The New York City MTA is now testing new experimental subway cars. There's a new number 2, and a new number 6 crawling around. I finally managed to get one ride on each, and I feel the need to let everyone know: they're awesome. They rock. I can't stop talking about them. They tried the same thing a few years ago (it was a 2 and an E then, I believe), everybody thought they were cool, and then poof...just like that...they were gone. These new ones are even better designed than the first round (which was probably the idea). I can't stop talking about it, so I might as well node it. So: a review of the new experimental NYC subway cars. This is all from memory; I'll write/revise more if I ever get on one again; as it was I rode the 6 way past my stop just to check it out more.

The Seats

The first thing you notice is that the seats are powder blue. Not that sickly, candy-ass powder blue that makes you think of, well, I dunno, candy-ass powder blue stuff, but a vibrant, glossy, cool blue, like wet paint frozen into a chair. It's enticing. It makes you want to sit down.

To truly appreciate this, you need to have experienced the current nightmare that is the MTA subway seat. Since the earliest subway ride that I can remember, subway seats have been long smooth benches, painted sort of dark steel-gray, mostly flat but slightly ergonomically curved. Those seats are still in use in many of the older red subway cars. But some time ago, one of the design geniuses at the MTA decided that the subway should have bucket seats, and that they should be the color of yellow and orange tupperware. Even a cursory look around a crowded subway platform will reveal that not everyone's ass in New York is the same size, so you often end up sitting on the large uncomfortable plastic hump between two seats. Besides, nobody looks good sitting on orange tupperware, especially dirty orange tupperware. As it turns out, everyone looks stunning against powder blue.

The same seats have a dramatic, futuristic sort of swoop to them, forcing you to really sit back. It's immensely comfortable.

The Floor

The floor on most current subway trains is a sort of light brown linoleum, like the tile in the hallway of your old junior high school. It always looks dirty, even when it's clean; presumably this keeps you from noticing when it is actually dirty. The floor of the new cars is black, with an understated speckle pattern of dark, cool colors, like muted color confetti. This does a particularly nice job of offsetting--and complimenting--the powder blue seats.

The Design

Consider for a moment the problem of designing the interior of a subway car: there are peak times during rush hours where the car may be filled to capacity, and other times where the car may be mostly empty. Humans pack better standing up, but they also like to sit down if possible. So on the ends of the car there are smaller bench seats that can flip up if the subway is crowded, or down if it isn't (they are mildly springloaded to rest in the up position I think, but I didn't get to test this). This is a superbly flexible design, and it would be a stroke of innovative genius were it not for the fact that the London Underground has had this feature for years. The internal layout looks roughly like this (you're going to have to use your imagination a bit, especially for the cool colors):

|{FB}       { Bench Seat }      { Bench Seat }       {FB}|
^                  *                   *                 ^
|                                                        |
v                  *                   *                 v
|{FB}       { Bench Seat }      { Bench Seat }       {FB}|

Here "FB" stands for a flip-up bench. One of them would be omitted if this was a conductor car, in the usual way.

Another nice thing they have done is to eliminate many of the metal poles that used to run down the center of the long axis of the car. They were originally meant to provide things to hold on to during acceleration, etc., so you don't spill your Starbucks sweet skinny goats milk double latte on they guy next to you who is trying to read the Wall Street Journal as the train lurches out of Grand Central. This functionality is replaced by a bar that runs along the ceiling, plus poles that run ceiling to floor (marked with * above) at the center of the cool blue benches. The pole bends into the center of the car and back again, so there's more pole to grab and it reaches people in the center. Near the doors there is an array of slanted metal bars that bookend each of the benches, so people riding near the doors have lots to hold on to, and don't have to scramble for something to hold. More good design.

The Route Guide and other Niceties

By far the most useful addition is the simplified route guide. At about head height above the bench seats there is a stretched out version of the route left to right, with stops clearly labelled and transfer points arranged top-to-bottom below them. The stops that remain light up so there is a visual metaphor for where you are, and how much of the route is left. As you are pulling into the station, the current stop blinks.

Additionally, up top by the near and far doors are crisp LCD displays that flash information: the current time, the next stop, etc. So even if the route map is far away you still can look up from anywhere in the car and know where you are and where you are going.

The Ride

I couldn't tell if the car itself was different or it was just an old car refitted with a new interior and some outside mods, but I sure could tell the difference in the ride. You no longer lurch ker-CHUNK out of the station as the train starts to move; there's a gentle hum and you sort of glide. The ride is much smoother, even on the Lexington (6) line which has a couple of nasty bends to it, especially around 34th Street.

Voice Queues

The public address system on many of the older trains seems only marginally better than two cans and a string. Subway riders are used to having the subway stop between stations without explanation, waiting for what seems like forever and then hearing: "This is static static static major service outage static static static FEEDBACK (ow!) moving in (something unintelligible that sounded like 'pastrami')" over the P.A. This is no more.

Station stop announcements are recorded and automatic: 'The next station is....Bleecker Street'. A nice male voice (sorry, not James Earl Jones) announces the stops as you arrive and the next one as you leave, and a female voice announes possible transfers.

Overall, I left the cars hugely enthusiastic about their design. Who knows whether this is the final cut, or how long before riders start to see new cars in any number if it is. But they're cool. And they're coming. So get psyched.

Update: I found a couple of pictures (thanks to perdedor /msg-ing the site to me, which btw is an excellent resource for all things NYC Subway). Go to:

A nice view showing almost everything I talked about, including the route guide on the upper right. A longer view is:

So I was slightly incorrect about the center poles: one remains by each of the far doors, but the annoying ones in the center of the seat area are removed.