GOOD PRESS HAS BEEN HARD to come by for the New York City subway system of late. It's the largest in the world (472 stations) but has made surprisingly few technical improvements to its 1930s infrastructure. Riders can tell, as subway performance is the worst it's been in the last five years. (Check out this chart if you’re still unsure about this fact!)
But not every low-tech feature is outdated. Take, for instance, a crucial gesture that's nonetheless easy to overlook: Conductors' outstretched fingers.
This routine is repeated thousands of times a day. A train pulls into a station and its conductor, positioned in one of the middle cars, opens the window of her cab. Almost imperceptibly, she points her finger skyward.
The gesture is a way to confirm that the station platform is lined up alongside the full length of the train before the conductor opens the doors. (If the train stops anywhere else, it's likely that some passengers would exit directly onto the tracks.)
What most riders can't see is that conductors are pointing at something called the "zebraboard," a black-and-white sign that aligns perfectly with the conductor's window after the train has pulled all the way into the station.
According to Mental Floss, the boards began appearing around WWI, where they were sandwiched between every other car. Conductors, also, were sandwiched between every other car.
The pointing itself originates from Asia. As detailed in an Atlas Obscura story, the technique is called shisa kanko. In Japan, conductors point and vocalize around an elaborate set of triggers, not just when a train pulls into a station.
According to the Japanese equivalent of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, associating a physical and verbal action with a task increases the "consciousness levels" of workers, leading to fewer errors. The MTA mandated pointing for conductors in the late 1990s, after a rash of incidents where passengers fell onto tracks. The new procedure, along with some other changes, seems to have helped: There were 55 such incidents in 1996, with as few as 10 in the following years.
What we love about the gesture—besides the fact that it keeps us safe—is that each conductor has his or her own style when it comes to signaling.
As maddening as an underground commute can be, you have to admire the elaborate, unending choreography of humans and machines of New York City's subway system.
Almost six million passengers ride the rail lines every day, the highest since the 1940s. Other cities might have mastered computerization (London's Tube) or precision timing (Tokyo's Metro). But the conductor pointing at an painted board, seemingly signaling to a higher power every time a train pulls into a station? Only in New York.