Home View from Underground The Way We Ride: Noisily

The Way We Ride: Noisily

by Benjamin Kabak

The New York City Subways are not a quiet place. Noise filters into our rides from nearly every source. People lost in their music forget how loud their cheap headphones are; kids coming home from school laugh and joke with their friends; subway car brakes squeal; metal-on-metal sparks fly.

While the outside noise is impossible to contain, the MTA’s own announcements aren’t helping. The new countdown clocks make waiting for trains far less stressful but also far more bothersome. Every two minutes the loud pre-recorded announcements let us know that the next Brooklyn-bound 2 train is two minutes away while the next Bronx-bound train is 4 minutes away and over and over and over again.

The on-board announcements are even worse. We are bombarded with messages from the New York City Police Department that haven’t changed in nearly 10 years. We are told not to ride on the outside of the train. We are urged not to litter. But the worst, says Juliet Lapidos in this weekend’s Daily News, are those exhorting us to be patient when unavoidable delays arise. In fact, she absolutely hates it.

Nearly every day, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority asks me, quite insistently, to “please be patient.” On the F line, which I use to commute to work from Brooklyn, I’m often held up at Jay Street-MetroTech. There, a pre-recorded message explains that it’s necessary to wait for a connecting train: “please be patient.” At West Fourth Street, I’m told there’s been a signal malfunction in midtown: “please be patient.” Stalled at Second Avenue due to trouble with the closing doors: “please be patient.”

..Well, to those who run the sprawling MTA bureaucracy, I’ll say this: Thanks but no thanks. New York’s subway system is vast, constantly in operation and perennially underfunded. It serves some five million people every weekday. Delays are unavoidable. But just skip the “please be patient,” or the PBP. It’s presumptuous and condescending – and, most of all, counterproductive.

Anyone with a basic understanding of psychology knows that when you request patience, you draw attention to the passage of time. It’s comparable to that tired trick your uncle trots out at barbecues: “Don’t think of an elephant.” “Please be patient, you say? Come to think of it, I’m feeling pretty impatient. How long have I been on this train, anyway?” The more they ask, the worse it gets.

According to Lapidos, the MTA says the messages were “introduced to soften messages that contain useful yet unwelcome information.” They were not tested on a focus group though who could have noticed how annoying they are. The messages, Lapidos writes, “irritate and inflame. She says, “The worst is when a computerized message delivers the message – which is becoming increasingly common as the system automates many of its operations. The computerized voice is annoyingly unflappable; it most assuredly does not feel my pain.”

Of all of the complaints about customer relations underground, I find Lapidos’ gripe to be spot-on. These prerecorded messages do nothing to inform straphangers of the cause of the delay or the amount of time the train will be waiting. On the B train every morning, the conductor asks us to be patient before we cross the Manhattan Bridge, and the delay is inevitable five or ten seconds longer than the announcement. In that case, the announcement simply draws attention to a delay that isn’t.

So what’s the solution? Lapidos offers a great one: “The MTA would do well to give its riders more and more useful data. Tell us about how long we should expect to wait…Announcing that the connecting train should arrive within two minutes, or that the signal trouble should be cleared up within three, will go much further than a PBP in encouraging docile acceptance.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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@HarryGottlieb June 6, 2011 - 1:07 am

Fair gripe, and the solution is just common sense. The question is, if these types of updates are possible to provide, given the fact, as noted in the article, that these announcements are becoming increasingly generic & automated, & delay estimates vary in each instance.

Bolwerk June 6, 2011 - 1:39 am

Could some of this be blamed on the ADA? The visually impaired obviously can’t depend on signs alone.

When I go under the river, I often get bombarded with a long string of notices about unlawful sexual conduct and “if you see something, say something” crap. Not necessary for anyone (especially the visually impaired).

BBnet3000 June 6, 2011 - 4:15 am

My thought is that the audio announcing the next trains is due to this. Its announced for those who are visually impaired and cant see the signs.

Which is not to say that most of the rest arent superfluous noise.

SEAN June 6, 2011 - 6:00 pm

I agree to a point that some anouncements are nothing but noise. Having said that, I do depend on those same anouncements since I am visually challenged. I can see the digital signs some of the time, but the anouncements are nessessary for aditional information.

I guess it’s a matter of both frequency & usefulness that’s importent. If you repeat things like if you see something, say something enough times, you natually toon it out.

Christopher June 6, 2011 - 8:35 am

I was going to say that. I’m deaf, so it was interesting to read this post as most of the announcement I didn’t realize existed. Any kind of information in-train that’s given that’s not somewhat standard I miss, I tend to try to “read” my fellow passengers behaviors but sometimes guess wrong. (Train held up? People suddenly rather quickly getting off at next stop? Probably means a local is becoming express. Things like that.)

pete June 6, 2011 - 11:24 am

If ADA is an issue then put an audiojack somewhere in the subway car like on the MVMs. The MVMs dont talk to you. The robo announcements on the trains are going to make someone go postal (shooting spree) one day to fight the dystopian future that the robo announcements are part of. The subways have enough noise. If I care to know where I am or whats going on, I can look at the digital sign.

pete June 6, 2011 - 11:25 am

Soon the MTA will be playing ads on the PA 24/7, except for station announcements and PSAs, in the cars jkjk

Phil June 6, 2011 - 2:32 am

It seems that, even on cars with pre-recorded announcements, it’s really up to the conductor. Sometimes they loop the guy going “we are being held due to dispatcher” (seems to be common on the Lex), there’s a manual announcement of the same thing (happens on the F and M for some reason), and others times you just have to assume what’s not being said.

Bolwerk June 6, 2011 - 11:31 am

On the M, it happens really frequently at Myrtle-Broadway. The M has to cross up to two lanes of active rail traffic to reach the Myrtle El stub…so presumably it is being held by the dispatcher sometimes. Also, they pretend they’re waiting “for connecting passengers on an arriving train.”

Still, the Sixth Avenue lines seem to involve more bottlenecks than most in the system.

JP June 6, 2011 - 7:26 am

So the problem is still that riders don’t get enough information, except now there are announcements. Remember when we griped that the intercoms and PA systems didn’t work, and we needed more information? Same problem, different complaint.

Besides, the real noise offenders are the trains themselves. I recently had the misfortune of waiting for an uptown 6 at Spring street, and ouch, that was really too loud. I’ll walk to Astor or 23rd rather than stand on any IRT platform at Union Sq. I’d take repetitious announcements over bleeding ears any day of the week.

pete June 6, 2011 - 11:27 am

Use ear plugs or ear muff hearing protection. Can’t listen to music any other way. OSHA requires it for the train drivers, maybe the govt is trying to tell you something.

Scott E June 6, 2011 - 8:44 am

They were not tested on a focus group though who could have noticed how annoying they are.

Oh, come on. Would anyone accept the MTA spending money on such a focus group? New Yorkers are trained to tune things out… ambulance sirens, panhandlers, car horns, subway brakes. And announcements. We don’t need a focus group to see how irritating various announcements could be; the backlash of such a study would be more irritating.

As for lengths of delays, sometimes nobody knows. Sometimes just the conductor doesn’t know. Its dangerous to guess how long a delay will be, unless it’s known to be lengthy (from 5 minutes to a number of hours or days). Yes, delays are annoying. Conductors who tend to hide behind canned announcements can be annoying. Welcome to New York — lots of things are bound to annoy you, yet lots of things are bound to delight you, too. Deal with it.

Evan June 6, 2011 - 10:02 am

I completely agree. However, I’d like to counter with late night announcements of delays due to train traffic when you waited for a train for well over 20 min. I’d sure like to know what train traffic cause I didn’t see a garbage train or a work train pass ahead.

Peter June 6, 2011 - 9:34 am

“This is an important message from the NY City Police Department” is, by definition, not.
If it were actually important, it would provide real information. None of the canned digital messages provide actual usable information.

Scott E June 6, 2011 - 11:33 am

I’ve trained myself to automatically tune out as soon as I hear those words (“This is an important message…”). God fordbid that, one day, if the NYPD really has an important message to tell me, I’ll miss it.

oscar June 6, 2011 - 9:50 am

absolutely agree

“please be patient” = fingernails on chalkboard

John-2 June 6, 2011 - 10:07 am

Each generation has it’s own irritations. My guess is Ms. Lapidos never stood on the downtown platform at 81st St. and CPW with an R-10 A train going by, or tried to decipher the announcements on an R-16’s PA system. The annoyances of today are in part because you can actually hear the announcements now, in a way you couldn’t 30-or-more years ago.

Adirondacker June 8, 2011 - 1:34 am

….years ago they didn’t make announcements while the train was moving. You couldn’t hear them. Especially in the summer time when all the windows were open…. late 80s, I hadn’t been on the subway in years. An A train going to Manhattan from Howard Beach. Listening to some woman complain about her husband’s inordinate concern about toll calls on the telephone bill. Really really annoying. Then I realized that the train was quiet enough for me to eavesdrop on her conversation. And that it was quiet enough for her to have a conversation. I’ll take annoying interstation announcements over having my hearing damaged because the windows on the train are open as we hurtle up Central Park West….

Ian June 6, 2011 - 10:28 am

One of my main gripes with the subway train communications is often that it’s not loud enough, especially in those situtations when the conductor must communicate information to riders (delays, service changes, etc.). To me that’s more annoying than the canned messages.

Part of the problem with communicating accurate information may be the inability to gather thoroughly detailed information underground. I don’t know the MTA’s inter-train communication system, and just how much can be transferred to/from dispatch on the status of preceding trains and delays.

That said, one of the most personable, and might I say amusing, transit experiences I’ve had was riding the BART from downtown SF to Oakland Airport. The conductor, aware that his train was extremely crowded, and making up for previous service delays, calmly explained the situation to riders, and advised those that didn’t want to sit in a “sardine can” that the next train would be several minutes away. NYCT could get there, but I wonder how much of an upgrade to its communications systems and changes in its protocol are necessary to enable this.

Then again, we are New Yorkers, and what we care utmost about is getting to where we’re going. We don’t necessarily care about the signal malfunction, just tell us how long we’ll be sitting and whether I’m better off transferring to other options at an upcoming station. Still, in my opinion, a little information with a touch of customer service can go a long way.

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Todd June 7, 2011 - 8:31 am

I couldn’t agree more. Also, now I can’t stop thinking about elephants.

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