Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Cell phones on transit

with 16 comments

This has been a peeve of mine for some time – and this post was inspired by this recent piece in the New York Times. Quiet cars are not new – they have been so designated on West Coast Express for some time – and in Britain some railway coaches are fitted with special glass so that cell phones cannot be used. But here, in Vancouver, the Canada Line was opened with a special “leaky cable” so that cell phone calls would continue once the train plunged below Cambie Street.

It is of course about civility – or rather, these days, its absence. People on cell phones seem to be unaware – or unconcerned  – that everyone else is eavesdropping, unwillingly, on half the conversation. Some young people also like to talk in exaggeratedly loud voices in the hopes of offending others in ear shot. Nothing new about that: in Paris in the late 19th century the decadents loved to “Épater la bourgeoisie”. But really I think it is mostly that modern sensibility is that the individual can do as they like – and need not concern themselves about the impact they have on others. Especially if that includes conspicuous consumption: there is a market advantage that corporations can profit from, and that is all that they can care about – that is established in civil law and seems to overrule all else.

I do not want to hear what you have to say to whoever it is you have to call. Or who calls you. It is mostly trivial – and could easily have waited. Every public event I attend is always preceded now with a public announcement to turn off pagers and cell phones – yet there are always a few who ignore that. They consider themselves far too important to be cut off for even a moment. They would never think that maybe a text – or a voice mail – might do just as well. That it does not have to be instantaneous. That there are some moments in life when interruption is not welcome. That the people who look over your shoulder at a party to see if someone more interesting has just arrived are simply being rude.

Why does our transit system encourage such boorishness? Probably because of some corporate deal making that fed a new source of revenue their way. We cannot be allowed to know that, of course. “Privacy” does mean the individual can be left in peace: it means that a corporation can conceal anything it likes in the name of commercial confidentiality. Because that matters. Individuals – or even society as whole – do not.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Posted in transit

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16 Responses

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  1. Hmm, two interesting perspectives. I can certainly comment on the public cell phone conversation bit. Teenagers in particular like to be the centre of attention, I’ve heard, and that’s why they’re noisy on the bus, whether in packs or on the phone. I think it’s just plain rude for someone to have a conversation on the phone above normal levels. I don’t really know how it’s different, from our perspective, from them having a loud conversation with the person next to them, but I gather people are more likely to talk louder on the cell phone.

    I take the bus with a friend sometimes in the morning, and she talks louder than I do, which makes me uncomfortable because a) I don’t want attention in my direction, and b) our conversations shouldn’t intrude on others’ comfort on the bus. But it’s loud music and cell phone conversations that irk me in the end, as if they’re being intentionally oblivious.

    I’m not sure what to say to the mom who talks in a constant shout at the front of the bus, without a cellphone, and certainly drivers seem to do very little. Of course… there’s no driver on the SkyTrain.

    Erika Rathje

    September 8, 2010 at 8:48 pm

  2. I think you are missing a critical point! The whole reason I use transit is because I can use my phone while I am on the skytrain or bus. However, I am not using it in the traditional sense but I am using the iPhone to read.. your articles! And go through email, calendar and some games. So I think we should have cell phone coverage (= Internet access) in the tunnels, if translink isn’t going to do free wifi on transit, which seems highly unlikely in this part of the world (look at Asia..). Phones are becoming real portable computers, so I think it would be a step backwards to not have coverage in the tunnels. All said I don’t have a problem with stopping people from making calls, but no coverage is not a great solution as it has a significant impact on polite users as well. I don’t see what the problem is with people being productive on transit if they aren’t affecting others.


    September 8, 2010 at 8:50 pm

  3. I hope TL is able to provide cell service to dark spots on the e-line: the dunsmuir tunnel, the tunnel by columbia and the covered section by edmonds. at the spot by edmonds, i have a 50% chance that my call/hotspot signal will get dropped. (100% at the other places..)


    September 8, 2010 at 9:52 pm

  4. I agree with Russell, the 3G coverage on the Canada Line is mainly useful for data connectivity. (It’s too noisy to talk most of the time, besides being rude.)

    It’s great to be able to check transit schedules, maps, movie listings, store hours, etc. while en route. (Or tweet about service disruptions.)


    September 8, 2010 at 10:46 pm

  5. When I was visiting a college town in the south of Germany 5 years ago no one on the bus talked on their mobile phone. The policy was simple: no phone calls on the bus. Lots of people used their phones for sending text messages instead. How did they get transit users to comply with the policy? They had clear signage communicating the policy on every bus and peer pressure took care of the rest. I wish TransLink had a similar no phone calls policy. It would be the easiest and cheapest way for them to dramatically improve the experience of taking transit.


    September 8, 2010 at 10:58 pm

  6. Obviously using the phone as computer to read, work etc. or using it to text is not a problem. What bothers many of us is all these people that take 20 minutes to talk about something that is not urgent at all and could have waited until they were off transit.

    Only once in the past 5 years did listen to call that was fascinating. A young man, pushing a baby in a buggy, called his wife. She was late picking up the kid as she was “talking” (not the word the husband used) to her lover at that very moment. After the sad conversation ended he told us all the gory details about his messy life..and no, there was no hidden camera.

    Young Japanese are phone-crazy but they, like adults, don’t use their phones in a transit vehicle (mind you at rush hour there is not enough room to reach in a coat pocket or bag for a phone..). TransLink has adds against using phones but what they really should do is have their police check buses and the SkyTrain and stop those that talk too loud.

    I refuse to have a cell phone by the way..relaxing in transit on my way to/ from work is very important to me.

    Red frog

    September 8, 2010 at 11:36 pm

  7. I use my smartphone on transit all of the time, and would really find it a step backwards if coverage were somehow blocked. Mostly, I read news and send/read email and instant messages (while listening to music), but occasionally I do talk. I try to keep it brief and keep my voice down. All in all, being able to use take advantage mobile device while going from place to place is one of the best parts about taking transit instead of my car, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

    I think 90% of the instances of loud, inconsiderate phone talkers could be cured with a public relations effort by Translink. Unfortunately, our culture here seems to favor over-reaching rules over nudges in the right direction. I hope we never go there with mobile devices on public transit.


    September 8, 2010 at 11:38 pm

  8. Frankly, I just don’t understand this perspective at all. Exactly what is the difference between me sitting there talking on my phone and me sitting there talking to the person next to me? Are you annoyed simply because you can’t hear the other side of the conversation? Or would just have people not talk at all on public transit? Of course, if anyone is having an intentionally loud conversation, that’s just rude; but to chastise people for having everyday normal conversations is just plain silly. Welcome to the 21st century.

    Stephen, I’m on board with 99% of what you write about, but this one just mystifies me.


    September 9, 2010 at 12:10 am

  9. I went to extreme measures to block out the sound of talking in a shared office with someone who talks to himself… Loudly, all day, nonstop. But it worked well in other non office situations too. I got special earbud headphones with a rubber seal to match my ear, then I play pink noise on a portable music player. Someone can be standing right next to me talking and I don’t even know they’re there. Kinda extreme but my sanity at work was about to end! Problem 100% solved.


    September 9, 2010 at 1:44 am

  10. To reiterate – it is the loud conversations I am objecting to – the ones that intrude upon other passengers. Not texting, not web surfing, not data transfer. Being rude to other passengers by imposing your voice upon them. The Canada Line is indeed incredibly noisy but instead of waiting until they are in a quieter, more private place, people SIMPLY TALK LOUDER. See?

    Stephen Rees

    September 9, 2010 at 8:18 am

  11. If I receive a phone call from a family member while on transit I answer it. It could be an emergency.

    I talk softly and try to keep the call under a minute so as not to disturb others. I typically do not answer calls from non-family on transit and don’t place outbound calls.

    I remember a woman on SkyTrain this past spring who was introducing herself to those around her in a loud voice. She asked people questions about their purchases, their occupations, etc. and shared enormous amounts of personal information including unwanted details of her medical conditions.


    September 9, 2010 at 11:53 am

  12. @Stephen It is not reiterating a point if you didn’t make it in the first place 😉 Nowhere in your post do you make such a qualification that it is _just_ loud conversations that annoy you.

    Instead, you _seem_ to chastise everyone who has a simple conversation as boorish (great word BTW). And even with your qualifying follow up comment, I can’t see your point particularly. If I’m on the Canada Line and the train goes through a particularly noisy area, of course I’m going to have to raise my voice to be heard; just as I would have to if I were sitting next to someone in that environment. It’s loud! Are you mad at the train for going through a tunnel too?

    Allow _me_ to (actually) reiterate: what is the difference between having a conversation with the person next to you and having it via the telephone?

    It seems to me that you are conflating the obviously rude behaviour of attention-seeking people (which is simply boorish in _any_ setting, not just on public transit) with people who are just trying to have a simple conversation on the phone. It is this conflation that I take issue with.

    I do not want to live in a society that demands total silence on public transit, and I most certainly would not expect to be chastised as rude for simply talking to my girlfriend on the phone on my way home from work, however trivial you may think my conversation may be.

    Ironically enough, I would suggest that if you want to travel in a bubble of silence apart from annoying people, drive a car 😉 Or, better yet, lobby for designated quiet cars here too!

    Again, I absolutely agree that there are many assholes who ride transit who live in a bubble of ignorance of civility. When I encounter these people (as we all frequently do), I do my best to be polite while asking them to please keep their voices/music down.

    Most of the time when I do this (and I only do it in obvious cases), I get agreement from the people around me, and the person quiets down sufficiently.

    If I happen to be riding the Skytrain at the time, what I normally do is take the obvious option and _get up and move to another car_.

    If I’m riding the bus and can’t simply move far enough away, then I will ask the driver to enforce the policies that are set in place for such people.

    If all else fails, getting off the bus and waiting for the next one is better than the assault charge I would incur by punching the offender in the nose 🙂

    I would add in closing (finally!) that I really hope that you don’t plan on travelling anywhere else in the world (say, India?) and utilizing public transit; in many places it is considered rude if you do _not_ engage in conversation while being heard over chickens and the local band going to their next gig. Comparatively, our transit environment is mausoleum-like.

    PS Stephen, despite my argumentative tone, I really hope we get to meet someday; I’d love to buy you drink and pick your brain about all this other writing of yours that I simply adore (and frequently share out). Best regards.


    September 9, 2010 at 12:56 pm

  13. This is an age and experience thing..
    Some of us grew up in the days when people didn’t feel the compulsive need to talk to all their relatives and friends all the time…
    For all my teens years I–like many other schoolmates–only saw my parents on weekends. We didn’t even think to phone one another during the week. During summer school holidays I didn’t see my best buddies for 2 months..that was no big deal.

    Immigrants know that by moving far away they will loose touch with their family and friends many cases this is why they moved away as far as live their life on their own terms..

    As for drastic emergencies in the family..many times they will happen so quickly and with such dire consequences that having a cell phone will not help.

    It could also be that younger people cannot do without permanent aural stimulation, be it music or a phone..

    Red frog

    September 9, 2010 at 12:57 pm

  14. @allan

    to quote my original post “also like to talk in exaggeratedly loud” – OK – reiteration without doubt

    It is the obtrusive nature of the sound that is the problem, and yes i have frequently commented that poor design and execution of the Canada Line has raised noise levels to an uncomfortable point. We argued about the cures in another thread for a while.

    You can buy me a drink and pick my brains – contact info is on the “about” page – and I am going to be at the UBC streetcar thing on the 29th all day – and at the Nikiforuk talk at UBC sponsored by the Tyee on Monday at lunchtime

    Stephen Rees

    September 9, 2010 at 1:21 pm

  15. Allan, I’ve heard the reason so many people are bothered by hearing one-way conversations rather than normal two-ways is that we are unconsciously trying to fill in the gaps. Perhaps hearing half of the natural rhythm of a conversation can also have a disconcerting effect. In the cacophony of a crowded bus in rural India I’m sure it wouldn’t bother me, but sitting next to someone talking on their phone on the Canada Line is a different story. I think they have it right in Japan: text your friends and family while you’re on the train and save the phone calls until you get off.


    September 10, 2010 at 7:44 am

  16. For me, the ideal cell phone conversation is very short. “Where are you?” “I’m at {x}” OK, let’s meet at {y}.Bye.

    No-one wants to be subjected to 15-30 minutes of Blah blah blah apropos of nothing.

    and yes, Commute time is normally quieter than other times, there’s something more annoying about loud lengthy cell phone conversations at 5:45 PM than loud Canuck fans at 10:45 PM

    Now… about seat hogs that take up more room than necessary…….

    Dave 2

    September 11, 2010 at 11:12 pm

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