A new intercom system, five years in the makingBy
Earlier this summer, the city’s two free daily newspapers — Metro and amNew York — reported on a new initiative by New York City Transit that would bring high-tech intercoms into the subway system. Billed as a way to improve passenger safety while lending the subways the aura of security found on a college campus, the new Help Point intercom system received its formal unveiling yesterday. While Transit officials promoted it as a brand-new high-tech solution the long-standing problem of unobservable subway stations, it is actually a design five years in the making.
As anyone who has been on a tour of a college campus knows, these blue-light intercoms are exceedingly simple. One button — the red one — will connect passengers to emergency services while the green button will provide a direct line to a 24-hour information hotline. These intercoms are, said the MTA, “reliable, highly visible and easy-to-use.” The emergency calls will be routed to the authority’s Rail Control Center while information inquiries will be fieled by Travel Information personnel or station booth workers.
“We have designed the HPI to be a major step beyond the Customer Assistance Intercoms that passengers may see in stations now,” Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said. “Make no mistake, this device represents impressive 21st century technology and it demonstrates our ability to incorporate it into a system that is more than 100 years old.”
During the presentation to the board on Monday morning, Transit officials stressed the so-called Help Point Intercom system’s unique appearance. These six-foot-tall metal poles feature a blue light on top and will placed on station platforms and mezzanines. The units can be mounted vertically on station walls as the rendering above shows or placed against a platform column as a free-standing device. They will be equipped with loop technology for the hearing impaired and will be “camera capable.”
As with every new technology, the MTA will introduce these intercoms via a pilot program later this year. The futuristic-looking devices will be installed at 23rd St. and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall along the East Side IRT routes, and while the authority doesn’t know yet how much a system-wide installation would cost, NY1’s John Mancini says the pilot, which will place intercoms every 150 feet, is being funded with $10 million from the capital campaign. The pilot, says The Daily News, will officially launch before the end of 2010.
Now, ostensibly, these new intercoms are designed to make up for the decrease in station agents but also to supplement the existing agents’ ability to monitor their stations. Since the station agents cannot leave their booths, their visibility is limited to the fare control areas and any part of the platform in front of them. At many stations, nearly none of the platform then is visible, and riders are left without recourse in half-empty stations. These Help Point Intercoms are designed to alleviate those concerns, and it’s a project that’s been on the drawing board since the early part of the 2000s.
In fact, these Help Point Intercoms were at point an item of pride for designers and Transit officials. In 2005, Transit first contacted Antenna Designs to develop a Help Point intercom prototype, and the new version is materially similar to the first design. As Antenna Designs said then:
The Help Point Intercom (HPI) is a customer information and emergency intercom system for the New York City Subway stations. In case of an emergency, a customer can directly contact an agent at the emergency dispatch center twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Further, customers can talk to a live customer service agent for real-time transit related information.To further enhance security and discourage tampering, each HPI is equipped with a built-in video camera.
The HPI is a beacon in the station environment, making it easy to spot and instantly recognizable, not only in an emergency, but at any time when information is needed. With its careful mix of easy visibility and non-alarming appearance, it sends the right message about its dual function. Partly designed as an ambient light fixture, the HPI’s calming blue light provides a sense of safety and security during everyday activities, symbolizing the human presence that is always just a touch of a button away. Its clear identity avoids confusion with any other station or platform equipment (such as train related signals.)
The HPI has a modular design which allows it to be configured as a wall mounted, column-mounted or freestanding device. A simple interface makes it easy-to-use. When activated, buttons illuminate to indicate connection, and there is sound feedback. The HPI is ADA compliant and features high contrast, large type labels with Braille. Gesture, proportion and material finish make it an elegant piece of public equipment, yet it is durable, vandal resistant and easy to maintain.
This similar-sounding device won a Bronze medal at the 2006 IDEA Awards and has been a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection since 2006. It was also included in an exhibit at MoMA in 2005 entitled SAFE: Design Takes on Risk.
So as we fast-forward to 2010, the MTA has the need, the will and the money to realize a design that garnered praise five years ago. The current MTA intercoms are seemingly broken more often than not, and with fewer station agents in the system, ensuring customer safety has become a paramount concern for Transit officials. As long as the new technology can work seamlessly, straphangers should be safe. “These HPIs,” MTA Chairman and CEO Jay Walder said, “are another example of how the MTA is using technology to fundamentally change the way that our customers experience the transit system each day.”
After the jump, a picture of the prototype Transit officials unveiled at MTAHQ on Monday morning.