There's much to dislike about riding the subway: sniffling, hacking people who don't cover their mouths when they cough, people plowing into you with their luggage, erratic service. In one very important respect, though, the subway is an oasis of calm.I like to consider myself well wired, perhaps too wired for my own good. I have four different e-mail addresses that I check by the minute, three phone numbers where I can be reached, text-messaging on my cell-phone, and voice mail at every turn. I'm not the most connected person on the planet (no two-way pager, Blackberry or Web-friendly Palm Pilot just yet) and the phone doesn't actually ring off the hook, but it's nice to know that if someone needs to get in touch with me, they can.
It's a kind of freedom beyond convenience, and occasionally it can be nice to cut it off.
The 30 minutes I'm on the subway to and from work every day are the two times of the day when I'm out of reach. There's no cellphone service underground, and aside from the usual distractions of ranting lunatics, crying children and Mormons, it's almost possible to hear yourself think. That's precisely why the TTC's interest in making subway tunnels cell-phone-friendly is so infuriating. In a report released last week (available at www.ttc.ca/postings/gso-comrpt/) the TTC floats the idea of rewiring its tunnels so commuters can receive cell signals.
There are very good reasons for the move. The assumption that more people would get out of their cars and onto transit if they could work the phones on the way to the office is interesting, and anything that encourages commuters to ditch their cars should be encouraged.
But don't sell off the Volvo just yet. In the circuitous, one-step-forward, two-steps-back way the TTC works, the report is just proposing a study to see whether the idea is feasible, and there are very practical concerns before any of this gets off the ground. Cost is the leading one. According to the TTC preliminary study, it would cost millions -- at least 8.5 million bucks -- to wire the tunnels and stations, and that's without new transmission towers to send the signals underground. There's also the risk of cellphone signals interfering with those of emergency services.
The report takes great pains to point out that these are still early days in the process, but considering how insistent people are on using phones in hospitals, public washrooms and on ski hills, it's only a matter of time. Is breaking the silence really worth the convenience, though?
Ride the commuter trains in cities like New York or Washington just once and you'll wish you were deaf. Riders will spend an entire two-hour trip on the way to the office barking into their phones. If there's such a thing as train rage, you can understand why.
Closer to home, just ride a streetcar and try to not listen in on someone else's conversation. During one 20-minute ride on the College car last week, it was possible to hear a discussion about science homework, a woman calling the person on the other end of the blower a "fucking dirt bag" and gruesome details about a close friend's recent hip replacement.
The appeal of wireless technology like mobile phones and two-way pagers is the ability to be in contact everywhere, at any time. Yet part of its convenience is being able to turn it off, and in confined spaces like subways, having others turn theirs off, too.
Hearing someone bang on about his or her life (mundane or exciting) during my hour of silence isn't my idea of convenience. It's my idea of hell. email@example.com