New York City activated cell-phone service and free WiFi in all underground stations around the city this month, giving New Yorkers at least one reason to look forward to 2017. Seriously: Internet connectivity is a wonderful amenity for the MTA, considering that the subway system is continually stressed to the point of fracture, causing regular delays in service and leaving millions of passengers stuck killing time on the platform.
But the dawn of this wonderful new world also means the end of the old one, and the small blessings we had within it. Gone, for example, is one of the last reliable excuses for not responding to someone’s texts or calls. Gone is the brief moment of respite from emails and messages from work colleagues. And gone is the science of subterranean cellular cartography — those peculiar, personal maps of underground cell-phone service regular New York subway riders held in their heads.
Like ancient hunter-gatherers discovering the mating grounds of their prey, all commuters in New York City knew which spots on their subway lines got service, and knew exactly when to take out their phone to search for a signal. For me, it was (1) just before you hit Eastern Parkway Brooklyn Museum on a Bronx-bound 2 or 3; (2) Atlantic Avenue, but only if you if you were in a car at the front right by the main turnstile, the one with the glass bricks; (3) Nevins Street; and (4) the megaplex that is Fulton Street.
Other commuters I’ve talked to shared fond memories of Queens Plaza, the Canal Street A/C/E; the Canal Street Q/N; the Seventh Avenue F/G; Jay Street-Metrotech; Grand Central Station (“but only when you went up for 4/5/6”); 59th Street Columbus Circle (“but only for the 1”); the F line from East Broadway to West 4th; Union Square (“for N/old Q but not for L”); the 7 stop at Vernon-Jackson; Hunterspoint Avenue; “the half of the shuttle ride closer to Times Square than Grand Central;” and the Astor Place 6, where, I’m reliably told, if you were in a car near the exit, the train would stop long enough to allow you to download a puzzle from the New York Times crossword app.
Anyone sufficiently cell-phone addicted has a similar roster of subway spots where the data signal could penetrate, adjusted based on the model of phone, the strength of its antenna, and, of course, the cell-service carrier he or she subscribed to. You could tell the difference between a strong and reliable signal — like the legendary one at Fulton Street — and the weak, iffy ones, some of which could provide you with only 3G service at best.
And because of the nature of a subway, even when you did get cell service in these certain spots, you often didn’t have the time or the signal strength to do much with it besides refresh your favorite social network, download a single crossword puzzle or part of a magazine issue, or send an emergency email or text. If you value (or don’t know how to escape) your connectedness, you might opt for the Q train over the R train, knowing you’d get a brief few moments of open-air cell service on the Manhattan Bridge. (Unless you’re on T-Mobile, which has a notorious dead spot right at the center of the bridge.)
Knowing your commute’s cell-service windows and hot spots only really had a brief window of use — about ten years between the introduction of the iPhone and the expansion of cellular service to subway stations — but I’ll mourn its demise anyway. The arrival of the smartphone may have made comprehensive knowledge of MTA public transit, as a New Yorker shibboleth, obsolete. But in so doing, a new body of esoteric knowledge was developed: the science and art of getting a signal underground; now that knowledge is itself obsolete. There are plenty of worthwhile arguments for cell service in the subways, and, on balance, I prefer it. But even if I don’t miss the subway’s broad dead zones, I’ll miss the sensation of knowing their borders and contours, of being in tune with the rhythm of my commute and filling out the gaps in the subway map.
And I still know, no matter what, even with cell service, Union Square is the worst subway station in the city.
Update: WiFi service was activated in all underground stations, not all 472 stations in the NYC subway system, as previously stated. This post has been edited to include the correct information.