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.