Thursday, May 11, 2006

Red signals ahead

Being locked in a 30 footlong metal box with 40-50 other people has a way of bringing out the worst in human beings. We begin to want to lash out at anyone and anything. In the hour and a half taken to go roughly 5 miles, the woman playing Ms. Pac-Man on some portable electronic device with the volume on 11 becomes less a mere nuisance and more of an evil soul worthy of all the hate one can muster. Her husband screaming at the gentleman who can't take it anymore becomes, well, frightening. There's enough rage going round to make the lights flicker, heads banging the walls to the point where they shake. The ugly feeling that anything could happen -- that people might follow one another off the train and come to blows -- takes a moment to subside before cooler heads prevail and the anger recedes back into the more tepid usual response of rolling eyes.

The frustration of being slave to public transit has hit me twice this week, and I've realized it's in part because the MTA is so poor at communicating. When a message is shared, it's over speakers that sound something akin to Edison's first phonograph. Most of the time, there just is no message. It's left to the rider to figure out after an hour that, no, there are no trains coming.

Or, there's a message but it's meaningless. The phrase "we have a red signal ahead" doesn't really tell me anything. Is it because your signals are screwed up? Is it because there are problems on down the tracks? Should I get a cab? Does "momentarily" really mean 90 minutes? Could you tell me if it will take less time to swim the East River, shower, wash my clothes and then head home than to take this train four stops? If so, could there be some signage indicating this so I can take another train before it's too late, or book a hovercraft rental? In this age of endless information saturation and availability, the MTA's reliance on redundant, meaningless messages and cryptic explanations wear thin, to say the least.

I'm a strong proponent of public transportation, particularly when it is not powered by fossil fuels. All the same, a little reliability goes a long way and the New York City transit system pushes it often.

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