For years, we’ve heard about plans to bring cell service to the New York City subway system, and after false starts and empty promises, only recently has a rather slow expansion of service begun to creep throughout the underground stations. Still, the system is not without flaws as the supposedly free wifi often isn’t free, and the service works about as often as it doesn’t. That won’t stop the MTA from expanding it, but should we applaud the effort or sigh exasperatedly at it?
As Transit Wireless works to expand cell service to more underground stations in the coming months, the MTA has its sights set on something bigger. In yet another effort to attract Millennials — who already take the subway because they’re not buying cars — the agency has long-range plans to equip its subway tunnels with cellular service. It’s not clear when this will happen, how much it will cost or who will pay, but it’s on the radar. MTA CEO and Chair Tom Prendergast said as much at a Citizens Budget Commission breakfast yesterday, and Matt Flegenheimer of The Times was on hand for his comments:
At a forum on Tuesday, the authority’s chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, said that transit officials hoped to add Wi-Fi and possibly cellphone reception aboard moving trains — in what appeared to be the first public acknowledgment that the authority’s ambitions for wireless service went beyond stations.
Mr. Prendergast said the push for expanded Wi-Fi and cellphone access was a reaction, in part, to the demands of the growing population of young riders. “It is one of the features that the X’ers and the Y’ers and the millennials consider an expectation or an entitlement, not a luxury,” Mr. Prendergast said at the gathering, which was hosted by the Citizens Budget Commission…
The authority is also seeking to install Wi-Fi on the Metro-North Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road, issuing a request for proposals for a firm to provide service both on trains and inside stations. A spokesman said the authority was currently negotiating with a potential vendor. Service aboard subway trains was a logical evolution, Mr. Prendergast suggested. “Every time you provide Wi-Fi to a greater degree, they want to go to the next level,” he said. “That would be the next frontier. Exactly when, can’t say.”
Matt’s article goes on to discuss the pluses and minuses of underground cell service. It’s a debate I’ve analyzed before and one that I think is overblown as it tends to forget that millions of riders on the elevated and at-grade sections of the subway deal with this reality on a daily basis. Most riders are respectful cell users, and loud, obnoxious conversations aren’t the norm even if they are the stereotype. But that’s neither here nor there.
Rather, let’s talk about this idea of New York exceptionalism. Should we applaud the MTA for admitting that they want to install some sort of connectivity in between stations? Or should we wonder what is taking so long? There are subway systems that have had this feature for over a decade, and cell service in that regard isn’t the only deficiency. Countdown clocks, contactless fare payment systems, affordable construction costs — they’re all part of the same idea. It didn’t happen first in New York, and so it must be impossible or exceedingly painful for it to happen in New York.
I know the excuses. The New York City subway system is too big; it operates all the time; it’s too old; it wasn’t built for these technologies. But they’re just excuses. At some point, we have to ask why these things take so long to arrive in New York. Is it because we’re still catching up on decades of neglect? Is it because it’s a fight to fund state-of-good-repair programs, let alone necessary capital enhancements? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but they are ones that should be asked. Subway cell service — and a contactless fare payment system — shouldn’t, in 2013, be some far-off promise.