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.