We're Not Saying: A Survey of Subway Car Announcements

Riders want timely and useful information while traveling the subways. They don’t want to be left in the dark during delays or miss a stop because of a poor announcement.

With these desires in mind, the Straphangers Campaign recruited 95 volunteers to rate the quality of subway car announcements. Our volunteers made 4,500 observations of opportunities to make car announcements on 18 subway lines between December 4, 1998 and July 22, 1999. Surveyors noted whether required announcements were made to explain delays and re-routings, as well as basic announcements of the names of upcoming stations and transfer points. (A description of our methodology is attached.)

This report is a follow-up to two past surveys. Our 1996 survey found a “disappointing” performance. At that time, transit officials promised “to focus on train announcements, especially those that are made when there is a service change or delay.” Our follow-up survey in 1997-1998 found “no improvement.” This third survey—titled “We’re Not Saying!”—found:

Announcements of delays and disruptions remain awful—and subway car announcements of basic information have deteriorated.

Clear and useful announcements were not made 73% of the time for delays and service disruptions. All too often, our raters heard either no announcement or a useless one such as “We have a red signal” rather than a reason for the delay. Or they were told: “We’re going out of service” without any explanation offered. (In two earlier surveys, we found either no announcement or one that was inaudible, garbled, or useless 67% of the time. The decline in performance between surveys is not statistically significant.)

System-wide, announcements providing station name and transfer information grew worse since our last survey. MTA New York City requires station names and transfer information be announced “just before the train enters the station.” Many riders rely on this information. Yet overall, clear basic announcements were made less than half the time (47%) compared to 54% in our last survey, done between late 1997 and early 1998. The decline in performance is statistically significant.)

Car announcements of this basic information deteriorated on 9 of 17 lines, and improved on only one; changes on 7 other lines were not significant. We found that announcements grew worse on 9 lines. These are the 4, 5, 6, A, B, C, E, F, and L. Only one line improved, the N. For seven other lines, the changes from the last survey were not statistically significant. We also rated one line—the Q—this year that we didn’t rate in our last survey. (We did not have enough observations to rate two lines, the M and the J/Z.)

The L line performed worst in making basic announcements, while the N line performed best—with the L performing about half as well as the N. Our raters received no basic announcements or a garbled or inaudible announcement 65% of the time on the L line compared to 39% of the time on the N. The most improved line was the N, going from 57% inadequate basic announcements in our last survey to 39% inadequate in this survey. The most deteriorated line was the B, going from 33% inadequate basic announcements in our last survey to 61% inadequate in this survey.

A survey by New York City Transit also found deteriorating car announcements. The transit agency conducts a quarterly “Passenger Environment Survey (PES),” using a somewhat different standard. For the first three months of 1999, the PES found that basic announcements were made correctly and understandably only 52% of the time. That’s down from 76% for the first three months of 1998. (The agency does not rate delay and disruption announcements.)

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