UBahn Talk Tyranny

With the ubiquitous presence of handys, some cities protest; the Viennese don’t mind at all

News | Nadine Weber | October 2008

"No man, I told you not to go there! You were supposed to wait for me!" says the rapper-like, clad youth nervously into his tiny cell phone, earning curious stares from the people surrounding him in the subway car. It is usually quieter in the mornings on the U1. As the conversation goes on, he raises his voice several times, attracting looks that shift rapidly from curiosity to annoyance. Finally, he notices the stares and ends his call a little too abruptly for his liking.

People of all ages and occupations use public transportation in Vienna, spending their commuting time reading, talking, finishing homework, solving puzzles or listening to music. But it’s the ones who are talking on their mobile phones who are changing the tone of Viennese life. The spectrum of the citizens who start a call as soon as they enter the subway car is very wide – from the teenager who calls her best friend to gossip about what has happened in the half hour they have been apart, to the businessman with his cell glued to his ear barking orders at some hapless underling.

One cannot help overhearing these conversations, like the one just last week about someone’s break-up....  And after repeated complaints, several European cities are trying to put limitations on the use of cell phones in public transport. Stockholm has tried allowing only text messaging, writes Eric Sylvers in the International Herald Tribune.  Cities in Italy, France, Germany and Britain have tried other approaches, like having phone-free cars, and having the conductor remind people over the loudspeaker system to be considerate of fellow passengers.

In Graz, Austria’s second largest city, a poll helped establish public frustration about the use of cell phones on public transport; of 5,000 people, 46% spoke out in favour of the ban, over 42% against it. With stickers, banners and a reliance on people’s civic pride, the city has tried to limit phone conversations and urged reliance only on text messages to limit the noise.  And there have been improvements, reports mayoral spokesman Thomas Rajakovics.

"People have begun to use the phone in a much more polite way now," Rajakovics says, "and if they do take a call, they tell the person in a very low voice that they are on a tram and can’t talk and will call back."

There has been talk in Vienna about following Graz’s example. However an informal survey conducted for this article on the Kärntnerstrasse in the 1st District suggests much less support here for a ban..

Alexander Weinig, 24, a Viennese student smirked and waved his hand as if to shoo the thought, "It is ridiculous to ban talking on the handy in the subway. It is not louder than people talking to each other, so what, should we ban talking as well? I really don’t think that this will work here in Vienna."

A businessman agreed. "When someone is sitting next to me and talking normally on the phone, it makes it a little harder for me to concentrate on the work I am doing," he admitted. "But it is not fair to ask them to be quiet, as it is the same as two people talking to each other. Either I change my seat, or try to ignore it." He shrugged. Like many others interviewed, he did not really care if mobile phone use were to be limited or not; it seemed to make little difference one way or the other.

Of the 30 passers-by interviewed, the majority in fact were against the limitation, saying they had no problem with people talking on the phone in public transportation, as long as it was civilized. Only eight people were somewhat bothered by the cell phone use, but it was mainly because of an angry tone or the use of profanity. Despite the wide age range, they all addressed the same issues: volume and language

"The Vienna Transit Authority (Wiener Linien) has no plans for a ban like the one in Graz," said  Mr. Stelig, press representative for the Wiener Linien. She added that the complaints about no network coverage in the subways especially, were by far more numerous than some complaints about excessive volume. When asked if the ban could have a chance, she thought not, and not only for reasons of civility. "Setting up the network for mobile coverage in the subways cost so much money and effort, that enabling such a ban is out of the question, and is not even going to be further considered," she said.

To the authorities, therefore, it may seem self-defeating to install a complex network, and then restricting it. Perhaps given the universality of cell phone use, it has become almost inevitable that people use them in public spaces. Some moderate noise may simply be part of the package of living in urban spaces during a technological revolution.

In mid-June, a news bit on the radio reported that a man riding on the 61A bus snapped and attacked a girl speaking on her mobile phone. Driven mad by her talking, he apparently got out of his seat and tried to stab her with a small dagger. The girl’s boyfriend and a friend jumped up to protect her, and the man injured them instead. Observers said the girl was not even speaking very loud so as to have been a real nuisance. The man was arrested, and the boys were taken to the emergency room to tend to their injuries.

The whole incident seemed surreal and barbaric, that someone would go to the extent of stabbing another to make them shut up. "Perhaps," commented one observer, "there needs to be a silent agreement, especially in enclosed public spaces, that tolerance and respect go hand in hand."

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