Batteries on the Tracks (or Lack Thereof)

City Desk IconLast fall, Watson University instructor Susan Jakovac was looking for a new project to use in her Statistical Analysis studio class, but she kept coming up short. Jakovac wanted something with real world application, that would require her students to do some hard data collection and observation and nothing seemed quite right.

That is, until one afternoon, while standing on the platform at the Osberger Avenue subway stop waiting for the Brown Line, she happened to look down at the tracks in sheer boredom. She realized that something was missing.

“I hadn’t really noticed before- but there used to be so many batteries- mostly double and triple-A– down between the tracks,” she said. “I always figured that it was from people discarding them from their CD players and Walkmen- I looked around and saw about six people right there listening to iPods and the wheels started turning.”

The wheel-turning led to a bit of digging and some luck in the records of the City-Suburban Transit Authority (CSTA). Though it led to cost overruns and a great deal of annoyance on the part of CSTA employees, Damon Flynn, a political appointee who ran the authority from 1997-2000, had a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder and required a complete recording of even the smallest minutiae of CSTA’s operations. Including, of course, exhaustive records of the types of debris found on the tracks in the transit agency’s train and subway stations.

Jakovac: “It was amazing- when they told me they had that, I just started laughing with glee. I was expecting maybe some sort of estimate, but to have monthly counts of batteries- and battery types– up until the introduction of the iPod… it was a perfect benchmark.”

So, Jakovac had her project. This spring’s class began the task of data collection and counting, focusing only upon the Brown Line’s 31 stops, for simplicity’s sake. Students record the number of batteries on the tracks, as well as the number of transit users sporting either rechargeable m3 devices or more traditional battery-based music devices during peak transit times. The data collection will continue through the summer, with the fall session students performing the final analysis and next spring’s class preparing the final report. Jakovac is working with local electronics retailers and manufacturers such as Apple to get data on just how many personal digital media players have been sold in the area.

One question, though- What of the possibility that perhaps CSTA has just done a better job of keeping the track beds clean and free of battery-based debris?

Jakovac laughs. “Oh no, we ruled that out pretty much right away. You do ride the subway, right?”

Yes we do. Question withdrawn.
– R. White

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