Over the past few years, I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the MTA’s countdown clocks. Despite a seemingly interminable wait for technology that leading international subways have enjoyed for years, Transit finally figured out how to introduce a modern technology into its 100-year-old system, and now we never have to guess when the next 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or L train is coming. But what of the rest?
While the lettered lines are still years away from a countdown clock solution, one sliver of Queens is getting something resembling next train information today. As the Daily News first reported, five stations along the BMT Astoria Line — 39th Ave., 36th Ave., Broadway, 30th Ave. and Astoria Blvd. — will soon enjoy the MTA’s next-train announcements. These are audio messages broadcast into each station that proclaims a train one or two stations away. Decidedly low-tech, they allow passengers some measure of relief, but I’ve never been too convinced of their utility.
The system that will go live today in Astoria is the one in place at a few other stations. The BMT platform formerly known as Pacific St. has these announcements, and the IND level at Columbus Circle enjoys this system too. It’s not the most useful though. As Donohue notes, the audio announcements will not specify whether the next train is an N or Q, and it’s unclear how much advanced warning these systems give. As Queens riders note, it’s better than nothing.
My problem with this system is the lack of information. As opposed to offering something useful, the MTA here is providing a service that doesn’t deliver the key information. What train is arriving is equally as important, if not more so, than when that train is arriving. At Pacific St., the announcements simply talk of an arriving local or an express train one station away. That’s fine if you don’t care what train you’re taking, but except for Herald Square-bound passengers, everyone else wants to know if the next train is a D or an N. Columbus Circle suffers from the same problem. I want to know if a C or B is next because I need one and have no use for the other.
In Astoria, that problem is mitigated a bit. Most riders who board in Astoria don’t care if an N or a Q is next. Few of them are heading to the reaches of Brooklyn far from Queens where the N and Q diverge. It will be a relief for riders whose only way of trying to guess where the next train is involves peering down the elevated tracks. Still, these announcements can end up as noise pollution if they’re warning only of trains one or two (visible) stations away.
Meanwhile, according to the MTA, a countdown clock solution for the IND and BMT subway lines is still three to five years away. That’s a long time to wait, and I’m glad my nearest subway lines have countdown clocks. From the Subway Time API functionality to the in-system clocks, this technology has made waiting more tolerable and trip-planning easier. When these — and not just audio announcements — are available system-wide, the age-old New York complaint involving endlessly waiting for the subway may just go up in smoke. For now, though, the next Manhattan-bound train will be two stations away.