R-42: Not Just a last ride, but the end of a communication era

by Mark Juszczak

I had a suspicion, at the moment, that this might be bigger than I thought. And I also knew I was not alone. So I approached them and asked if them if they were waiting for R42. Not the A train, as in the A train line. But the arrival of the R-42 Subway Car type. Indeed they were.

IMG_20200212_111658496_HDRAs the train pulled into the station, I realized they were not the only ones. The doors to the first car opened and a flood of amateur photographers jumped out to take pictures of the front of the car. I stepped into the car and saw all the major News stations present. Massive cameras for ABC, NBC, etc..

This was the last run of the historic R-42 Subway Car. For 51 years, the R-42 had serviced the IND and BMT routes of the New York City Subway system. When they first rolled off the plant in St. Louis, Missouri, they were seen as an advanced technology in train car design. Their arrival came at the height of the subway’s use, and the height of anticipation about its future. The subway had gone through 50 years of nearly continuous expansion. By 1971 over 450 stations had been built.

And then, just as the R-42 came to life, all those dreams of growth and expansion ground to a halt. Over the next fifty years, virtually no new stations were built and no significant new lines were created.

And, in the mean-time, something even more significant was lost: the belief that digital was the answer. The MTA fell in love with technology and invested money in digital signs, digital maps, digital side-bars and digital announcements. The new E trains boast exceptionally good digital information with dynamic maps that show you in real time exactly where you are.

But, two things have been sacrificed in the name of those investments: a focus on expanding the system as a core tenant of the system itself: that more and better subway service is the great leveler of socio-economic difference in the city, and that digital information without personal context is better.

Let me explain that second point a bit more, because it is really what the end of the R-42 is about. The emphasis on providing digital information in subway cars does increase efficiency of access to information. But it also does something else – it robs us of the chance to engage in a conversation with a stranger; to discover commonalities where we might not expect them, and to explore, through dialogue, the lives of others that can serve as critical insights into our own awareness.

What we gain in a few precious seconds by having a sign display in real-time the station we are heading to, we most certainly lose in the complexity of reasoning and the depth of exposure that is afforded to us by the casual interaction with strangers that makes the subway such a powerful social leveler.

Nowhere was that more alive than today: not only because of the conversations I both was drawn into and started with fellow subway enthusiasts, but with the reminder of the old static signs of the windows. There were only two pieces of information really needed to make a system work at a peak capacity that far exceeds today’s daily rider usage: the train name/destination and a subway map. Everything else required something that our digital world is constantly chipping away at: the need to ask a stranger a question and to perhaps make of that stranger a stranger no more.

IMG_20200212_112430626The last run of the R42 was most notable, not only for the press and MTA workers commemorating 51 years of service, but for something even simpler: the intense focus passengers had on each other, and the virtually nonexistent scrolling through smartphone screens. In the final analysis, not all advances that increase information efficiency are a net good, and we certainly consider the social cost that comes with the subtle and persistent turn to a digital, non-personal world. Asking for directions, or asking what stations is next is not just about information: it’s an opportunity to create a link between strangers.

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