The theory behind the station agents

By · Published in 2009

Token Booth

While this station booth at the new South Ferry terminal will open soon, the MTA may shutter others throughout the system. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

As the riding public gears up to protest the impending service cuts and fare hikes, the station agent elimination plan is starting to become a major community issue. The fight, however, may be relying a bit more on psychology and less on reality.

Last week in The Brooklyn Paper, Sarah Portlock and Zeke Faux examine the reaction to the plan in Brooklyn. They write:

Buried deep in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s proposed budget cuts are suggestions to close part-time and several full-time service booths — a move that could save the $10.8-billion agency thousands of dollars, but could also compromise safety of its passengers by depriving riders of another set of eyes and ears late at night.

“I don’t like [the idea] at all — I get very uncomfortable if no one’s at the post late at night,” said Park Slope resident Jerry Robinson, who was waiting at the Union Street M- and R-train station, whose full-time southbound booth would be closed entirely. “There’s not enough cops on the subway already, so for the MTA to take away the people in the booths in unacceptable.”

The cash-strapped transit agency has said it has a $1.4-billion budget gap and has proposed eliminating 205 booths — 33 of which are in Brooklyn — from 144 stations citywide. “[These proposed cuts are] part of the service reductions in the [MTA] budget,” said agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz, noting that the measures will be enacted in the spring barring a fiscal or political miracle.“These are measures that we hope not to implement,” he added.

In The Brooklyn Paper story, the angle is clear. Cutting these positions will seriously impact passenger safety. “It would make me feel unsafe,” Alex Pappas said to Portlock and Faux. “I can’t afford to not ride the trains — but I might invest in a can of Mace.”

While the reporters grant that every station will have at least one station agent, they may, for example, be in the northbound side of Union St. on the 4th Ave. line with no connection across the tracks. The real question, though, is whether or not this elimination would actually impact passenger safety.

In a way, the answer is yes. By placing employees in the stations, the MTA can create the illusion of authority. Perhaps a would-be mugger would be deterred by the presence of a station agent. Perhaps a sexual assault could be averted before it starts.

But in another way, the answer is no. MTA employees generally do not step out of the booth to assist passengers in need because they can’t. They’re unarmed and unprepared to face would-be criminals. It’s not, in other words, part of the job. The riders in Portluck and Faux’s article may not know that or they may choose to feel safer by the presence of someone in a uniform.

This plan will mostly impact MTA employees, and those folks are already protesting. Psychology aside though, beyond the deterrence argument, riders won’t actually be safer with or without station agents.

32 Responses to “The theory behind the station agents”

  1. rhywun says:

    Don’t token booth clerks have a telephone in there? If they can call the cops, I’d say the deterrence is much more than psychological.

  2. John says:

    “In a way, the answer is yes. By placing employees in the stations, the MTA can create the illusion of authority. Perhaps a would-be mugger would be deterred by the presence of a station agent. Perhaps a sexual assault could be averted before it starts.”

    The deterence is Psychological, but it’s really strong. Psychology is really everything with crime. It’s been well-established that having broken windows in a neighborhood makes crime go up. Windows don’t fight crime, but they create the illusion of order.

  3. Chris says:

    The booth clerks do nothing anyway. Does no one remember this story?:



    • Mr. Eric says:

      You’re a real idiot Chris!!! That person in the token booth has a family to take of. If they would have left the booth they would have been fired because this is a HUGE violation of the rules with immediate termination as the punishment.

      If he would have left the booth and say been assaulted the TA would have fired them and then refused to pay any medical bills saying that they brought it on themselves by not following the rules.

      The person did what they are taught to do which is use the phone to notify the proper authorities.

      Just like that bus driver that was recently killed on duty, it’s not in the news but the TA is trying to make sure his family gets nohting by saying he left the bus which is a rule violation.

      • Chris says:

        Let me rephrase: The booth clerks do nothing to deter crime. If the booth was staffed with a MTA police officer that might be a different story.

        Moreover, the booth clerks do not provide any other useful function, except to tourists at a select number of stations. They have outlived their usefulness and have been largely replaced by the metrocard vending machines.


  4. rhywun says:


    I’d be real hesitant before blaming a clerk for “not doing anything”. They are not law officers, and there is no “Good Samaritan” law requiring bystanders to risk themselves to aid others.

    • Chris says:

      I’m not saying they should be forced to do anything unless they get the proper training like the MTA police do. What I’m saying is that the clerks provide no function, and have been basically replaced by the metrocard vending machine. They do not even provide crime deterrence.


      • Rhywun says:

        So if a person on staff, with a phone, provides “no” deterrence (and one isolated incident is not a convincing argument), then what do you suggest? Do you think an empty station is safer? Or do you just throw your arms up in the air and give up?

        • Chris says:

          I’d prefer that there be a MTA police officer present in each station, someone that would split their time between being in the booth and walking the platform and passages. Also, I would like there to be working payphones in the station to allow people to call 911 in an emergency.


        • rhywun says:

          Oh, now you’re just being too reasonable. I doubt it would happen except under the ruse of snooping through everyone’s bags.

  5. Marc Shepherd says:

    At my regular commuting station near work (Canal St., 8th Av. Line), the booth clerk is always asleep when I arrive at around 7:15. A handwritten sign taped to the window says, “Open for info only at 7:45.” Another handwritten sign says, “We have no money. We do not sell MetroCards.” Occasionally he’s reading the paper, but the sign still says he won’t take your questions till 7:45. Of course, since it’s a commuter station no one ever has any questions. I have never seen anyone at that window.

    • Grrrumpy Miner says:

      Clerks like the one you use as an example make the rest of us station agents look bad.If you feel that its an ongoing problem,than call it in.They do have signs with the superintendents number on the station.Oh and BTW,the pick changes on Sunday and hopefully he/she will not be there.

  6. Jason says:

    I’m with Chris on this one, MTA booth clerks are an obsolete mechanism. Get rid of all of them, spare perhaps a handful of the proven best and place them at the top tourist stations where they would actually be giving out useful information…..and not in the booth! Make them walk around and force them to interact.

    With the money saved from removing the rest of the booth clerks, either boost up MTA Police ranks and place them (definately one, maybe two at high risk stations) all throughout the system. I think that the cost would be comparable with what they spend now on staffing, security would definitely increase, and at ”terrorist target” stations, they wouldnt be necessary at all since NYPD is already covering those places (TS, SF, Wall Street, Penn, GCT, etc)

    Booth clerks were necessary when the subway, and indeed the railroad systems were invented. If you look at photos of the original system (todays 4,5,6,Shuttle, 1,2,3 lines) you would see very open, civilized stations with clerks selling tickets and then chopping them up at a checkpoint. This hasnt happened since tokens came out, and now with Metrocard machines in place that are multi-lingual and easily usable, the booth clerks are to go the way of the ticket, token, clean stations, etc.

  7. Mr. Eric says:

    When have any of you ever seen a MTA police officer in the subways? I never have and i’m in the system for many hours a week.

    NYPD transit department covers the subways and there almost invisible because they spend most of there time sleeping and hiding in TA crew rooms, towers, and unused relay rooms since they get keys to everything.

    • rhywun says:

      Lots of times. Mainly pawing through people’s bags, but sometimes on the trains. Never at night, though.

      • Mr. Eric says:

        I work in the subways so I’m pretty sure I spend more time in the system than you. I have never seen an MTA police officer in the subway. Doing bag checks was NYPD.

        • rhywun says:

          The transit police were merged into the NYPD over a decade ago.

        • Mr. Eric says:

          Yes there is a transit division of the NYPD but there is also an MTA police force that people on here keep mentioning. It is a completely separate agency and I have never seen any of them in the subways.

          You do see them in places like penn station for the LIRR though.

        • rhywun says:

          Maybe the other poster wasn’t aware of the complicated bureaucracy surrounding all the different police organizations in the tri-state area. I sure wasn’t – I had to look it up.

          But the point I think the other poster and I agree on is that cops should be assigned to stations at night.

  8. Grrrumpy Miner says:

    Chris said “Moreover, the booth clerks do not provide any other useful function, except to tourists at a select number of stations.” Jason said “I’m with Chris on this one, MTA booth clerks are an obsolete mechanism. Get rid of all of them, spare perhaps a handful of the proven best and place them at the top tourist stations where they would actually be giving out useful information…..and not in the booth! Make them walk around and force them to interact.” Chris and Jason.You two must be very aware of how to travel and know EVERY shortcut on how to go from point A to point B and never have a problem on your train service.Gee it must be great to be perfect.However,there are 7,999,998 other people in this naked city who need directions.Or maybe the occasional Senior Citizen/Disabled person who ride as well and need to be serviced.Moreover,there are sometimes train disruptions like Brakes in Emergency or someone requiring medical on the train in front of you.Or maybe you lose $20. in the MVM’s and are not sure how to get the money back.Just yesterday,someone came to my window telling me there was a suspicious package on the train,and YES we called it in.I even had a person jump on the tracks on New Years Eve on my station and we notified the Police and hopefully saved a life.Using all those examples if ANY of those circumstances should happen to you,try going to the station MVM’s and know what your response will be “Metrocard Sold Here” or “If you see something,say something” Also if no S/A’s were at any of those situations,people would be lost,S/C and Dis people would have difficulties or not get their $1 rides,OH and that one guy on the tracks would have been hit by the train and died.Bottom line,we are more important to the system than you think.

    • rhywun says:

      However, there are 7,999,998 other people in this naked city who need directions.

      Give me a better map and I’d never bother you for directions 🙂
      The current map is crap.

      • Alon Levy says:

        No map will help you if you’re trying to haul luggage that won’t fit through the turnstile. The way I see it, the best the MTA can do while eliminating booths is:

        1. Keeping a booth in the direction of Penn Station and JFK, so that the employee can open an emergency gate if necessary.

        2. Keeping an emergency gate in every direction that may be opened from the inside. This may require cameras, or good surveillance of the gate from the booth on the other side, in order to prevent people from opening the gate for their friends.

        Also, the current map is better than most of the alternatives, which make Central Park look like a square and Broadway like a zigzag. Making it more geographically accurate will help, but it will require a bigger paper or else Lower Manhattan will look too cramped like this.

    • Jason says:

      numbnuts, never said i was perfect. the subway is commonsense, even for young children, thats why you see them going to school by themselves. You and your ilk only further the notion that society is getting dumber and need authority to hold their hand every step of the way. congrats on doing your job, but trust me, most natives here can get by just fine if you didnt exist; we do it everyday.

  9. Grrrumpy Miner says:

    whywun…..don’t blame us for the maps,blame the hierarchy upstairs.

  10. Grrrumpy Miner says:

    Wrywun…they DO have maps out there that have better directions….HOWEVER they come at a cost of about 15 dollars.It is made by the Hagstrom company.You can find it in Staples,Target,several gas stations and convenience stores in the greater NYC area.I highly DOUBT you and the other 7,999,998 others don’t want to spend 15 bucks if you can get one that can get you by for free.

  11. Grrrumpy Miner says:

    Forgive my sentence structure for a second.I highly DOUBT you and the other 7,999,998 people would want to spend 15 bucks on a map compared to a map that you can get for free as basic as it is.

  12. Grrrumpy Miner says:

    lol its all good.


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