Yesterday marked the rollout of the second part of Governor Cuomo’s Transit Wireless Wifi Plan, a process that is designed to give all commuters access to the Internet on subway platforms. Through November, 11 more Manhattan stations and 29 more Queens ones will have signal, meaning that there is absolutely no peace from your email, ever. By 2017, the MTA will equip all 277 stations with signal. But here’s the thing: If we’re pouring that kind of money into updating our subway infrastructure, wouldn’t those funds be better spent improving the quality of the rides or, say, preventing another fare hike?
Complaining about the subway is practically a sport in New York City. It’s a place of many hazards: weird smells, rats, unendurably long waits for trains, mysterious construction work, rude fellow commuters, mariachi bands. But for the largest transit system in the country, and the only one that runs 24 hours, every day of the year, it’s one that works remarkably well. Even after the ravages of a hurricane hitting the city, the subway bounced back quickly.
But there are certainly improvements that could be made, on all lines. There’s not a single person who would tell you that they didn’t wish trains were better managed or that construction didn’t shut down whole sections of the track at the least convenient time, or that they think another serious fare hike seems fair. The Second Avenue subway line is like some urban myth. Which is why it’s frustrating to show up at the subway station and see another giant MTA iPad chirruping about the Weekender app.
Back in May, MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergrast used that old move of blaming those darn youngsters for increased expectations on the MTA system. “The Millennials’ expectations are really things that we thought were luxuries when we first rode the system, but they think are entitlements—and they are our customers,” Prendergast said. “They are a growing customer base. Countdown clocks in stations, more timely information, improved technology is not a want, it’s a need.”
Let’s be clear: No, it’s not. It’s great to be ambitious, and certainly countdown clocks are nice. Giant iPads, I mean, I’m not into it but I get it. This WiFi initiative is certainly a cool idea, and one that advances the notion that the Internet is now a public good. But at the end of the day, even with our Citibikes and our Ubers and our skateboards, the MTA has a lock on how most New Yorkers travel. And even though the MTA needs to adapt to the technological demands of our new age, infrastructure like “touchscreens” pales in comparison to demands like having the system work more efficiently. Adding Wifi and iPads feels like a college student going grocery shopping and spending all their money on Jello and frosting instead of fruit or meat or actual meal staples. Checking your email on the subway platform is cool, but having the train actually take you to where you want to go is better. If the choice is between “giant iPad” and “trains on time,” I promise, most people would choose the latter. Even us millennials.