Home View from Underground An in-house ad campaign targeting etiquette

An in-house ad campaign targeting etiquette

by Benjamin Kabak
The latest MTA ad campaign asks riders not to eat on board.

The latest MTA ad campaign asks riders not to eat on board.

It can be instructive to chart the history of complaints about the New York City Subway as an indication over how we as New Yorkers feel about the system. From old rolling stock to the lack of air conditioning to track fires to delayed trains, broken doors, and rampant crime to service infrequent enough to meet demand to annoying announcements to rude behavior, we can chart the downfall and comeback of the subway nearly as neatly as the recent huge spike in ridership does. The MTA’s new ad campaign focusing around courtesy certainly belies a system with few overarching problems other than reliability. Crime, in other words, isn’t even a concern.

When an Ebola outbreak hit New York City, the MTA had an image problem on its hands. The long-standing campaign urging manners on the subway told people that “courtesy is contagious,” and, well, that caused some concern. The campaign was quickly dropped, and the MTA picked up specific quality-of-life issues. The latest posters and placards target etiquette in a time of 6 million daily riders — a number achieved six times in October alone.

“Courtesy is always important but it takes on an added significance as transit ridership continues to increase,” said NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco. “The simple act of stepping aside to let riders off the train before you board can trim valuable seconds from the time a train dwells in a station while removing a backpack makes more room for everyone. These acts serve to speed the trip while increasing the level of comfort.”

The new ads focus on do’s and don’t’s of subway rides. Part of me feels that this is the latest in the MTA’s long line of announcements that are excoriating riders to do something. Be patient. Check yourself. Don’t do this. Do that. But on the other hand, it’s part of a push to make riders more aware of the fact that 5,999,999 other people are also cramming themselves into a subway car.

The attention has focused around the manspread issue. Emma Fitzsimmons, with some help from Johnny T., explored the issue in The Times this weekend. But other no-no’s include nail clipping, pole-hogging, door-blocking and one set to debut in 2015 that states “Pole Are For Your Safety, Not Your Latest Routine.” The do’s urge riders to let others off, take off that bulky backpack and offer seats to elderly, disabled or pregnant riders. One urging straphangers to “keep the sound down” on headphones is a welcome addition.

Ultimately, these quality-of-life issues aren’t the most pressing for the MTA. They can help make our rides less tolerable, but they don’t expand the system or guarantee funding for modernization initiatives. Still, it’s telling that these are among the key issues facing the MTA and its riders. We should perhaps always be so lucky. After all, as the ads say, courtesy counts.



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pete December 23, 2014 - 1:50 am

Commutes are so long at 30 mph peak between stations and 5 mph grade timers, I have no choice but to eat on the train. I’d only agree to WMATA’s no food bad if I have DC Metro 60 mph speed.

D in Bushwick December 23, 2014 - 10:05 am

Just like the women who put on all their makeup on the train, just get up 5 minutes earlier. Don’t make excuses.

BrooklynBus December 23, 2014 - 2:44 pm

I once had a big argument with a woman sitting ext to me using horribly stinky nail polish she was applying. She refused to stop after I told her it the smell was bothering me.

Billy G December 26, 2014 - 8:08 am

Well, she’s a woman.

She doesn’t need to listen to the likes of you.

If you don’t like it, you can go be a disposable man somewhere else. Besides, you’re taking up space that her valuable bags and parcels could be in instead.

sonicboy678 December 23, 2014 - 9:50 pm

I actually disagree with the food ban. Why? Okay, suppose your blood sugar level suddenly drops to uncomfortably low levels. The best way to handle this is by consuming a natural fruit/vegetable or juice directly from a fruit/vegetable, so long as it’s not starchy.

Berk32 December 24, 2014 - 3:59 pm

There’s nothing wrong with a snack…

If the food requires a fork and a plate (or a takeout container), has a strong odor, or may make any sort of mess – no good.

sonicboy678 December 25, 2014 - 12:39 am

Snacks can be messy; the problem isn’t so much the food as it is the person consuming it. Someone that shouldn’t eat on the train would simply knock food scraps to the floor, like this one woman I spotted throwing her chicken bones to the floor on the A one day.

SEAN December 28, 2014 - 10:16 am

I like the idea of the WMATA style food ban, but without there heavy handed enforcement. Just give a ticket & be done with it.

sonicboy678 December 28, 2014 - 10:27 pm

To reiterate: the food isn’t the problem; rather, it’s the people handling the food.

D in Bushwick December 23, 2014 - 10:03 am

Fellow New Yorkers need to speak up when they see people leaving garbage, taking two seats or being jerks. This is a cultural problem that only showing disapproval from the majority can fix.

Spiderpig December 24, 2014 - 7:55 pm

The majority wants to avoid the threat of being assaulted.

Herb Lehman December 23, 2014 - 10:30 am

As long as the MTA keeps this to posters and placards, I’m fine with this. I don’t think it will help, but it’s worth the effort, and probably won’t cost much.

I just really hope this doesn’t turn into an endless series of automated PA announcements, as so many other things have. They’d just add to the noise pollution that the courteous riders have to put up with, and are unheard by those the announcements target (since they usually have their music turned up so loudly).

BrooklynBus December 23, 2014 - 2:48 pm

Those automated bus announcements are extremely annoying telling you to use the rear door to exit. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to use the rear door. The bus operator should have the ability to turn it off when it doesn’t apply like near the end of the route.

Also try frequently malfunction. It seems virtually everytime I push the yellow tape to open the rear door, a voice tells metro step away from the door. Hw am I supposed to step away from hte door and exit at the same time?

SEAN December 23, 2014 - 3:23 pm

The sencer on the back door is tied to the interlock system. If there’s a malfunction, it may falsely react to the crowds on the bus.

pete December 25, 2014 - 12:21 pm

The rear doors on the newer artic buses used for SBS have an optical beam sensor that looks up and down. The door will not open/move if the beam is interrupted and the door will stay closed at the [SBS] stop.I am guessing this is so the door motor doesn’t push you over since the door pushes halfway inwards to open, or cut your arm off when it closes. The old RTS buses had “plug” front doors that pivoted out, and building style hinge doors in the back. The new articulated buses (Nova?) the rear door sildes inwards at an angle like a trolley door.

Herb Lehman December 23, 2014 - 10:33 am

One more comment: I also wish the MTA would target door holders in addition to all the other offenses above. That’s probably the most selfish behavior of all, and the #1 reason for delayed trains.

jfruh December 23, 2014 - 1:56 pm

Is eating and drinking on the subway really not permitted? I’d always assumed it was allowed, just because I’d seen people doing it so often. Certainly I’ve never seen enforcement like you do on the Washington Metro.

Michael December 23, 2014 - 6:38 pm

In the days BEFORE system-wide air-conditioning (prior to the mid-1970’s) there were eating places, soda and other vending machines at many stations. Given that the most hated heated places were the Lexington Avenue express in July – it would have been in-humane to ban eating and/or drinking on the subways. Not only were many subway trains hot, but many stations were also hot. Often riders would stand by the end doors or under the train fans simply to get some fresh cool air. Also the nature of “fast food” was different, typical of the time were peanuts, small bottle or can sodas, frankfurters or donuts. Food that could be consumed quickly without a lot of bother.

The introduction of air-conditioning, the enclosing of subway cars, changes in fast food and diet, the removal of eating places and vending machines from the subways, the current nature of subway & bus travel as well as changes station management — all contribute to today’s situation.

For example with fewer trains running compared to earlier historical patterns, each train trip becomes something precious to not miss. Who today really believes the conductor when they say, “There’s a train right behind this one?” In the mid-1970’s when I was going to high school that was a very true statement, because from the platforms one could easily see the beaming lights of the train behind the one already in the station. When conductors say that these days you can bet plenty of riders question that statement. My point is that “giving up” one train to take another one can become costly – timely costly. That puts the pressure to “eat on the way”.

For a lot of folks – it is simply so much easier to get food to go! No more settling for coffee and a donut! If it can be put in a “take-out” bag – it will be! The issue then becomes eating without annoying other folks, and dealing with the trash. We’re never going to get back to the days of franks and donuts as the basic food of the subways, because somebody is going bring up chips and salsa, and fruit, and peanuts, and …, and … (You Can’t Win!)

What’s left is dealing with the trash, and how to keep folks from annoying other folks. Hopefully that’s what the signs will do. It puts in the social pressure to not do something, while keeping the basic idea that drinking or eating something simple and easily disposable is not going to land some one a multi-thousand dollar fine.

Many a parent would not think twice when their young 1.5 year old is screaming for his bottle to not give the tyke his bottle, even while riding the subways. Tykes that young may not understand subway trains but they can be taught!


robotsarered December 23, 2014 - 11:36 pm

A useful history lesson. I still think there’s something a bit scrambled: if they don’t want people to eat on the subway, they shouldn’t let vendors sell snacks on the subway platform. The vendors certainly aren’t just to provide food that you then eat only after leaving the station, because they usually charge ripoff prices versus a corner store. Seems like the MTA wants to have its bag of Famous Amos cookies and eat it too.

Obviously, a candy bar and the little McDonald’s meal depicted in the ad present slightly different eating scenarios, but when it just says “don’t eat,” one has to wonder. Has the MTA articulated the specific anti-eating argument they have in mind? If it’s about trash generation, that’s one thing, but then it wouldn’t really relate to this “quality of life for other riders” campaign, and anyway, there are already “don’t litter” signs on the subways.

“Manspreading,” headphone volume, and “collect the coin” cell phone games with no headphones at all seem like much bigger issues to me.

adirondacker12800 December 24, 2014 - 12:00 am

Back in the day no one could have listened to their personal music device whether it was an iThing or a cassette player or a suitcase sized tube set. The subway was too noisy.
Hurtling down Central Park West with all the windows open was a real treat.

pete December 25, 2014 - 12:25 pm

Put earplugs in your ears, then turn the volume to max. The headphones will overpower the subway noise but won’t hurt your ears, heck being on the subway without hearing protection is bad, if they make the drivers wear them under OSHA laws, you should probably too. Why is DC Metro and LIRR so quiet and NYCT is ear defening? No insulation in the walls for peons?

tacony December 24, 2014 - 11:03 am

they usually charge ripoff prices versus a corner store

I don’t find this to be true on the whole. A bottled water or a candy bar at a subway vender is typically $1 outside of Midtown, and where they do charge over a $1 at 42nd St I find that if you say “I only have a dollar” they’ll usually accept that. That’s generally the same price as most bodegas, and actually cheaper than you would find at a “corner store” (there aren’t many left!) in Midtown itself. Duane Reade is the new corner store and their prices are outlandish. I think it’s a much better bet buying a bottled water at a subway vendor than a Duane Reade in any neighborhood.

Alon Levy December 25, 2014 - 1:56 pm

Well, bottled water at Duane Reade Walgreens is uniquely expensive.

tacony December 24, 2014 - 11:12 am

When conductors say that these days you can bet plenty of riders question that statement.

It’s not just that there are less trains running, it’s that the automated announcements are also frequently wrong and insulting. When you wait 15 minutes for a train and are immediately then stopped by “train traffic ahead of us” –? What train traffic? Riders have reason to not believe announcements on the subway.

sonicboy678 December 25, 2014 - 8:39 pm

Playing devil’s advocate here, but there’s a possibility of train traffic due to a stalled train, an injured/ill customer, crime keeping the train from entering the next block, etc.

Pat L December 23, 2014 - 7:08 pm

As far as I know, it’s still permitted, but the MTA is trying to discourage it a little bit. In general I don’t think there’s any harm in eating on the subway, but it’s something you need to be reasonable about — keep it to drink and snacks, don’t try to eat a full meal, and clean up after yourself. Some people are always going to ignore those common sense limits, though.

sonicboy678 December 23, 2014 - 9:54 pm

I sometimes eat sandwiches on the train; that said, I do believe in keeping the subway as clean as possible in that regard, so I make sure I avoid having crumbs everywhere.

Josh December 24, 2014 - 5:50 pm

“Ultimately, these quality-of-life issues aren’t the most pressing for the MTA. They can help make our rides less tolerable, but they don’t expand the system or guarantee funding for modernization initiatives.”

On the other hand, they’re also issues they can address without (presumably) spending billions of dollars.

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