Retrotech: I want my vinyl back, too


Douglas Rushkoff is a guest blogger.

The New York Times reports that MTA city buses are losing the yellow rubber electronic strip in favor of the good ol' pull string connected to a bell. The electronic strip technology costs more to make and to maintain.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the cord-pull system, it's a welcome return of a technology with more depth, character and dependability than the rubber strip. Perhaps the best thing about the pull wire is that you can really yank on it when you're mad or frustrated - as if to ring the bell louder - even though, for the driver, the bell has the same sound. So you get to express frustration in a fully gestural way, without actually annoying anyone, or spreading the anxiety any further.

The New York Times


  1. What are the strings made of?

    I get the feeling that if you tried this in the UK, those strings would be cut in no time.

    Hope this works though – nice and tactile.

  2. Yay for return of more physical interfaces! I agree that the string can be broken, but the fix is easy and cheap: more string!

    However, I disagree with “you get to express frustration in a fully gestural way, without actually annoying anyone, or spreading the anxiety any further.”.
    I may be too empathetic, but watching someone expressing frustration in public stresses me. Anyhow, how is the string better on this aspect than the previous system (which I’ve never witnessed, btw)?

  3. They’ve always used the strong in Toronto. I think it’s some sort of metal-centre string, so it’s pretty hard to cut through without a great deal of effort. I’ve never seen one cut. They often don’t work. It alerts the driver but there’s no bell sound. You just stand by the door operating on faith that the driver will stop. In the crappy Toronto system, that’s a lot of faith.

  4. We have these strings in Ottawa, Canada. I didn’t even know there was an alternative!

    They work great, and I haven’t seen a broken one in years.

  5. Finally, something Rushkoff and I can agree on. The cords were better. I hope they bring back the real electromagnetic bell and striker too.

  6. When anyone going frusted just pull the strip…wow, it is really a great work. I think, we should have this facility also in other city.

  7. Ah, yes. Low tech stuff that works. Gotta love it. Like hand-operated window cranks on automobiles. Pity you have to buy the stripped-down base model to get them, and then only on compact cars and smaller. The silver lining is that your new car ends up much cheaper, around $15K in our case.

    Incidentally, our new Corolla has them, manual door locks, too. Without digressing too much into feature creep, it’s the same size as the 1989 Camry, with more power and a better radio, so it’s not exactly a tin econobox in any case.

    As for car stereos, I used to dismiss the ones that came with the vehicle as underpowered, tinny-sounding, and cheap. That’s changed. Now the factory stereo is more likely to be a well-designed, no-nonsense affair with knobs where knobs are called-for and well laid-out buttons that are limited in number for your convenience, instead of the hodge-podge of gew-gaws and blinkenlights you get with your typical aftermarket system from Best Buy. And why do aftermarket systems (and nearly everything else nowadays) come with a remote, for God’s sake?

    Remotes are something else that needs to be rethought. It used to be that everything you needed to operate your TV was on the set. Nowadays, God help you if you lose the remote that came with it, because you’ll never be able to access about 90% of the control features without it. Same for your DVD player, VCR (if you still have yours), FM receiver, and on and on. You’ll be fortunate to simply be able to turn them on.

    I’ve gone on long enough. Suffice to say that I am in full agreement that not everything new and high-tech constitutes progress.

  8. Wait. There are alternatives to the pull cord? We’ve always had them here in Chicago, I wasn’t aware that there had been any significant advances in the world of bus driver alerts, haha.

  9. #, 13strong:

    What are the strings made of?

    I get the feeling that if you tried this in the UK, those strings would be cut in no time.

    My schoolbus in 1980s Britain used metal cables- similar to a bicycle brake cable, but a little thicker. None of my classmates ever managed to cut one.

    Buses here did use rubber strip switches for a while (I don’t think they were electronic, though) but they all seem to use push buttons now.

  10. To be honest, on the buses I use in the UK, the button bells work fine. Don’t see any need for retrofitting them with string.

  11. Another poster from Ottawa here. The “strings” are wire cable with a rubber/silicone/somethingorother sheath. Tough as nails, easy on the hands.

    We never had the rubber strip system that folks are referring to, but many of our busses have big square push-buttons around the easy-accessibility seating area so a pregnant mother juggling packages doesn’t have to twist behind herself to yank the string (or a senior citizen, or someone trying to manage a backpack and crutches, or whatever).

    They also stick buttons UNDER the accessability seats because they flip up so you can fit a couple of wheelchairs on the bus too – once the seats are folded up, the buttons come into view and are at a convenient height for someone in an electric wheelchair who presumably has very limited mobility. They’re at an OK height for folks in manual drive chairs too, but not quite so good.

  12. I live in Toronto and we have these strings too. I actually find it nice because its a fresh alternative to pressing buttons all day (microwave buttons, tv buttons, toothbrush buttons, keyboard buttons, cell phone buttons, elevator buttons….). Plus, with the streetcars downtown (Torontonians don’t have buses downtown, just streetcars), it kind of fits in with the whole ‘old quaint’ feeling.

  13. @Freshacconci, yeah, that’s why they have the light-up sign. That one, as far as I’ve seen in the six years I’ve been commuting, doesn’t break down that easily and there’s two in the articulated streetcars. So if you don’t hear the bell, you can look up and see if the sign’s lit. Then you don’t have to scream and stomp while everyone looks at you like you’re crazy.

  14. I was definitely confused at the lack of a pull string on the nyc buses when I visited, and the strips seemed harder to access.

    Now if only those buses had some bike racks like every other major city in the country, they would be golden.

  15. I’m torn. I see a fair number of elderly passengers on my bus routes. On one hand, the strips can be tough for older passengers (or generally weak fingers) to press. On the other hand, the strips are located at seat height – those cords can be hard to reach when seated, especially if your range of motion is limited.

    In any case, I prefer the push-buttons on the vertical rails. Easier to reach, easier to push, and (like the strings) a physical sense that you have activated the ‘bell’ (which the strips lack). Even when the ‘bell’ is broken, a physical sensation that you’ve rung it can lead you to yell ‘Next stop!’ before you pass it.

    (For the record – I’m in Boston. Most buses have the strips, newer buses have the buttons, and the ancient electric buses in the suburbs have pull strips.)

  16. Here in Pittsburgh, the buses all have the pull-cords, but some have the push strips under the seats that fold up for wheelchairs.

    The light rail trains (which they simply call the “T”) have the push strips, and they are placed between the windows, with a few conspicuous gaps that make ringing for a stop super inconvenient if you are sitting in those locations on the train. Of course, these are my otherwise favorite places to sit on the trains.

  17. I’ve only ever seen one broken string on Pittsburgh buses, and I’ve spent a fair amount of my life coming to and from dahntahn.

    They are harder to get to, but at least in the Burgh, people always ask other passengers to pull the string for them and everyone happily complies. But Pittsburgh has a pretty friendly bus-culture.

  18. Madison, WI checking in with the ‘always had the cord.’ How they alleviate the cord being too hard to get from a seated position is having secondary cords in a vertical postion between the windows. Just pull those and they pull the main cord.

  19. I’ve seen pull cords the few times I’ve ridden a bus, but not the strips, so I can’t really picture it. Anybody have a picture?

  20. For those of us who are old enough to remember the cord-pull system…

    Since I am also in Ottawa, I felt I was in a time warp for a sec. Nothing like a topic about buses to bring all the Ottawa people out of the woodwork ;). And, yes; The cord works fine. Yet as #11 mentioned, the extra push buttons are great when you are standing in a packed double-lenght bus and there are 8 people between you and the nearest cord. Our buses are pretty awesome.

    (when they’re not on strike…)

  21. I remember when I was a teenager (late ’80s/early ’90s) the buses had the push strips, and while that certainly looked more “advanced,” I think even at the time that they weren’t as good as the pull-cords.

    Since 2007 I’ve been a regular user of Los Angeles’s Metro system, and I’ve only seen pull cords (metal core wrapped in vinyl, I think). We also have the secondary vertical cords and the light-up signs (or a digital display). They mostly work fine, though it can be awkward to bend your arm around. One time I pulled on the cord with just a regular-strength tug, and it suddenly broke. That’s the only time I’ve seen that happen, but yes, it can happen.

  22. Ah, kaosmonkey, the sound of the Philly commute. I never understood the “stand in the doorwell to make the door open, get smacked by the door as it opens” system we have on the trolleys here, but I do like pulling on cords. It makes me feel like the butler is on his way with toast soldiers and juice.

  23. When I saw “I want my vinyl” I thought of those vinyl car seats from the 1970s. Perfect on hot days when the AC doesn’t work.

  24. Ann Arbor, Michigan here. Pull cords on all the university and city buses for at least ten years here. the buses all make the *ding* and have a light up at the front in case you don’t hear it. there are also buttons in some of the key vertical hand rails in case you can’t reach the cord.

  25. NYer here: I pity the drivers, though, since the tape only makes a noise (“ding!”) the first time someone presses it, and it activates a red electronic sign at the front of the bus that says something like “stop requested” whereas the cord buzzes loudly every time it’s pulled, even for the same stop. The tape is also easier to reach while sitting down (or while short).

  26. San Francisco’s MUNI system uses the pull cords to trigger an electronic signal that lights up the “stop requested” sign and an LED readout of the next intersection. Good mix of old and new tech.

  27. Here in Vancouver all the busses have strings. Some also have buttons attached to the poles, so that the people who can’t reach the strings easily can still signal for a stop on their own.

    We also have GPS units on most busses that say what the next stop will be.

  28. They’re generally all buttons here in Auckland, apart from the occasional older bus that uses strings.

  29. For those of us who are old enough to remember the cord-pull system

    Or anyone who takes a privately run bus, thankyouverymuch. The Queens Surface and Command Bus lines in New York City never completely switched to the push strip system, so the pull cords were still kicking around until they replaced the buses less than two years ago.

    (Some of the buses were so old they didn’t even have a back door.)

  30. In Houston most of the busses have pull strings. Whenever I see riders yank hard on them I think to myself, “What a freakin moron, this idiot must have some anger problems”. This story verified my theory.

  31. I like the string, but annoyed at it being described as “retrotech”? I mean, is a pencil “retrotech” to a pen or a mechanical pencil?

    Tech is tech and gadgets are gadgets. Tech is inherently practical and gadgets are basically pieces of tech seductively wrapped in… Something… That makes you think what they do is “better” when all it really is is flash and marketing…

    Sitting on my “retrotech” chair drinking from a “retrotech” mug,

  32. MUNI has these but for some reason they’re designed with a 1-2 second delay so it doesn’t ding right as you pull. This leads a lot of the mindless drones who ride the bus to pull on the string repeatedly and with a lot of force because they don’t realize there’s a delay so that they wear out quicker.

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