Why it's Time for the Subway to Enter the Digital Age
At three o’clock one January night, I found myself sprinting through the Broadway Junction station in Brooklyn to catch the L train, not wanting to be left alone on the platform for another 26 minutes with two seemingly asleep homeless people. When I finally reached the subway and boarded, just in time, I had to deal with the five obnoxious teenagers who reeked of alcohol. If I could have asked for anything that night, it would have been cell phone service — the ability to communicate with the outside world when I felt unsafe and anxious.
Cell phones are as crucial a tool for New Yorkers as a flashlight is to campers in the wild. New York can be a dangerous city, and the subway in particular is an incubator for unlawful activities — since last year, subway crime has risen 17 percent, according to Owen Monaghan, an assistant chief in the Police Department’s Transit Bureau. Speaking to The New York Times on September 26, Monaghan also said that 1,000 subway riders have been victims of thefts through August of this year. In response to this spike in crime, the city has emphasized the importance of staying safe in the subway:
“Keep your belongings close at all times,” the automated voice warns us. “A crowded subway is no defense to unlawful sexual conduct.”
The MTA did take a major step towards safer subways when it introduced cell phone service to six Manhattan subway stations for customers of AT&T and T-Mobile this September. But plenty of New Yorkers use Verizon or other carriers, and six subway stations is a mere fraction of the total stations in New York. The payphones in the subway stations, meanwhile, are hardly useful — a survey released in July by the New York Public Interest Research Group’s Straphangers Campaign showed that 31 percent of those payphones don’t work. The MTA is constantly reminding us to “remain alert,” but in the event of an emergency, our ability to communicate with the outside world is severely limited.
If Michael Bloomberg is serious about making New York a safer city, he needs to make the expansion of wireless service throughout the subway system one of his top priorities. This isn’t about servicing Facebook and Tumblr addicts. It’s about creating a safer atmosphere. Cell phones don’t just allow us to update our statuses — they’re essential urban survival gadgets.
Cell phone service could ease passengers’ frustrations about the fact that the subway is constantly experiencing delays: sections are under construction, there’s a police investigation, a passenger got sick and the train is sitting in the station. Don’t get me wrong — I think the MTA is doing the best it can to cater to the 1.604 billion annual riders. They have taken huge strides to provide information about service changes; commuters can now sign up on the MTA website to receive email or text message alerts about planned work or delays, and new countdown clocks on the platforms tell riders when the next trains will arrive.
Still, the MTA could take one step further to enhance the comfort and convenience of commuting on the subway by providing cell phone reception. In the unfortunate but inevitable event that one does get stuck mid-journey, wireless service would be invaluable, as it would allow you to call or text whomever you had an appointment with to let them know you are safe and will just be running late.
Of course, there’s the possibility that we would have to endure a symphony of ringtones or listen to the person next to us break up with her boyfriend on the phone. But New Yorkers have a high tolerance for noise. We may need to redefine subway etiquette and ask our fellow riders to “please keep your voice down a little,” but that’s a small price to pay for safer subways. In today’s world, where everyone is always connected to everyone else, where communication is as easy as the push of a button, cell phone reception is necessary. New York is one of the greatest cities in the world. It’s time we get connected.
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