Technology and the law of unintended consequencesBy
As regular readers know, I am a big supporter of the MTA’s new countdown clocks. In fact, outside of those people who rabble over money spent on something they personally deem superfluous without understanding the rationale behind the expenditures, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t find the countdown clocks calming. We know how far away the next train is; we know the trains are moving closer as time ticks away; and we no longer have to deal with the mysteries of waiting and peering into darkened tunnels.
Yet, the countdown clocks allow us to sneak a peak at the MTA’s operations, and now and then, we see things we do not like. Let me tell a story that I’ve told in various forms before. I wish I didn’t have to keep repeating myself, but this type of incident happens far more regularly than I would like.
To set the stage, it is Friday night at 11:38 p.m. I have just taken the 4 train back to Brooklyn from Yankee Stadium, and I am hoping that I won’t need to wait long for a connecting 2 or 3 train that will take me to Grand Army Plaza. When we slowly pass Hoyt St., I can see the countdown clocks threatening a 13-minute wait until the next 2 train is due to arrive, and I hope that there is a train at Nevins awaiting connecting passengers.
When we pull into Nevins St., I get my hopes up. There’s a 3 train across the platform, but the 3 train has its doors closed. At that hour of the night and with the next train so far behind, I had hopes that the operators would grow less worried about adhering to the MTA’s fantasy idea of a schedule and more concerned with customer service. Instead, as the doors on the 4 open, the 3 train pulls away. So much for those poor saps who have to get to Bergen St., Grand Army Plaza or Eastern Parkway. Instead of waiting for 12 minutes at Nevins, I opted for the 20-minute walk back home from Atlantic Ave.
To me, there is nothing quite as frustrating as watching a local depart as an express pulls in when nighttime headways at their worst. We’ve heard frequently from the MTA about improving on-time performance, but as I’ve said in the past, on-time performance means little if customers aren’t inconvenienced by it. On Friday night, more than a few of us sighed audibly or cursed under our breaths as that 3 train pulled out. We were inconvenienced by it, and because of the countdown clocks, we knew that the next local train would be an interminable 12 minutes away.
Enter the law of unintended consequences. In the days before countdown clocks, I likely would have waited for that next 2 train, growing more and more impatient with every passing minute and thinking ill of the train operator who left us stranded at Nevins. With the countdown clocks, I could better plan my trip home, but I also knew with certainty that the local train should have waited 20 extra seconds for a connecting express because the next train wasn’t particularly close.
Meanwhile, the countdown clocks gave me a glimpse of the MTA’s true headways as well, and I’ve noticed this problem with some frequency. Ideally, headways at 11:40 p.m. on a Friday at Nevins St. would be around 8-10 minutes per train, and technically they are. There is, however, a catch. The countdown clocks told me that the next 2 train was 12 minutes away while the next 3 was 17. Two trains in 17 minutes makes sense, but no trains in 12 minutes doesn’t. When different routes — in this case the Flatbush Ave.-bound 2 and the New Lots Ave.-bound 3 — share a track, the headways might sound convenient, but often, bunching happens. The countdown clocks lay it all out there for everyone to see.
Ultimately, my trip home lasted a few minutes less than it would have had I waited for the next train, and I was able to take a nice walk on a warm evening to let out my frustration. But with technology that allows us to see just when the next train is coming, the MTA should ask its train operators to think about customers when its late at night and headways are long. The extra few seconds would make for many more satisfied customers.