Home Subway Cell Service More Stories About Cell Phones and Subways

More Stories About Cell Phones and Subways

by Benjamin Kabak

A sign in the 14th St. station announced new cell service last year. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

Whenever the MTA’s and Transit Wireless’ ambitious but slow plan to wire underground subway stations hits the news, a wave of articles bemoaning the intrusion of the connected realm into the sacred space of the subways hits the wires. It’s such a Manhattan-centric way of looking at the way New Yorkers use and ride the subways, and yet, when the MTA gathered cell phone big wigs and agency higher-ups last week in Times Square, the coverage that followed focused on this element but with a seemingly more nuanced twist this time.

In The Times, Matt Flegenheimer spoke to a cross section of New Yorkers about subway cell service. Many applauded the initiative, but a few scoffed at it. “If you don’t get reception, that gives you peace of mind,” Leo Bruce of Queens said at 18th St. “I don’t like being bothered sometimes,” one Yonkers woman who responded to a text message anyway said.

Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities tried to find the reasons why cell conversations are so bothersome. We want to hear both sides of the conversation, and the one-sided nature of cell snippets truly seems to grind our gears. He explains,”Researchers found that people who overheard a cell phone conversation unwittingly remembered more words from it, compared to a two-person discussion they also overheard. The results, according to the researchers, suggest that ‘people are more attentive to cell phone conversations than two-sided conversations.'”

We’re more attentive because we want to fill in the gaps. We want to know what that person is talking about, and we can’t eavesdrop in the background if our mind is unwittingly racing to fill in the blanks. It’s not just annoying because it’s added sound in an already-noisy environment; it’s annoying because it’s only part of a conversation within earshot.

But it’s not a new phenomenon in New York City. Just because cell service has arrived in crowded subway stations doesn’t mean the same thing hasn’t been going on for the better part of the last two decades. While a majority of New York City subway stations are indeed underground, a significant minority of stations are above ground or at grade, and those stations have enjoyed cell service since essentially the dawn of the technology in New York. Ride a B train crossing the Manhattan Bridge and straphangers whip out their phones. “I’m crossing the bridge. I’ll be home in 15 minutes,” filters through the car. We laugh; we roll our eyes; we try not to get annoyed.

Now and then, of course, someone with no concept of a public space gets a call, and that’s when the huffing and puffing beings. Loud conversations in small spaces — open-air stations, Times Square — aren’t any fun no matter the location, but it doesn’t take underground service to drive that point home. It takes one long wait at a station in Astoria and the wrong person nearby on the platform.

Ultimately, I find the annoyances of rare improper conversations worth the convenience. After all, subway platforms are a bit of a liminal space within the city. Ideally, we spend no more than 10 minutes on these platforms per day, and yet social norms and social interactions take on a heightened importance. What happens while we wait for the subway seems more important than what happens throughout the rest of the day. But for those fleeting minutes, I’ll take the connectivity and live with the consequences.

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John-2 May 2, 2013 - 12:59 am

In a way, the noise of the stations serves as a bit of a barrier to the annoyance of overhearing cellphone chatter. While you can add wifi to Times Square, you can’t drown out that 2 train zooming into the station while the 1 on the other side of the platform is dialing up its volume as it pulls out.

Obviously, the more the service expands to outer underground stations where train frequency is lower, the less the saving grace of ambient railcar noise will be. But just for the comedy aspects, it would be fun to see the MTA wifi old South Ferry, just to see how cell phone addicts deal with the system’s reborn screechiest station (recapturing the crown from the south end of the downtown IRT Union Square platform…)

Scott E May 2, 2013 - 7:26 am

Hardly anyone talks on cell phones anymore anyway … especially in the noisy underground. I ride the PATH train most every day, and in the above-ground part from Newark to Journal Square, almost everyone is reading or typing, but hardly anyone is talking.

I think it’ll work out OK…

D in Bushwick May 2, 2013 - 10:56 am

Exactly right about texting. It’s private and that’s the point, no one can overhear you. And stations are way too noisy to try and talk on the phone.
Texting between stations is actually kind of cool.

Roxie May 2, 2013 - 8:03 am

When riding the subway, wear a big pair of headphones, and crank them up. Try to get a pair without too much sound leakage, though. You’re trying to drown out the other sounds, yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to add to the flood.

AG May 2, 2013 - 11:26 am

you are damaging your own ears by doing that.

al May 2, 2013 - 11:31 pm

There is an epidemic of hearing loss on the horizon. From war vets to people who set their headphones to full blast, we will have lots of middle age people with hearing impairments.

pete May 2, 2013 - 7:36 pm

The right way to do it is with earmuffs with an NRR rating. If you want to completely 100% block out the subway noise. Wear earplugs, then earbuds over earplugs (sound plays through earplugs), then ear muffs over the earbuds (turn earbuds 180 degrees with wire facing up). Now you can turn up the volume on the earbuds. Someone can firing an automatic assault rifle next to your head and you won’t hear it since you drowned out the background noise twice, then increased the music level to dangerous (without the foam ear plugs to lower the net music level) levels. You could also buy aviation headset (example http://solutions.3m.com/wps/po.....&rt=d ) with boom mike to talk on the phone clearly with someone on the 7 train.

Proof Reader 546 May 2, 2013 - 9:42 am

It all comes down to this: the benefits of cell-data service outweigh the disadvantages of cell-voice service. Possible solutions are blocking cell-voice service or only providing Wi-Fi and no cell.

smartone May 2, 2013 - 1:31 pm

60% of subway is underground

so currently 40% of subway you can talk on cell phone already

so it isn’t like talking in subway is something new

why is this a big deal to wire the 60% ?

BoerumBum May 2, 2013 - 3:48 pm

40% of the ridership, or 40% of the track milage? I suspect the latter.

Benjamin Kabak May 2, 2013 - 3:50 pm

The vast majority of the ridership are short rides within Manhattan. It’s definitely not 40/60 here. The 40/60 split is purely by number of stations.

Alon Levy May 5, 2013 - 9:52 pm

Vast majority? Um, no. I’m not even sure it’s a majority at all. Most subway riders who live outside Manhattan take the subway to Manhattan, so half of them get counted as Manhattan ridership.

Adam May 2, 2013 - 4:09 pm

The “free Wi-Fi” stuff is baloney so far, in my experience. Since you have to wade through activation screens and ads, seemingly each time you connect, 1) it takes about as long just to get access as it does to wait for a train, and 2) if you’re lucky enough to be shifting between stations with access points as the train moves, you don’t automatically resume access at the next access point, you have to re-activate the connection.

Free wifi in train stations doesn’t make much sense unless it’s genuinely free. Which would be possible, but then they couldn’t charge you for cell service.

Benjamin Kabak May 2, 2013 - 4:11 pm

It’s a 15-second ad. Patience!

I agree though that it’s annoying to have to re-authenticate at each station, but dwell times aren’t really long enough at these stations to do anything substantial with an Internet connection anyway.

Alon Levy May 5, 2013 - 9:55 pm

You can download emails in 30 seconds’ worth of station dwell time.

Q May 3, 2013 - 2:26 am

That’s been my experience as well, even before the 15 second ad business. Glad to hear Sprint service is coming soon, so I won’t have to try connecting to Wi-fi.

SubwayNut May 2, 2013 - 7:36 pm

With the latest activation of cell service, riding the uptown A train the other day, the paper book in my bag just finished I had to amuse myself trying to surf the internet on my iPhone (using my wireless signal, not the wifi) running express between 59 Street and 125 Street where express trains get some seconds of cell service now as far as 96 Street. It turned into a click just before starting to bypass and hope the page would load before skipping the stop.

Quick updates at station stops, like refreshing my e-mail, sending a text or downloading the latest New York Times to the app (just 14th Street and quick updates at 23 Street) is something that I have done on and off since those stations were wired a few years ago.

34 Street is the most amusing for cell service. Amtrak has wired its concourse and the platforms at Penn Station for awhile now (the North River Tunnels are not) and you can get the signal at the southern end of the 8th Avenue Subway platforms but I’ve yet to get service at the northern end.

pete May 2, 2013 - 7:53 pm

Penn and LIRR Queens tunnels have always had full bars Verizon in my experience. There is an original hallway on LIRR parallel to the main mall hallway. It has old tiled walls on one side. If you look at the ceiling, there is a ton of cell phone equipment there, and it is labeled with carrier names.


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