John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Its creators probed the MTA’s 660 miles of track with a prototype data logger.
A quintessential New York experience—maybe even more than eating a lox bagel or being ignored by an outer borough-hating taxi—is entering the subway and having your phone reception promptly drop into a black hole.
Yes, this most advanced of cities has extremely sucky train coverage. And while the MTA is somewhere in the middle phase of wiring 279 below-ground stations, there are still places you can’t make a call to save your life.
These coverage deserts and rare oases are the subject of a fascinating new endeavor from Daniel Goddemeyer and Dominikus Baur, who’ve made an iPhone app and MTA-licensed posters illustrating the unequal geography of subway reception. “The Subspotting project captures, maps, and visualizes the available cell phone reception along all 21 lines, 469 stations, and 660 miles of track of the New York City Subway,” they write in a press release. “It is the first project of its kind to capture the cell phone reception in the entire subway system to provide New Yorkers … with information on where to make the next call or send the next text while underground.”
The project got started when Goddemeyer, a researcher and designer at Brooklyn’s Object Form Field Culture, noticed on his uptown commute little areas of connectivity that allowed him to finish emails underground. That led to an extensive poking-around of the train system, in which the Subspotting team used a prototype data logger to detect levels of reception for Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint.
The resulting app shows the quality of reception at stations on your line as different-sized bars. It also pinpoints places with wi-fi and colors blue stretches of track that are above ground. You can now use it (or the $40 posters) to plan where you’ll be able to call work, and roughly how much time you’ll have to tell the boss why another MTA delay is making you late.
In their expeditions, the Subspotting folks found the 7 and J lines had the most coverage along their complete length (at 79 and 75 percent, respectively), while the G—doomed to be abysmal at everything—had the least at 12 percent. Here are some other fun things they discovered:
Lots of spotty signals – The 1 train
Spotty reception most of the way from South Ferry to 125th Street, due to stray signals from above ground.
Communication breakdown – The R train
Be prepared for some radio silence when heading into Brooklyn—you will find almost no reception over there.
Send it while you can – The L train
Make the most of the strong pockets of reception at 8th Ave and 6th Ave—no service again before Wilson Ave when heading east.
Connection with a view – The Q train
Send your messages while crossing the Manhattan Bridge, one of the few well-connected spots on the Q (and, you get a nice view!).