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Is the Subway Ready for a Conversation Car?

Should the subway have a conversation car? An urbanist argues for making public transit more social.

Can public transit be social? Alex Marshall thinks so. The urban planner (and New York subway rider) argues today in the New York Daily News for a "Conversation Car" on the subway. Reminiscing about how he used to strike up conversations with fellow riders before they all became attached to their gadgets, Marshall observes that today such “chatting up” is nearly non-existent, as subway cars feel more like monasteries than social spaces.

As Marshall envisions it, riders who’d enter his proposed Conversation Car would do so only if "ready and willing to chat." The optimist in me says yes, such a car might help restore the dying art of conversation but I can’t help but think of the type of New Yorkers such a car might attract. Would a Conversation Car would be "a new, much-needed antidote to our solitary digital domains" or if it would feel like a bar car without the cocktails?

It's worth noting that neighboring New Jersey Transit has gone in the opposite direction. This month, it expanded its "Quiet Commute" program, which stipulates that in certain cars passengers refrain from cellphone use, keep headphone volumes on low, and conduct conversations in "subdued voices." But the effort has had the rather undesired consequence of making passengers argue with one another about how quiet is "quiet." The New York Times reports that, "The quiet cars have now become some of the noisiest, as passengers trying to read or sleep are constantly hushing and shushing others."

Photo by Brian Holsclaw

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