Now and then, I like to see what’s happening in transit systems outside of New York City. Often, I’ll turn to Washington, D.C., for a glimpse at what an efficient — and much smaller — transit system looks like. The lessons from D.C. can be illuminating as we watch the MTA carom from one ill-fated project to another.
Earlier this week, the Washington Metro’s board announced that WMATA passengers would enjoy in-tunnel cell service by the fall of 2012. Lena H. Sun, a staff writer for the Washington Post, reports:
Metro officials said the agency and a consortium of wireless carriers are on track to install equipment so riders can receive and make cellphone calls on all carriers at the 20 busiest Metrorail stations by mid-October. Only Verizon and Sprint roaming customers can use their phones on the Metro now, and coverage is often spotty…
But don’t expect to stay connected between stations. That won’t happen until the consortium finishes installing cable and other equipment underground, a process that is likely to take until October 2012.
Under an agreement announced in February, Verizon, Sprint Nextel, AT&T and T-Mobile will be allowed to install equipment in the tunnels over the next four years. The agreement will provide the cash-strapped transit agency with nearly $25 million over the first 15 years. The estimated $2.4 million in expenses will also be paid by the wireless carriers.
Now, we can debate for hours whether or not cell phone service underground is a positive development. Every day, I see the impact of cell service on a subway ride. As my Manhattan-bound Q or B train snakes across the Manhattan Bridge and as my Brooklyn-bound trip heads off into the heart of Brooklyn every day, I see passengers scramble for their phones and being their furtive five-minute calls. Most are respectful as they try to keep their conversation to a minimum, but others are screamers, intent on informing the entire car what their significant other has at home for dinner that night.
As those trains head back underground, cell service is lost until the trenched, open-air tracks arrive at the Prospect Park stop. It may be silent, but it’s also a technological blackhole.
In Washington, Metro riders have enjoyed cell phone service for the better part of this decade. It’s not perfect, but it’s there. Furthermore, the WMATA has negotiated a contract that’s beneficial to all. The agency earns millions of dollars, and the cell companies get access to a new network of customers. Everyone — except those looking for a quiet ride — wins.
Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, the MTA keeps promising to find some company intent on writing the system at a price too low to believe, and time after time, the project stalls. Outside of the luxury of an underground cell network, the MTA’s system doesn’t have the capacity for proper emergency communications, and it just isn’t a modern system. At some point the technological modernization of the New York City subways will begin. We could do far worse than look to our neighbors to the south for inspiration.