Home New Jersey Transit The psychology of a quieter commute

The psychology of a quieter commute

by Benjamin Kabak

For the city’s neighbors to the west, Tuesday was a big day in the effort to restore a sense of peace, quiet and dignity to the often tiresome quiet for New Jersey Transit launched its quiet car pilot program. Amidst much fanfare for an early-morning hour after a three-day weekend, the nation’s third-largest transit system sent forward a Penn Station-bound train from Trenton in which the first and last cars were designated as cell phone- and noise-free zones.

“Our customers have asked us to offer a Quiet Commute option in an effort to balance the needs of people who want to stay connected while aboard our trains with those who want to relax or work in a quiet atmosphere,” NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein said prior to the 9:14 a.m. launch of the quiet car. “We are offering this amenity as a pilot program and will rely on customer feedback to determine whether to make Quiet Commute a permanent NJ Transit amenity.”

For the next 90 days, the instructions are simple: The first and last cars of various trains will be clearly marked on the outside as the quiet cars, and NJ Transit conductors will pass out business cards to those who offend the sensibilities of others who want to ride in silence. The cards, printed in both English and Spanish, were first employed by SEPTA during its quiet commute launch and seem as firm reminders of the new social norms.

In this pilot, it is truly social norms of train ridership that are under assault and for the better. The Quite Commute cars, says New Jersey Transit, are intended to provide a “subdued environment for customers who wish to refrain from using cell phones and are willing to disable the sound feature on pagers, games, computers and other electronic devices.” Riders are urged to talk in “subdued” voices and, thankfully enough, are told to use headphones at a volume that “cannot be heard by other passengers.” To rid trains of the blight of loud and leaky headphones would be a true accomplishment indeed.

As the commuter rail network looks to remind people that everyone is on the train together and that selfish behavior should be left at home, the proper enforcement methods must inevitably come under scrutiny. Who, wondered Victoria St. Martin of The Star-Ledger, will enforce the quiet? If all goes according to plan, NJ Transit officials hope that other rides will serve as the overseers. “We’re not trying to make the[ conductors] hall monitors. Most will respect the rules, and if not, they will tell them,” Weinstein said. “Most of the enforcement will be peer pressure by the passengers themselves — they’ll demand it. If somebody gets on and they’re not aware it’s a quiet car, and they start their cellphone, first they get killed by looks. And then if that doesn’t work, passengers will invariably get up and let folks know that it’s a quiet car and cellphones are not permitted there.”

There are, of course, no shortage of gripes about noise. Michael Grynbaum in The Times tracked down numerous commuters who are looking forward to a quieter commute. While one commuter tells tales of 6 a.m. cell phone calls being “shut down,” others are ready for a break from the incessant chattering a 24-hour business cycle brings. “It is a movement toward civility,” Professor Frank Cioffi said. “You’ve got these high-powered businessmen in the morning doing heavy-duty negotiations, while you’re trying to read a book.”

In New York, though, the quiet car seems to be an idea out of place. Officials at Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road say they’ll “monitor” the NJ Transit pilot but can’t see the Quiet Commute arriving on our trains any time soon. “Most of our trains are running pretty full these days,” Marjorie Anders, a Metro-North spokeswoman, said. “People don’t have the luxury of moving to another car.”

At the same time, though, if trains are about commuting and the demands of a global economy dictate a need for access to phones, e-mail and things that make noise, not everyone will head to the Quiet Commute cars. Still, those that do will treasure the silence as NJ Transit assesses this program. “It gives you a sense of calm,” Louis Kinscy said. “The cell phones go off and the erroneous conversations — it’s tolerable but it’s annoying. To have the quiet makes life much easier.”

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14 comments

rhywun September 8, 2010 - 1:29 am

As a subway rider only, I find the complete lack of any sort of consistency in the volume of conductors’ station announcements to be hands-down the most annoying source of noise, far exceeding the well-known cell phone chit-chit, screaming infants, and loud conversationalists. At least once a week, I find myself in a car where the announcements are so loud they make people jump in their seats. I used to wonder why I see increasing numbers of folks wearing earplugs on the train – no longer.

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Jason September 8, 2010 - 7:09 am

Agreed. Fully.

Also noticing the MTA trying a new tactic and doing a test of the PA system at my home station (181 on the IND) every morning, at maximum volume, repeatedly. I’m talking like five or six times per ten minutes! Its all good that they test their equipment, but seriously guys, enough.

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mike September 8, 2010 - 1:34 am

I hate this “feature” on Amtrak. It turns passengers into the most petty sort of rule-enforcers.

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Joe September 8, 2010 - 9:58 am

Then don’t sit in it.

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petey September 8, 2010 - 10:50 am

what joe said. i LOVE the quiet car, and last time i reminded a bloke who started and persisted in a cell phone conversation that it was the quiet car, and he immediately went to the next car. no hostility, just compliance.

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JoshKarpoff September 8, 2010 - 3:15 am

Metro-North used to run “Smoking Cars” on their trains (some of the older coaches still have the bracket surrounding the “No” on the “No Smoking” signs that allowed the railroad to re-label the car easily). I don’t see why they can’t offer this too. What I’d really like is a quiet car on the last few trains out of the city late at night. After a long night’s work or night out in the city, all I want is a nice quiet nap as the train slowly makes its way up to my stop at the end of the line for the most local of local trains. After 2AM, I really just start to lose my patience with loud drunken idiots.

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Scott E September 8, 2010 - 8:04 am

If they are MU cars (not locomotive-pulled), designating the front car as a quiet car may prove ineffective. I’ve found the front cars of the LIRR, particularly the front of these cars, to be very non-conducive to sleep. Every time the engineer sounds the train whistle (grade crossings, bypassing stops, as well as true hazards), not only am I jolted from my seat by the noise, but I can actually feel the vibration of the horn in my feet.

But — kudos to NJT for at least trying it out. Passengers have been asking for it for a long time, it’s a virtually zero-cost pilot, and LIRR/MNR seem to do nothing but make excuses why it won’t work. If it truly won’t work, passengers will believe it when they see it, not because they are told as much.

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Alon Levy September 8, 2010 - 8:27 am

NJT cars are loco-hauled.

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Scott E September 8, 2010 - 9:24 am

Not all of them. The double-deckers are, and certainly the ones that run on diesel. There is still some of the fleet that runs as an MU, with a pantograph above every other car.

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Alon Levy September 8, 2010 - 11:30 am

No, you’re right… one of the car types is an EMU. But most are loco-hauled.

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Alon Levy September 8, 2010 - 11:30 am

On the other hand: the lead car wouldn’t be very noisy on the NEC Line, which is fully grade-separated and four-tracked.

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capt subway September 8, 2010 - 12:23 pm

And let’s cut back on the idiotic robot “public service” announcements on the newer fleet of NYC subway cars. Some conductors love to play these announcements over and over and over until you’re ready to run from the train screaming. How many times on one 20 minute trip to you need to hear “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM THE NYC POLICE DEPT, STAY ALERT………IF YOU SEE SOMETHING SAY SOMETHING”? Did any of the jerks who programmed this blurb and directed the train conductors to play it over and over ever read the fairy tale about the boy who cried “wolf”?
And to make matters worse they’ve added a whole bunch more: sexual harassment, give your seat to the elderly and pregnant, blah and blah and blah. Is there anyone left in this world who appreciates peace and quiet anymore?

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Joe September 8, 2010 - 4:17 pm

The irony is that they put these quiet cars on express rush-hour trains. I often find (at this point in time) most cars to be quiet. I was on one of the “quiet car” trains on Tuesday, but not in a “quiet car”, and there still was little noise. Most commuters know on these rush-hour express trains, it’s not OK anymore to blab on a cell phone. It’s the off-peak, local trains that are like circuses, with kids, and large groups of people talking the whole ride.

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How quiet the Quiet Cars? :: Second Ave. Sagas January 12, 2011 - 12:17 pm

[…] In an age of cell phones, New Jersey Transit is trying to strike a balance between convenience and serenity. Not everyone wants to hear people yammer away on their cell phones during schleppy rides home after long days in the office, and thus, in September, the Quiet Car pilot program was born. […]

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