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If you're like me and you believe that basic values such as respect, compassion and common sense are lacking in this country, riding New York City subways for a summer will only reinforce your cynical notions. I'm not sure if such virtues were ever more prevalent in America, and I'm not claiming that the NYC subway service is horrendous.
I'm a native New Yorker, and I've been riding the subways for years. Unlike Boston, New York's subways are open 24 hours a day, and crime in the subway system has plummeted to 1965 levels.
Yet, while the subways are not filled with homicidal maniacs, too many commuters are revoltingly insensitive. I have seen young businessmen sit and casually read the Wall Street Journal instead of giving up their seats to accommodate mothers struggling to carry a crying infant and three bags of groceries, or pregnant women who are standing.
Once, after witnessing a teenager riding precariously between two subway cars, another passenger turned to me and remarked sourly: "You know, if he falls, they'll have to stop the train." Sure, I thought, the first thing on my mind after seeing this kid slip and fall to a violent death would be: Will I make it home in time to see Jeopardy?
Even more disturbing than the callous attitudes of many subway riders are the ridiculous ideas and programs hatched by the Metro Transit Authority (MTA), which operates New York's subways. Subway fare was recently increased to a whopping $1.50 per trip, but the MTA continues to squander incredible sums of money. For example, the MTA recently purchased expensive imported Italian floor tiles for subway stations. The pricy new tiles turned out to be slippery when wet; all of them had to be ripped out and replaced.
Another of the MTA's schemes for improving the subway is cheap but equally ridiculous. The MTA has been posting poetry between the ubiquitous advertisements for liquor, plastic surgeons and malpractice lawyers in subway cars. One poem that was plastered throughout subway cars this summer was titled "Heat"; it described unbearable, sweltering weather. Reading it on a hot July afternoon, sandwiched in between dozens of other sweating straphangers did nothing to make my subway experience more pleasant.
Perhaps the people at the MTA have a sick sense of humor, but they're probably just incompetent and out of touch. After all, MTA executives don't have to ride the subway--chauffeured cars transport them to work and back. Thus, MTA fails to institute simpler and more cost effective ways of improving the subways, like adding more trains during rush hour, fixing broken air conditioning systems and keeping stations and trains cleaner.
The MTA's latest dim idea is to remove conductors from trains to cut costs. Currently, trains are operated by a driver and a conductor, who is responsible for opening and closing the doors. Conductors make sure that no one is caught in the doors and dragged alongside the train, which usually results in serious injury, if not death. Even with conductors on the job, such accidents sometimes occur.
The MTA is trying to prepare its passengers for this reduction in subway safety with large posters in subway cars that announce that the cryptic "OPTO" will soon be featured on some subway lines. The acronym OPTO is spelled in huge letters; underneath, in smaller characters, the poster informs passengers that OPTO actually stands for One Person Train Operation. Does the MTA really believe that people are so gullible that the use of an acronym written in foot high letters will convince them that this policy is desirable? What's next, posters trumpeting EDAT to prepare travelers for Extra Derailments At Night? Or perhaps advertisements for MTHB will help passengers to adjust to More Threatening Homeless Beggars.
After enduring a summer riding the subways, I don't think I'll ever complain about Harvard's shuttle service again.
David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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