Annoying Announcements

My last two New York trips suddenly made me aware of how obtrusive and loud subway announcements can be. I visited the US many times in the years between when I left (summer 2012) and the start of the pandemic in early 2020, so even while living first in Canada and then in a succession of European capitals known to Americans chiefly as vacation spots, I found New York reassuringly familiar. The two-year gap between when corona started and when I first came back this March should not have been that big, and yet it was. And the constant annoyance of those messages hit me.

I know a lot of people writing about their experiences in New York talk about how it changed dramatically during corona. I get some of this – I see some differences, even if not in as much detail as people who have been here in the city throughout and survived the spring of 2020. But this is not, as far as I remember, a difference. The New York City Subway was always like this – always this hectic and stressful, not so much because of the passengers as because of the system itself. I’ve just, over the years, gotten used to the much more focused and less noisy European systems.

I focus on the announcements because, having talked to some other immigrants who don’t speak the language very well or used not to – a task that’s easier for me in Berlin than in New York – I’ve gotten more sensitive to the issue of tuning out announcements.

The issue here is that passengers learn to tune out unnecessary announcements. “This is 57th Street, Brooklyn-bound F, next stop is 50th Street-Rockefeller Center, stand clear of the closing doors” is a fine announcement. Passengers learn to tune out the ending, but that’s fine – the rest of the message stands and helps anchor where the train is and how long it is until my station.

The problem is announcements like “This is an important message from the New York City Police Department.” These are, at best, an irrelevant annoyance. Experienced riders tune them out and just learn to live with the random noise and distraction that they provide. Less experienced ones may wait for something useful and be disappointed it’s another useless public service announcement.

But one should not assume the best. Annoying announcements are worse than useless, for two reasons. First, any announcement telling people to be afraid of crime is counterproductive. Scared passengers react to such announcements or signs by feeling up their wallets to make sure they’re still there, alerting every thief as to their wallets’ locations on their persons.

And second, the effect on system legibility for riders who speak poor English is large and negative. Such riders strain to get the meaning until they realize it was for nothing, and they might well assume any announcement other than the stops is like this and miss real information. Announcements other than regular stops may be irrelevant PSAs, but they may also be important information about the trip, such as service changes down the line, and the more riders who tune them out, the more they are going to miss connections and attempt to get on a train that isn’t running.

This is really a matter of universal design. Even experienced riders who (like most New Yorkers) speak the language fluently sometimes tune out real announcements and make mistakes. But this effect is larger for new riders, especially immigrants who struggle with the language.

The right way to structure announcements is not to say anything that isn’t directly relevant to the trip. Stations and connections should be announced, and so should service changes on the line itself or on connecting lines. PSAs should not exist; they make the user experience worse and improve nothing except the self-satisfaction of managers who do not use their own system.


  1. Nathan Davidowicz

    It is even worse in Metro Vancouver where many audio announcements on the buses are not accurate and do not correspond to the electronic written announcements.

    • Mark Pope

      What messages are those? Out of all the announcements, essentially all are for stops. There’s the bus drivers’ announcements, but those are fairly clear, and used sparingly (except for that 17 driver who likes to hammer the “please hold on” one after every stop).

  2. Borners

    There should also be a clear distinction between pre-recorded announcements about arrivals, door opening sides and station connections and emergency explanations of delays/obstructions by the driver etc. Its a social cue about what’s normal and what’s not. It also removes pressure on drivers who are not necessarily going to be personalities suited to giving a clear and concise public speech.

    Eugh, reminds me of how JR Central makes Tokaido shinkansen drivers give a small speech that-should-be-pre-recorded-normal-stuff in Japanese and English because it is the worst JR.

    • Sassy

      In Japan it’s also interesting what is pre-recorded but not multi-lingual. The Shinkansen high speed pass snow warning is only in Japanese. The station numbers are only in English.

      • Borners

        It differs from operator to operator. JR East is a much better organisation than JR Central. It can be a difficult balance, especially since JR East’s Shinkansen are the most vulnerable to weather etc because of the topography, climate, obstruction (on the mini-shinkansen lines) and have the Tokyo-Omiya bottleneck.

  3. Paul

    I’m reminded of BART, whose PA announcements can be pretty incomprehensible even for native speakers. “Mumble mumble mumble *screeching sound*.” Say what now?

    Standard announcements, like station names and transfer opportunities, should be prerecorded. Digital signs inside the vehicle that display the name of the next stop are nice too, especially if you don’t speak the local language. I’m seeing more of both as agencies replace their fleets, but neither is universal yet.

    • Chaz

      It’s unfortunate that BART insisted on using the weird computer generated speech for station and line announcements on the new trains rather than pre-recording them.

  4. plaws0

    “First, any announcement telling people to be afraid of crime is counterproductive.”

    Not at all counterproductive to the Blue Lobby who are always trying to get bigger budgets to allow more cops to be hired, who can then stand around looking at their phones, and who can occasionally shoot someone.

  5. fbfree

    Montreal has a parculiarity of using PA announcements principally to communicate with staff. This goes back to historical difficulties in maintaining wireless communications in an entirely underground system. The announcements are brief, consistent, and not too hard to tune out, but it may be time to consider a change in practice.

  6. Sean Cunneen / Alex Cat3

    Routine things like telling riders to give up their seats for disabled/pregnant people or not to litter are important to tell passengers, but are probably better as posters.

    • Rewenzo

      Yeah just as a general rule if something is true all the time and so the announcement is not timely (e.g. crime is bad, give up your seat for pregnant people, etc.) just put it on a poster. The auditory announcements should just be for thing where the MTA needs to get your attention right now in this particular time and place.

  7. Rewenzo

    A problem from the other direction is that in a universe where everybody is wearing their headphones, how do you get their attention when there is an actual important service announcement you want to make? Flashing light before the announcement?

    • Basil Marte

      If they are stupid enough to prepend “This is an important message from the New York City Police Department” to any non-urgent messages, they will add the flashing lights to the same.
      (Incidentally, stupid organizations are systematically bad at distinguishing between “urgent” and “important”.)

  8. Frederick

    Thankfully it’s only PSA, not advertisements. Visual advertisements in train cars are commonplace around the world, but it would be too far if they had sound.

    • robo1p

      Audio adverts, at least on buses, are totally a thing in America. Appearently common in DC, and I’ve personally observed them in Columbus.

  9. Boomer

    New York has a recent(-ish) announcement about whether the present station is an accessible station, and, if so, where the elevator can be found (at the rear or the front of the platform). That is a good one, in my opinion.

    But they have to straighten out the lingo. Can’t have uptown/downtown on the signs and then Bronx-bound/Brooklyn-bound on the announcements. Can’t have Ozone Park on the digital signs and then the conductors say “A to Lefferts.” Honestly I don’t know how the out-of-towners can keep all this straight.

    • adirondacker12800

      They could start running the E train to the Rockaways again. Then the Uptown trains and the Downtown trains would be going to Queens. Like the M train does now.

    • Sassy

      Maximizing signal to noise ratio isn’t really the goal though. You could just announce the name of the next station and nothing else. Or just have absolutely zero non-emergency announcements at all, since people are theoretically capable of knowing all non-emergency information that you could announce, before they even got on the train.

      However, to support the needs of riders who may be unfamiliar, distracted, or disabled, you have to announce a lot of stuff that is useless for many/most/nearly all riders.

      Particularly notable is announcements in multiple languages. Passengers who understand multiple languages just get the same information repeated at them twice (or more). Passengers who understand only one of the languages get the necessary information surrounded by nonsense. Of course passengers who don’t understand, or need excessive effort to understand the dominant language in an area, greatly appreciate multiple language announcements.

      • Henry Miller

        You need to give the blind some information on when they are arriving at their stop. I don’t know how to handle that other than audio next stop announcements. (I once met a guy who was both blind and deaf – I have no idea how he can travel anywhere alone, but it is a problem worth thinking about)

  10. Jay

    I am guessing that most of you know settings (not just transit systems) where there is a unique altering tone for important announcements. In the US, the tones we use for the Radio/TV Emergency Alert System are a decent example (although we tune these out, too). Perhaps transit authorities ought to use a loud, unique tone for critical announcements (e.g., service changes, emergency conditions) which even the most experienced rider on headphones could listen for.

  11. Mark N.

    A related criticism I have is how the large information screens in the trains are so often misused in German trains, both local and intercity, to display messages irrelevant to the current itinerary for extended amounts of time, usually on heavy rotation. I might wake up from a nap or otherwise suddenly wonder which stop is coming up, and it’s not seldom that instead of such basic information, I’ll see some ad exclaiming the advantages of the Bahn Bonus points system or describing the current masking requirements. Such non-itinerary items need to either be relegated to printed posters at other locations within the train or, when displayed on the screens at all, limited to simple, graphic messages that are only shown very briefly and at very infrequent intervals. For important information that’s unrelated to the itinerary like masking requirements, that’s probably a perfectly valid reason for an occasional audio announcement, which is often the case in German trains, but this will then usually be repeated AGAIN on the information screens! ARRRGH!

  12. Shaked

    Even next stop announcements can be super annoying. It took Israeli rail years to stop announcing that trains will stop and each and every Tel Aviv stations (if a train passes in Tel Aviv it always stops at all stops) and change it from “This train will stop in Tel Aviv Haagana, Tel Aviv Hashlom, Tel Aviv Merkaz and Tel Aviv Haoniversita” to “This train will stops in All Tel Aviv stops” which made it much nicer and easy to the ear.

  13. Patrick Jensen

    One of the great things about the legally mandated, yet practically rare bilingualism in the Helsinki area is that in enforces lean information design. Agencies try to minimize the use of voice announcements and keep text information very concise.

  14. Martin

    It might be just me, but I find that in the US, the door closing chime/lights turn on as the door starts closing.
    In Europe, this chime/light begins a few seconds BEFORE door starts to close, giving you a few secs to hop inside, hop out, or clear the door on the packed train.

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