Wednesday, May 13, 2009
This Your Stop? Pull the Cord
An older, cheaper standby replaces the yellow strips, and resumes its role on city buses.
Miles, 4, seemed to have no issue working a bell cord on an M5 bus last week. The timing of the pull, however, would be judged by his sitter, Gina Harrison
May 13, 2009
Is This Your Stop? Pull the Cord, Like Old Times
By A. G. SULZBERGER
For most of the history of the public bus, all it took was a single, satisfying yank to bring the 16-ton machine to a halt.
In New York City, however, the plastic-coated wire called a “bell cord” that a rider used to signal a stop was phased out beginning in 1980, replaced with strips of wall-mounted yellow tape for passengers to press when ready to debark.
It got the job done — buses continued stopping upon request — and even if the modest tape-touch seemed inadequate to the task, most New Yorkers had moved on by the time the next M15 rolled around.
The bell cord became another city relic — like Checker cabs and one-dollar hot dogs — remembered affectionately, if not all that often, until the appeal of nostalgia crossed paths with the budget pressures of today.
So Areatha Walker was surprised when she climbed onto a bus recently to discover a yellow cord strung around the cabin, riders tugging at it as their stops neared. “It brought back old memories, it really did,” Ms. Walker, herself a bus driver of 11 years, said during her lunch break. “When I was a kid they had those.”
Without fanfare, New York City Transit has installed the bell cord in all new buses, including 270 already in service in every borough, with an additional 580 hitting the streets over the next year. Eventually, the whole fleet will be outfitted with the cord, said Charles F. Seaton, an agency spokesman.
On an M5 cruising through the Upper West Side one morning last week, passengers reached up occasionally to signal their destinations — “Springy!” one declared after a pull, and “It’s like we’re going backward in time,” said another — a ritual guided as much by common sense as by muscle memory.
While they waited, umbrellas leaning against legs, iPod ear buds dangling, morning papers adorning laps, some reflected on the change, expressing a range of opinions generally set to the tune of indifference.
“I don’t really care,” said Gina Harrison, 44, a baby sitter. “As long as the bus stops when I want it to stop.”
That was not the case for her two squirming wards, Lola and Miles, 2 and 4. “They love it,” Ms. Harrison said. “Kids love to pull cords.”
For the adults, the two methods proved to be somewhat of a Rorschach test for pre-existing biases. Some preferred the tape because it was easier to reach, while others endorsed the cord because it was easier to reach. The tape was accused of being buggy, the cords of being saggy. Each was thought to be irresistible to misuse by teenagers.
Janette Kemp, 53, a former New Yorker in town visiting family, said she was squarely in the tape camp.
“You just push down on it,” she explained. Then she gestured to the cord. “This you have to pull down on.”
“I guess you just get used to certain things,” she said.
The bell cord’s return, much like its disappearance, was essentially an asterisk to two generations of major bus upgrades.
First used on trolleys as far back as the late 19th century and incorporated by their gas-powered competition from the start, the cord system was stripped from New York City buses in the 1980s when the city began switching to wheelchair-accessible buses. No one at the transit agency knows why the buses were instead outfitted with the yellow press tape, said Mr. Seaton, but the last bus with a bell cord was taken out of service in 1992. (Other cities, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles among them, have loyally stood by the bell cord system.)
Some never grew accustomed to the shift. Steven Van Manen, a bus driver for 26 years, described continued confusion, particularly among older riders and foreign visitors, who still reach up to signal their stops. “People still search for the cords,” he said while standing outside the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “To this day, people will come up to me and say, ‘I can’t find the bell.’ ”
Last year when the agency purchased a new line of hybrid Orion VII buses, in a move aimed largely at saving fuel and reducing emissions, it decided to reintroduce the cord system because it was cheaper to install and repair, Mr. Seaton said. The bell cord system costs $293 per bus, compared with $1,056 for the touch tape system (a new bus costs just under $550,000). The new buses will retain the familiar red buttons that also signal the driver.
It will take about a decade to replace the entire fleet.
That will be a welcome moment for Stan Fischler, a public transit historian who never liked the tape, which he says lacks the quality of tactile accomplishment.
“When you pulled the cord, you had a general feel — the cord in your hand, you heard the buzzer — of contacting the driver,” Mr. Fischler said. “You feel like you were doing something.”