Home View from Underground Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution but endless announcement sure are

Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution but endless announcement sure are

by Benjamin Kabak

In running through the subway pet peeves last week, I didn’t talk about one aspect of the experience that drives me absolutely nuts. Ever since the MTA started investing in new rolling stock and better public address systems for its stations, the onslaught of public announcements has become infuriatingly annoying.

For me, personally, the problem reached a crescendo on Tuesday night while traveling home from work. Despite the snow drifts piling up throughout the city and warnings to stay home, I caught a Q train from Times Square in relatively quick order, and when we zoomed past the N train idling at Prince St., I knew we would cross the Manhattan Bridge first. All was well until we went back underground prior to De Kalb Ave.

My guess is that a B train had crossed the bridge just before us, and the Q had to wait. What I know happened is that four times — four times! — in a four-minute period in which the Q train idled in between the eastern end of the Manhattan Bridge and De Kalb Ave., every single passenger was told that we were being held for train traffic ahead of us, that we would be moving shortly, and that the MTA was thankful for our patience. Over and over and over again, we heard this message. We couldn’t stop anywhere else, and the situation in front of us hadn’t changed. For some reason though the conductor insisted on pressing play four times.

Generally, I’m a fan of the train traffic message. It’s an acknowledgment from the MTA that something isn’t right. The same holds true of the message concerning a delay to the train’s dispatcher. We want to be moving, but we can’t because someone is holding us up or something is in front of us. It’s not a long-term problem, like a sick passenger or a signal malfunction, and we should be moving shortly. There’s just no reason, though, to play it every 60 seconds when nothing else is happening.

This is hardly the worst announcement. For over a decade, we’ve been blasted with “an important message from the NYPD” about keeping our belongings safe at all times, checking ourselves, and seeing and saying something. I’ve become immune to that one Yet, it just keeps going. And going. And going. And going. And going. And go…

In one sense, these announcements serve a purpose. Any regular rider who doesn’t wear headphones can recite them all by rote, and that means they’re working. We’ve been trained to be whatever is on the right side of paranoid while traveling underground, and we know to be alert. But we’ve also been lectured about it nearly every day of every week of every month of every year since the early 2000s. At this point, it’s just another piece of noise to add to the clanks and squeals of our everyday subway commute.

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Keith Williams January 23, 2014 - 12:56 am

I don’t mind having too much information, except when it screws with the countdown clocks.

I would love, however, for TOs to be a bit more honest.

“We’re not moving and the dispatcher won’t tell me why.”
“Somebody jumped in front of the train ahead. Settle in, people.”
“You’re riding the 4 at rush hour. What did you expect?”

D. Graham January 23, 2014 - 10:22 am

Believe it or not a large swath of the population does not handle information such as someone jumped in front of a train ahead, well at all. Now just imagine being told you’re delayed because of a suspicious package on the train directly in front of you? Now you really invoked fear. It’s not about keeping information from us but more about keeping those who panic with the sense of feeling trapped after receiving such information. That same panic will cause an individual to try to depart the train while stopped in the tunnel in between stations creating more dangers.

Keith Williams January 23, 2014 - 3:50 pm

All good points, D. Graham. I should have been clearer that those suggestions were tongue-in-cheek.

Alex January 23, 2014 - 12:59 am

This seems more like a rant than a real post. Sure, maybe there are too many announcements, but it’s better than the reverse. Are you upset that there are unnecessary warning signs on coffee cups too, telling you that the beverage is hot?

Benjamin Kabak January 23, 2014 - 8:35 am

This seems more like a rant than a real post.

I didn’t realize the two were mutually exclusive. 🙂

SEAN January 23, 2014 - 10:17 am

In this case they are. It semes that this post was written with a tinge of anger wich is OK, but you cant allow it to clowd your thaught process.

Nathanael January 23, 2014 - 3:46 am

You know the PA is being used too often when everyone ignores the announcements. The idiotic NYPD announcements are in that category.

Brandon January 23, 2014 - 6:21 am

The police messages ive heard both here and on BART are “cry wolf” in this way.


No, it isnt. The first time I heard the equivalent message in the Bay Area i actually took my headphones out because i thought there might be an actual emergency.

Scott E January 23, 2014 - 8:07 am

Exactly. God-forbid there might actually be an IMPORTANT message, I would have already tuned it out when I heard the preamble and would miss it. Repeating to the point of memorization is one thing. But this message is akin to the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and will someday prove counterproductive.

Andrew Shuttleworth January 23, 2014 - 7:09 am

The one that drives me bonkers is on the morning rush 57th Street–bound Ns. They don’t all do it, but there’s one TO who hits the “This is the LAST STOP on this train. Everybody PLEASE LEAVE the train and thank you for rising New York City Transit” maybe 10 or 15 times between 42nd and 57th. Shut UP! I know!

D. Graham January 23, 2014 - 10:25 am

You know but the guy sleeping in the car next to yours doesn’t or the person who listened to the message but refused to believe it is going to remain on the train anyway and complain when the doors close and no one is left while the train goes to the yard or back in service the opposite direction.

BruceNY January 23, 2014 - 9:03 pm

Years ago the B train would stop heading up CPW after about 8:30 PM and head to 21st/Queensbridge (when that was the end of the line). The conductor would repeat the standard announcement about the route change for three stations, but at 50th St. Rockefeller Ctr. he would literally yell “WAKE UP PASSENGERS! THIS TRAIN’S GOIN’ TO QUEENS!”
It was hilarious to watch people suddenly jump up and flee the train.

Roxie January 23, 2014 - 8:11 am

Personally I really hate the B Division/Flushing Line “next train” announcement. LADIESANGENNLEMEN, THE NEXT (pregnant pause) QUEENS-BOUND (pause again) TRAIN IS NOW ARRIVING ON THE (pause so long you could fit a ringtone into it) LOCAL (pause once more with feeling) TRACK. PLEASE STAND AWAY FROM THE PLA(rest of announcement drowned out by incoming train)

SEAN January 23, 2014 - 3:09 pm

Announcing the Subway Announcement Lady
Craig Dilger for The New York Times.

Carolyn Hopkins, the voice of many transportation systems’ announcements, including those of the New York subway, works at her home studio in Hampden, Me.
The next time you are standing there waiting for the subway, late for work and worried your boss will notice, think of this: The voice that tells you a train is two stations away, and then one station away, is up in Maine, about as far from the Penobscot River as you are from the front of the train. When it finally comes.
Carolyn Hopkins has been recording subway public-address announcements for 15 years. In all that time, she has never ridden the subway.
“We’ve been there a number of times to catch cruise ships, but we’re always in cabs,” she said.
She did take it once, before she was its voice. “In 1957,” she said.
In the last few months she has become a more noticeable presence in some Manhattan subway stations, thanks to a pilot project that paralleled a more ambitious one to install signs in the ceilings of numbered-line stations. The signs tell how soon a train will arrive and whether it will be an express or a local.
If the signs are high tech, the system that plays the voice of Mrs Hopkins in lettered-line stations from West 207th Street to West 23rd Street is medium tech: it used existing signals and processors, tweaked to do more than they used to. But it has its limitations. It cannot tell an A train from a D. So she tells you about “the next Brooklyn-bound train on the express track” without saying whether it is going to Far Rockaway or Coney Island.
New Yorkers almost expect unintelligible announcements in the subway, with phrases like “the next Brooklyn-bound train” sounding like “2qliun-sojn uaine.” Jay H. Walder, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent of New York City Transit, remembers a “Saturday Night Live” skit about garbled announcements. “In this day and age, there has to be a better way to know a train is coming than by leaning over the edge,” he said.
Mrs Hopkins works from a windowless room in her house with sound-absorbing material on the wall — a tapestry, hung like a painting but covering foam. The microphone and recording equipment came from Innovative Electronic Designs of Louisville, which developed the system that plays her voice in the subway.
What you hear, standing on the platform, are a series of short takes, each no more than a few words, strung together by the computer. “Ladies and gentlemen” — one take. “There is a Brooklyn-bound” — one take. “Local train” — one take. “Two” — one take. “Stations away” — one take. The longest take is 16 words: “Please stand away from the platform edge, especially when trains are entering and leaving the station.”
You can hear her saying much the same thing in Chicago, Washington, even Paris (where she is the voice that speaks what little English is spoken in the Metro). But subway riders are not the only passengers she talks to. She has recorded announcements for the Staten Island ferry and most of the major airports in this country, including La Guardia, Kennedy and Newark Liberty.
“Plus Incheon in Korea; Charles de Gaulle in Paris; Beirut, Lebanon; and I’m forgetting some in China,” she said. “Once we walked into the John Wayne-Orange County Airport in California. I had completely forgotten that I’d done the announcements there, and it hit me like, ‘Oh, O.K.’ I was telling myself to watch unattended bags. That’s always a good one.”
On the telephone, her voice does not have quite as much oomph as it does on the subway. “My husband says he doesn’t hear the nice voice as often as he’d like,” she said.
But the nice voice cannot be disobeyed. Before 9/11, when they lived in Louisville, Ky., he drove to the airport to pick up her. He was early. He parked right in front of the terminal. He could hear her on the public-address system, saying no one was supposed to park there.
A traffic officer came along and said he had to follow the voice’s orders.
Her husband said, “I don’t listen to that voice at home; I’m not going to listen to it here.”
The officer looked puzzled. Mr. Hopkins explained that he was married to the voice. Then he complied, driving around until she came out of the terminal.
Mrs Hopkins grew up in Louisville and worked at a video-audio production company that was connected to Innovative Electronic Designs. “I could do the voice they wanted,” she said. “I had done commercials and things like that.” She is 62 — “I’m not a young chick anymore,” she said, “but I try to keep my voice from sounding like it’s aged.”
New York City Transit plays Mrs Hopkins dozens of times an hour, far more often than the guy on the radio who says, “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.” Guess what? He does not live here, either.

Benjamin Kabak January 23, 2014 - 3:11 pm

Please please please no copy and pasting full articles. Just link to them instead.

SEAN January 23, 2014 - 4:31 pm

Sorry Ben, but this was stored directly on my computer & I didn’t have the link to it.

JimD January 23, 2014 - 9:14 am

Even canned announcements are better than no information at all. In my opinion, it’s far worse to be sitting on a train that is stopped and have the minutes tick by with no explanation at all of what’s going on. That said, the MTA and the NYPD really should update their programmed announcements from time to time.

Nathanael January 26, 2014 - 8:51 am

As long as they aren’t “boy who cried wolf” announcements, as noted above.

It’s fine to have a canned annoucement for each station. It’s fine to have a canned announcement for a service disruption. It’s even OK to have “Mind the Gap”.


MH January 23, 2014 - 9:24 am

Whenever I’m on the 2 line going towards Flatbush, there’s a conductor who makes these unnecessary announcements which are borderline annoying such as “make sure when you leave the train take all your garbage and throw them in the trash bins.” I hear that bell sound and I’m like come on it’s not that serious, and that the automated voice can do it too, we don’t need extra commentary unless it is needed (i.e. route change or emergency situations)

Benjamin Kabak January 23, 2014 - 9:27 am

I do appreciate the conductor on the 2 who tells me I can transfer to “the PATH train to Noooooooooooo Jersey.” It adds some character.

Eric Brasure January 23, 2014 - 11:47 am

Good conductors make me sad that live announcements are going away, like the G train conductor who tells me that “This is Brrrrrroadway!” And it never fails to crack me up to hear the difference ways that conductors pronounce “Schermerhorn”.

But since most are so bad at making announcements, oh well.

BoerumBum January 23, 2014 - 9:36 am

Generally, I tune these and the PSAs out, but sometimes, I feel like the conductors use long stretches of track (e.g. 59th & 125th on the A, 59th & 86th on the 4/5, tunnels, etc…) to cycle through every one of them, which can be somewhere between ridiculous and annoying. When they do that, I generally find myself wishing that there were new ones talking about taking off your backpack on the train, letting passengers exit before you start boarding, walking to the center of the train when boarding and only stopping in the doorwell if it is the last possible option. These might help instruct the clueless on how to make the trains work better for everone.

SEAN January 23, 2014 - 10:00 am

Same thing holds true on the Queens Boulevard line – E/ F.

nycpat January 23, 2014 - 9:58 am

C/rs play the announcements, not the T/Os.

Herb Lehman January 23, 2014 - 10:22 am

I agree with Benjamin completely on this one. The announcements have just become noise pollution. Most people have been conditioned to just tune out all the announcements, which will be bad if there ever is a true emergency on board.

But it could be worse — the trains could be like the Samuel I. Newhouse ferryboat on the Staten Island Ferry, where every single canned announcement is preceded by a horrible “ding-dong” noise. When the ferry is delayed you can feel like you’re being “ding-donged” to death.

Kevin Walsh January 23, 2014 - 10:30 am

I’d listen to the canned announcements if the guy who voiced them didn’t use such a smug tone. He sounds like the voice of the New York Times, if it had a voice.

SEAN January 23, 2014 - 2:37 pm

The voices are from Bloomburg radio. The most common one is Charlie Pellet.

BruceNY January 23, 2014 - 8:59 pm

I can’t stand his voice–he sounds vaguely Southern for God’s sakes! “Stand Clearrrr of the closing doorrrrrs please!”

Eric January 23, 2014 - 10:49 am

The key difference is between written and spoken messages.

You have to listen to a spoken message immediately or it will go away, there is no second chance. And you don’t know if it’s ignorable until after listening to at least part of it. So a spoken message, by necessity, steals your attention from you.

A written message, on the other hand, does not steal your attention. If you want to do something else you can always do it and them turn back to reading the message.

Because a spoken message forcibly imposes itself on you and a written message does not, only a small minority of messages should be spoken. Certainly not any constant message related to crime or security.

AlexB January 23, 2014 - 11:09 am

I think after some incident (maybe Sandy?), they implemented a policy requiring them to tell passengers what’s happening every 2 minutes. Maybe some conductors are overzealous?

John-2 January 23, 2014 - 11:56 am

Makes you kind of long for the days of the R-16s and their first-generation public address system, where if one single word in any announcement was intelligible, it was a happy accident.

VB January 23, 2014 - 12:18 pm

I hate some conductors on the 4 that spam the “This is the last stop” announcement about 20 times in a row when coming into Utica Ave. This is especially bad since the train is usually delayed before coming in by a train that sits there at Utica. So they keep spamming “This is the last stop, everyone please leave the train” while the train sits there in the tunnel and nobody can leave! Also, sometimes they interrupt the automatic “This is the last stop” announcement that is played after doors open at the last stop by a manual “This is the last stop” announcement for some reason, thus not thanking us for using MTA New York City transit.

Michael January 23, 2014 - 1:12 pm

Yes, there is noise pollution, it can be annoying, and here are 2 examples:

1) One day on the weekend, I’m ridding the #44 bus to the Staten Island Mall, when over the PA system comes the announcement that the #7 train in Queens is only running between Queensboro Plaza and Flushing, and for riders to use the N and Q trains as a connection.

Now I understand that the information is indeed useful for #7 train riders. I have friends that live in Flushing. The same information is available on the MTA websites, and on posters throughout the subway system. I just question why the same message was repeated 3 times on the #44 bus headed to the Staten Island Shopping Mall, that’s all. It is one thing to say that they are trying to be “inclusive”, but …

2) The public address messages on the Staten Island Ferry can be annoying because they are often repeated, and heard plenty of times. There are times when the person at the controls – screws up. They were messing with the controls on the playback system. Or they were paraphrasing the message that they intended to read. Often about 10 minutes before the boat is supposed to leave, a message will be sent out. However one night, one guy attempted to deliver the message, screwed it up, and ended it just saying, “The boat’s here!”

3) Those messages however messed up, beat the times in the past, when at terminals the operators would simply open the doors to the ferry dock, not say a word, walk away – and the public was supposed to guess that it is time to board the ferry.

Or on the subways in the past when plenty of conductors would simply not say anything – about the upcoming stop – connections, etc. Yes, there were some very colorful guys and colorful announcements. Plenty of times when whatever was said was garbled and could not be understood. Some things have changed, and maybe for the better, or maybe not.


Rob January 23, 2014 - 3:07 pm

With you 100% on this one. But you have it great compared to DC. ‘four times!’ is nothing for DC, where they play the same inane crap at EVERY station, such as ‘move to the center of the car’ even outbound when everyone is getting off.

John Huntington January 23, 2014 - 4:10 pm

I agree with your posting, and one additional noise source that drives me crazy is escalators. For instance, the escalator in the High Street A/C is a constant–and very loud–loop of “please do not sit on the side of the escalator” and a couple other announcements. It’s a lawyer’s dream, but it’s so annoying that I don’t think anyone would even pay attention.

Thanks for the great blog!


Kai B January 23, 2014 - 8:02 pm

My favorite escalator announcement, which is really random between all the other serious ones: “Have a nice day!”

SubwayNut January 24, 2014 - 12:00 am

I was about to write my own comment on this but I’m happy to see someone has posted it. I heard that same announcement today but not in a place where I was at all excepting it.

I flew back to New York from warm Phoenix, Arizona this afternoon and took the Valley Metro (Light Rail) to the Airport. To get to the airport terminals you take the PHX SkyTrain that reminds me of AirTrain but is completely free! On the escalator up from the end of the light rail platform to the bridge (with moving walkways) over to the SkyTrain station I was taken by complete surprise, the same voice with safety announcements as is heard at High Street-Brooklyn Bridge including “Have a Nice Day.” I used at least three other escalators as I navigated my way to my flight and none had this same announcement.

Airport Peoplemovers are probably the worst at sound pollution (although, unless you work at the airport, at least you don’t ride them everyday), my ride to Terminal 4 on the Sky Train (where I had to switch to a bus to terminal 2) was nearly constant messages. Telling me to hold on and Welcoming me Sky Harbor Airport – America’s Friendliest Airport. At DIA (Denver) when you wait at the stations for their required ride on the Airport people mover to get out of the station a voice says “A train is arriving” (and finishes with a train whistle). When your approaching the stop for the baggage claim you get a Welcoming announcement from the Mayor of Denver.
That’s what we need in New York, to let each Borough President have recording space that’s played automatically between stations when you switch boroughs.

It’s true, other cities are worse than New York in terms of safety announcements. I also visited Salt Lake City on this trip and couldn’t believe each time TRAX told me “Hold on, trains start and stop quickly.” It was after nearly every stop.

Duke January 23, 2014 - 9:42 pm

I like the canned announcements for station stops and destinations (“This is a _ bound _ train, the next stop is _”). But I hate the ones used for other purposes. “We are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us” doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, it’s just noise. Either explain a specific reason for this particular delay or zip it. And some of the even more generic ones “if you see someone at risk of falling…” are the worst since they have ZERO value, they just exemplify the horrible nag culture that’s become way too prevalent.

The absolute worst, though, is that they’re still making announcements about the R not running through the Montague tube. C’mong guys, this has been going on for months now, and you changed all the maps and all the signs on the platforms! We got the message in August and don’t need to be reminded! The summer 2010 service changes didn’t come with announcements explaining them for the following year, they just happened and everyone adjusted. The Montague shutdown should be no different.


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