Instead of Fixing the Subway, They Could Just Change the Sounds

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

By now, everyone in the world knows that the New York City subway is a mess. Who is going to fix it? Bill de Blasio won’t, because that’s not technically his job. Andrew Cuomo won’t, because he has no clue that it is his job. I don’t think anyone will actually make the subway better. But I know how to make it less bad.

They should change the sounds that the subway makes.

I’m talking about the prerecorded sound clips that play all of the time, the ones that straphangers can mimic the cadence of to a T because they’ve heard them so many times. “Stand clear of the closing doors please,” or “Ladies and gentlemen we are being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher. We hope to be moving shortly.”

Or lines where it’s obvious that a Speak & Spell from 1993 is slotting in the correct variable. “This is a [place]-bound [X] train. The next stop is [station],” or “Because of construction, [X] trains are now running on the [Y] line.”

There’s this MVP: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

And they’re all preceded by that chime, that dreaded chime, the one you hear after three minutes of being stopped in a tunnel. The chime that triggers a reflexive eye roll and deep exhale.

This is a bad user experience. Sounds meant to convey information are instead causing agitation and frustrating users, who are in this case subway riders. They’re kind of like when your computer’s antivirus program keeps popping up, prompting you for a scan, or when your operating system tells you it needs to restart in order to update. The subway announcements are a well-intentioned but increasingly annoying nag that New Yorkers experience daily.

Think of the subway sounds like a very hard video game. One where you keep reloading a checkpoint over and over, eventually learning all of the script and dialogue and sounds due to sheer repetition. You know which doors the enemies are going to stream in from, or exactly when the set-piece explosion is going to trigger. Similarly, you know when you hear that chime that a man’s voice will come on and tell you that “we are delayed because of train traffic ahead” with a baffling inflection.

In Grand Theft Auto IV, the player spends a lot of time driving around the city, listening to dialogue between two of the characters in the car. If, for some reason, the player’s character dies or a checkpoint reloads, there are alternate versions of previously heard conversations that play instead of the exact same one over and over. It makes starting over or losing progress less of a slog.

Doing this to the subway would probably have a similar effect. Changing the sounds you’re used to makes things exciting. At some point, in the late ’90s, my uncle swapped out the Windows start-up chime on my computer with a sound bite of Robin Williams’s genie from Aladdin saying, “Does it feel good to be outta there!” and it made starting up my PC so fun. Imagine riding the subway and finding out that there are new sounds to tell you you’re going to be late for work. A new voice or a different phrasing. How delightful it would be if the chime came on and some dude just said, “Uhhh, the trains are messed up. My bad.”

I remember when the pope came to visit in 2015, there was an announcement on the platform warning people about how much he would disrupt traffic and commutes. The pope was so influential that he got his own MTA announcement. That is wild. That’s true power. It was so exciting to go into a subway station and hear an announcement I’d never heard before!

So the MTA should just add more and different sounds. It’s 2017 and digital storage space is cheap. They should pop out the figurative 128 MB SD card and slam in a 4 GB one crammed with tons of varied and different announcements about how the subway is fucked up. It would make getting screwed over by the subway exciting again.

Instead of Fixing the Subway, They Could Change the Sounds