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Posts about Cell Phones


A "no cellphones" express walking lane appeared on a DC sidewalk. What's the story?

A curious thing appeared on a downtown DC sidewalk this week: Dedicated lanes for pedestrians talking on cellphones, with an express lane to the side for everyone else.

Photo by Rob Pegoraro on Flickr.

The lanes aren't a half-baked experiment from DDOT. They're actually a stunt from National Geographic.

National Geographic workers added the sidewalk lanes on 18th Street NW between K and L streets, with permission from DDOT, to film people's reactions for an upcoming TV show about human behavior.

Film crews recorded pedestrians' reactions for several hours yesterday. The most common reaction seemed to be curiosity, but according to Yahoo! Tech columnist Rob Pegoraro, the new lanes did inspire many people to move to one side or the other.

This might have drawn inspiration from a "tourist lane" New York-based group Improv Everywhere painted on a Manhattan sidewalk in 2010.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Will WMATA get cell service online or lose funding?

Since late 2008, WMATA has been working to deliver modern wireless phone service throughout the underground portions of the Metrorail system. It faces a deadline to finish by October 16 or possibly lose federal funding, but it's unclear whether they will get the project done in time, and have not shared any news of their progress with reporters or riders.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Unlike some mass transit systems, WMATA did not undertake this project simply out of a desire to improve passenger experience; they did so because of a few short sentences in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (hereinafter PRIIA), enacted on October 16, 2008:

No amounts may be provided to the Transit Authority pursuant to the authorization under this section unless the Transit Authority ensures that customers of the rail service of the Transit Authority have access within the rail system to services provided by any licensed wireless provider that notifies the Transit Authority (in accordance with such procedures as the Transit Authority may adopt) of its intent to offer service to the public, in accordance with the following timetable:
(A) Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, in the 20 underground rail station platforms with the highest volume of passenger traffic.

(B) Not later than 4 years after such date, throughout the rail system.

WMATA met the first deadline, turning up a new distributed antenna system and signing on the four major carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon). But the second deadline has proved thornier. A recent Washington Examiner article described the contractor installing the system as being in "dire financial straits." Anecdotal reports from riders have shown that cellular service has been spotty, even at stations which initially had good coverage.

With October 16 just over a month away, you might think that WMATA would be forthcoming with status updates. Unfortunately, WMATA has responded to the situation with its usual opacity.

What does WMATA stand to lose if they miss the deadline? As PRIIA states, "No amounts may be provided," and the amounts authorized under the act are considerable:

There are authorized to be appropriated to the Secretary of Transportation for grants under this section an aggregate amount not to exceed $1,500,000,000 to be available in increments over 10 fiscal years beginning in fiscal year 2009, or until expended.

Clearly, this is not a deadline that WMATA should take lightly.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, like WMATA, is in the midst of wiring its rail system for wireless service, and they, too, have experienced delays. However, they've been more up-front about the situation; an article published earlier this year distinguished between delays attributable to the MBTA's contractor and those attributable to the cellular carriers.

Even if WMATA and their contractor manage to pull through and meet PRIIA's October 16 deadline, there are still best practices they can and should adopt. In New York City, the contractor deploying wireless service on the subway, aptly named Transit Wireless, has established their own presence, rather than lurking in the shadows like the contractors deploying systems in DC and Boston. Through their Web site and Twitter account, Transit Wireless reaches out directly to riders, taking questions and helping them understand what services are available, and where.

By contrast, WMATA refers questions to the carriers, who tend to either deny knowledge of service in the Metro, or refer questions back to WMATA. After WMATA's initial announcement of service at underground stations, updates have been spotty at best—and there's no list of covered stations or timetable for future service rollouts.


As employers ban phone use while driving, long car commutes mean lower productivity

More and more companies ban employee use of cell phones while driving. Will these companies begin to view employees with long car commutes as less available and productive than other employees? Will this push more workers to take advantage of transit options?

Photo by bjosefowicz on Flickr.

Some companies still have a 9-to-5 culture and don't expect employees to be available outside those hours. With the ubiquity of cell phones, however, many people see commute time as potential work time. When conference calls go long, it's not uncommon to hear participants announce, "I've got to leave, but I'll rejoin this call from the road." Email-enabled smartphones have only increased this trend.

But driving while on the phone can be very dangerous, studies show. And juries have found corporations liable for traffic crashes caused by employees using cell phones for business purposes, even when neither the car nor the phone were issued by the company. Some awards from judges and juries have exceeded $20 million.

This started a trend of corporate bans on employee cell phone use while driving, which shows no sign of going away. Such bans could catch a lot of employees by surprise who count on working while driving. Many workers in Northern Virginia, where my software company is headquartered, justify long car commutes by the work they get done on the phone while driving.

When car commuters suddenly fall off the grid for 45 or 60 minutes each way, unable to notice urgent calls or to continue conversations from the road, will they be viewed as less flexible than their transit-commuting colleagues, especially as Metro finishes its project to add cell phone service for all carriers in all tunnels?

Drivers banned from using cell phones will find transit a better option to stay productive. When I'm on the Fairfax Connector bus and the Orange Line, I flip open my laptop and tether to my phone for internet access. Conversely, the few times I have driven to Tysons Corner, I have been frustrated by the time I wasted in the car.

We are considering a ban at our company, and fortunately my colleagues don't attach a stigma to transit commuters. But that could be because I am a co-founder of the company, and play a greater role in defining our workplace culture. Bosses and coworkers at other workplaces are known to roll their eyes at leaving during a meeting to catch a bus, while considering car breakdowns and traffic jams valid excuses.

Bans on phone use while driving could also affect decisions on corporate office locations, and on home purchases by employees and executives. Buying a home 45 minutes away from one's workplace will take on new consequences when you will lose 90 minutes of productivity per day.

Northrup Grumman selected a car-dependent suburban office park over Ballston for its DC-area headquarters in 2010, over the objections of younger employees who prefer transit. As corporations increasingly ban cell phone use while driving, the inability to communicate with employees immediately before and after work could discourage suburban, auto-dependent office relocations.

How would stereotypes be affected by such a ban at your workplace? Do you feel that your colleagues attach value judgments to car commuting vs transit commuting? Is the stigma on transit commuting limited to bus commuters in the suburbs?

The ability to stay connected on transit presents a clear advantage over isolated drivers. You might wish Metro would ban people who yell into their cell phones, but transit commuters can use their time on trains and buses to work safely.

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