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.