway). The point is that the subway is the fastest way to get around town. Sure, some of you could afford the stretch SUV with the blinking lights and the bar to go from Wall Street to Harlem, but a subway commuter would lap you four times before you even got level with the Holland tunnel.
The subway is our life blood. It’s why we exist. We love NYPIRG Straphangers, because they are advocating for us, the rider. When you’re crammed into a metal box, nose-to-armpit with everyone from the actor who played Kylo Ren to your local sewer inspector, you get a warm, fuzzy glow as you realize all humanity is as one.
Or not. Maybe it just pushes you right over the edge. Either way, something is going to happen.
Here are some recent improvements – or at least changes – in everyone’s favorite aging transit infrastructure. By the way, subway cars used to have actual straps.
Since time immemorial (1940’s?), the voice booming over the loudspeaker began with “Ladies and Gentlemen….” As soon as you heard that, you knew the next phrase would be either a public service announcement (“Stop throwing trash on the tracks you morons”) or bad news (“Trains are hosed, so you might as well walk”), or words to that effect. Then, this month, the decision came down the pike to be more inclusive. The first time we heard “Good Morning, Everybody” it took a little getting used to. The traditionalists among us don’t like it, but there’s no real difference. “Attention everybody: if you see something, say something.” “Attention, everybody. Trains are hosed, so you might as well walk.”
Honesty is the best policy
For decades, whenever a New Yorker heard, “Due to a police investigation at Times Square…” we immediately envisioned the worst. Terror attack, armed robbery, flood and fire, derailment, president in town. Something that would justify the next phrase, which was inevitably “…all trains are terminating at Columbus Circle. And there is very little chance they’ll start up again any time soon.” Or words to that effect. Announcements about a “police investigation” or “sick passenger” at least let us know something alarming was happening, even as it withheld vital information.
Other anxiety-inducing announcements included things like “Conductor, we have a Code 37.” That always raised eyebrows. Fellow passengers (who are almost always wits) would say things like “Ummmm, conductor, the engine has caught on fi… uh, I mean the engine has caught on Code 37.” Starting now, though, we’re getting more information. It’s not the automated information prerecorded in the Midwest for our edification. Once upon a time, the track at West Fourth Street caught on Code 37, and my train was in the tunnel, full stop, for over 90 minutes. Every 3 minutes, we got Automated Midwest Guy saying “due to TRAIN TRAFFIC ahead, we are exPERiencing delays! We APOLOGIZE for the inconvenience! We should be moving SHORTLY.” Finally, the conductor was able to cut him off and come over the intercom to let us know “West Fourth Street is on fire, and we don’t know when we’ll be moving.”
Recently, a spirit of honesty in public policy has caught on, even at the MTA. Announcements are more to the point. Just yesterday, the conductor on my D train announced that “due to a passenger getting hit by a train at 168th Street in the Bronx, there’s no B or D service.” Thank you!
Now, let’s get to what hasn’t changed.
The next train is arriving….never
Yes, all stations got countdown clocks that are supposed to tell us to the minute when our train will be arriving, but lots of those above 125 street and in the other boroughs have stopped working or have issues. It seems the “install them” budget is not quite the same as the “make sure they are working” budget. Here’s my suggestion: dump the countdown
clocks. Save the money. Hand out free chocolate to everyone, and print “we know we suck, but have some chocolate!” on the wrapper. After all, countdown clocks are not strictly necessary to my morning commute. Trains are. I can hear a train when it gets to the station before mine, and so can the other 299 people who are on the platform with me. Free chocolate would cause a temporary feeling of euphoria to sooth my nerves, so that I would elbow Kylo Ren out of my way less sharply as I jockey for a seat.
Fix the damn signals!
Just spend the money and do it. It’s like dental surgery. It’s painful, expensive, disruptive, and you put it off forever but once you have no choice (like now?), you’ll be glad you had it done.
Crowd control – what crowd control?
You know what theme parks do really well? They move people on and off rides in no time flat. Pirates of the Carribean – my favorite Disney ride (because you’re not baking like a chicken in the sun) – is a great example. You step out to the right even as the new row is stepping in on the left. Everyone’s been presorted into the appropriate slot. It takes 2 seconds. Granted, a subway car can never be as efficient, but a small amount of crowd
control would go a long way. This isn’t about rude people who don’t want to move, selfish people who jump into the car before anyone can get out, or stupid people who can’t tell that they have chosen to block the only door. Well, maybe it is a little. However, those same people have no problem getting on or off Pirates at Disney. Why? Because Disney observes two simple rules:
1) Get people off the ride before letting other people onto the ride, and
2) Don’t slam the doors directly on your customers.
That’s the genius of Disney. The genius of the NY subway is to have everyone enter and exit through the same door, and to allow the conductor to routinely slam the doors onto entering passengers – it’s similar to Clapping Mountain. That’s why we don’t wait for the last straggler to leave before executing a quick jab in the brisket to Kylo as we hurtle over the idiot blocking the door. We’ve all developed an internal “doors are closing” timer. Everyone does, in the first weeks of moving to New York. Our internal door-timer allows us to know precisely when the doors will shut, meaning that the people who didn’t make it will have to take the next train. Taking the next train is the position of last resort.
Hilarious subway ads
Thank goodness for the constant stream of clever and funny subway ads. Check out some of my favorites here. Hint: don’t try the Ikea Promo in New York. It wouldn’t go well.