SMART considering banning talking on cellphones aboard trains

On the North Bay commuter trains set to launch by the end of the year, passengers will be able to sip beer or wine, surf the internet using onboard Wi-Fi and bring along small pets, so long as they ride in enclosed carriers.

But talking on cellphones? That will be off-limits under a proposed code of conduct policy being weighed by the Sonoma-?Marin Area Rail Transit Authority. Such a restriction, which requires the approval of the rail agency’s board of directors, may be without precedent among public transit systems anywhere in the United States.

“If it’s an emergency, we understand, but we are trying to make this a very positive and enjoyable experience for riders,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, said about the proposed ban on cellphone talking.

The proposed ban highlights debate over the use of cellphones in public spaces for work or leisure purposes, and the annoyance many feel at being roped into someone else’s conversation.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a SMART director and a proponent of prohibiting cellphone conversations on trains, cited movie theaters and restaurants as other venues where use of a cellphone is “basically infringing on your privacy and your boundaries.”

But David Rabbitt, a Sonoma County supervisor who serves on the boards of both SMART and the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, said he prefers a policy that discourages, but does not ban, cellphone use aboard the trains.

He cited his own situation connecting with his family while en route to meetings. He said for a train passenger to have a cellphone but not be able to use it for talking could prove “frustrating.”

SMART’s proposed code of conduct covers 23 rules for riding the trains. They include passengers occupying only one seat, not putting their feet on another seat, using headphones to listen to music and supervising children. Hoverboards, smoking and weapons are not allowed.

Most of the rules are standard fare for public transit systems. However, the prohibition on making calls on cellphones or talking on the devices stands out because of its potentially precedent-setting nature.

A spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association could not name a public transit system that enforces such a policy. A review of a dozen such systems in the Bay Area and around the country found that each asks passengers to limit cellphone conversations or to keep the volume low. None impose an outright ban on talking, however.

“I think we would definitely get some pushback from our riders,” said Andrew Busch, a spokesman for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which includes the city of Philadelphia. “It probably also wouldn’t be practical.”

Commercial airlines, which limit cellphone conversations to prior to takeoff and after landing under federal guidelines, may be the closest example of what SMART’s staff is proposing.

Bay Area Rapid Transit encourages passengers to set cellphones on vibrate and to keep voices low while talking. Caltrain asks passengers to limit cellphone use and refrain from loud conversations.

The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, which operates buses and ferries, asks passengers to keep cellphone conversations to a minimum. There also are designated places aboard ferries where cellphone conversations are prohibited.

“Communication is such a vital part of our lives day to day and there are situations in which people may be sitting in their commute for quite a long time. It could be very difficult or a hardship to not access their phone when they need it,” said Priya Clemens, a spokeswoman for the bridge district.

She said the district receives few complaints about cellphone use.

Those transit agencies have daily riderships that dwarf what is anticipated for SMART, which means more onboard use of cellphones.

BART, for instance, had an average weekday ridership of more than 430,000 last fiscal year. SMART is projecting a daily weekday ridership of about 3,000.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which operates a commuter rail line serving an average 130,000 passengers weekdays, has a designated “quiet car” during peak morning and evening commute hours, in which passengers are asked to refrain from talking on cellphones or at a minimum, to keep conversations at a low volume.

“It’s like the library of the rail car,” Busch, the agency’s spokesman, said.

Amtrak offers quiet cars on high-volume routes.

On Sprinter, a rail system that started operating on a 22-mile route across northern San Diego County in 2008 and serves an average 8,300 riders weekdays, passengers are asked to keep cellphone calls “brief and quiet,” according to rules posted online.

Advocates of the North Bay rail line caution against comparisons with larger, more urbanized public transit systems. They say SMART trains, which will operate initially along a 43-mile route from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael, will offer passengers a more refined ride, with onboard amenities that include food and beverage service, plug-ins for wireless devices and laptops and space to ferry bikes.

“We are not an old green bus,” SMART Director and Windsor Town Councilwoman Deb Fudge said at a June 1 meeting about the train’s fares.

Reached Wednesday, Fudge initially said that she supports a ban on cellphone conversations aboard the trains. But she reversed herself later in the conversation after being told that such a stance may be unprecedented.

“If we’re the only transit system doing this, then I would reconsider it and spend more time thinking about that,” she said.

Both Fudge and Zane made the case that if SMART passengers really have a need to communicate with someone outside the train, they can text or email that person.

Jake Mackenzie, Rohnert Park’s vice -mayor who serves on the SMART board and the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said his experience while riding public transit is that passengers do a good job self-policing cellphone use.

But Mackenzie was noncommittal when asked what he thinks the rules for SMART should be.

“Leaning towards a strenuous policy, FYI!!!” Mackenzie wrote in an email.

The cellphone prohibition did not generate any discussion among SMART’s 12-member board of directors May 4 when they reviewed a draft version of the code of conduct policy. No date has been scheduled for the board to revisit and possibly vote on the rules.

Jeanne Belding, a rail agency spokeswoman, this week described the code of conduct as a “work in progress.”

“As with all of our rules, we intend to be reasonable in terms of enforcement,” she said. “Our goal is to provide all of our passengers with a positive experience.”

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