Open Thread: Ban Cell Phone Talk on Transit?


Transit agencies have long wrestled with it: how deeply involved should they get with enforcing common courtesy by prohibiting or fining people for rude behavior such as refusing to move to the center of a crowded train or bus, leaving bags on seats, and yakking loudly on the cell phone?

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority isn’t even open for business, and won’t be until December at the earliest, but it seems poised to ratchet up the courtesy policing, as reported in the Marin Independent Journal:

On the North Bay commuter trains set to launch by the end of the year, passengers will be able to sip beer or wine, surf the internet using onboard Wi-Fi and bring along small pets, so long as they ride in enclosed carriers.

But talking on cellphones? That will be off-limits under a proposed code of conduct policy being weighed by the Sonoma- Marin Area Rail Transit Authority. Such a restriction, which requires the approval of the rail agency’s board of directors, may be without precedent among public transit systems anywhere in the United States.

Readers will recall that BART recently started fining seat hogs.  Nick Josefowitz, a BART board director  and occasional Streetsblog contributor, voted against the measure, opining that common courtesy cannot be legislated.

So what about the rudeness of blabbing on a cell phone and disturbing other passengers? When Streetsblog toured the SMART project last spring, Matt Stevens, SMART’s Community Education and Outreach manager, explained that the strategy for attracting riders is to give them a pleasant alternative to traffic-clogged roads. “It’s got Wi-Fi, tables, plugs for chargers, and a bar,” he explained during the tour. With that in mind, the idea is to run a train that’s quiet and relaxing, and a cacophony of cell ringers and chatter won’t do. SMART rail has set up a Facebook page to hear people’s thoughts on a “code of conduct” for the trains.

Most commuter trains, however, have struck a balance by having a “quiet car” where cell phones are prohibited. But that can backfire, because what constitutes “quiet” is not always easy to agree on. Simply banning talking on cell phones is more straightforward, which may be why SMART is taking this approach. Another alternative, which Streetsblog has seen on some intercity trains overseas, is to designate an area, usually behind a partition, where riders can yak away.

Streetsblog would like to hear reader opinions on banning the use of phones on trains. What else have you experienced from your fellow transit riders that you found rude or disturbing? Please leave your comments below.

Meanwhile, this video explains how to be a courteous transit rider:

  • Corvus Corax

    Hear, hear! If the people who made that rule would just once try taking a bike on the escalator, they would realize how easy and safe it is. But of course, they don’t even ride BART, much less bike.

  • farazs

    The question is what would she have done in a plane?

  • farazs

    Irrelevant as usual. citrate is talking about expectations, not rules.
    Still ironic, coming from the messiah of double-parking!

  • RichLL

    Good point, not much. I work in aviation and fly all the time. We get major complaints particularly from customers who pay 5K or more to fly first class and then get stuck next to a kid crying and puking.

  • RichLL

    I would not presume to know what someone else is talking about. But yeah, I’m a libertarian on most topics but also support zero tolerance policing. Go figure.

  • citrate reiterator

    lol, that is not even close to what either of us is arguing. And it matters that this girl was Black because that law is seldom enforced period, and so the question of why it was enforced in this case fits into a larger pattern where law enforcement tends to be more aggressive and to use excessive (sometimes lethal) force against people of her ethnic group. I think it would be a worthy goal for the criminal justice system to treat all suspects with the same respect and deference as they currently treat white middle-class men.

    FWIW, whether “broken windows” works at all is questionable (see e.g. ). That doesn’t mean any “quality of life” policing is necessarily bad or pointless — some amount is probably good in its own right — just that the real-world evidence that broken windows nucleate more serious crime is lacking, and that it should be performed equitably.

  • citrate reiterator

    It’s “enforced” in plenty of other transit systems to the same degree that it would be here (i.e., it’s official policy). But of course that “enforcement” doesn’t mean that the Gestapo hustle you out the door and into a detention center if you cough too loudly: quiet car rules are enforced primarily by social norms, and then by conductors asking the offender(s) to either be quiet or take a different seat. I’ve never seen a situation develop in the quiet car where it escalated beyond that (though I have seen people ejected from trains for really egregious behavior).

  • chetshome

    RichLL: “the reality is that marginalized people are less likely to be harassed out of fear that they will play a minority card, race card, gender card, gay card or whatever.”


  • murphstahoe

    This is why Eric Garner is still alive, he flashed his black card.

  • farazs

    So its a soft policy and enforcement depends upon the identity of the offender, offended and enforcer.

  • Jimbo

    please please ban cell phone talking on transit and in any public locale.

  • But not inside a car.
    And let’s also exclude transit drivers, they need something to do all day.

  • I truly couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • farazs

    As per my understanding ‘enforced by social norms’ is not ‘enforced’ – its voluntary compliance. For that matter no one ‘enforces’ that passengers be allowed to alight before those waiting at the platform can board. Similarly Caltrain requests passengers to avoid the bike-cars if they’re not travelling with bikes as a courtesy to bicyclists. If soft rules of conduct work so well most of the time, then why take a hard line, except for ideological reasons?

    The significant difference is that once its a hard rule and a grouch complains, the conductor has no option but to enforce (by eviction or threat of eviction), else the conductor faces the possibility of the grouch escalating to their supervisors. IMO, this is giving too much power to grouches for no good reason. Its a shared public space – people are within their rights to expect only a reasonable and low level of noise most of the time, but not to demand ‘quiet’.


Cal Park Tunnel Opening Ceremony Sees Hundreds of Cyclists

Hundreds of joyous Marin County cyclists pedaled through the Cal Park Hill tunnel Friday afternoon as officials cut the ribbon on a $27 million holiday present that supporters hailed as a national model for green transportation. The 124-year-old railroad tunnel, sealed after a fire in 1990, connects the Larkspur Ferry landing to San Rafael, trimming […]

San Rafael Meets its New Train

In a previous post, Streetsblog got caught up on the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project. A week later Marin County transit fans got a treat, with the arrival of the first Diesel Multiple Unit train at the new San Rafael station. The public got to board the train and have a look around. […]

Today’s Headlines

Power Trouble Delays BART Fremont Line this Morning (SFGate, CBSLocal) $500 Million for New Bay Area Trains Buses and Ferries (InsideBayArea) Officials say Transit Ready for Super Bowl Party (SFGate) More on Cost of Super Bowl Party to Transit and other SF Services (SFWeekly) And a Little More Snark About Super Bowl Party Costs (SFWeekly) […]

Trains Boats and Bikes: Sonoma-Marin Rail and Bike Path Update

Streetsblog was given a tour of the southernmost segment of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project, which is currently doing finishing work and testing on the initial 43 miles of line, running from near Sonoma County Airport to downtown San Rafael. SMART is re-purposing the historic Northwestern Pacific Railroad corridor, an old 70-mile rail […]