A few months late, Help Point pilot debutsBy
Once upon a time, back in 2005, a shop called Antenna Design built a prototype for an in-system intercom that would provide an immediately recognizable beacon for emergency communications. Termed Help Point, the intercom system 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. For a device that hadn’t yet seen the light of day, it had an impressive pedigree.
Last fall, in an effort to ensure a safer subway system amidst personnel cuts, the MTA announced a Help Point Intercom pilot program. By the end of 2010, two stations would be outfitted with these intercoms in an effort to determine whether or not the design worked and how feasible it would be to bring the blue-light beacons to the system’s remaining 466 stations.
Yesterday, a few months late, the MTA unveiled the pilot. At both 23rd St. and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall along the Lexington Ave. IRT line, these Help Point Intercoms have gone live. With their blue lights, they are evocative of safety features often highlighted on tours of college campuses, and the MTA has high hopes for the design.
“These Help Points will make our subway system safer and easier to use, expanding access to assistance throughout stations in a way that wasn’t possible before,” MTA Chairman & CEO Jay H. Walder said. “This is just another step in our efforts to bring new technology to customers in ways that make using the transit system better every day.”
These intercoms, a far cry from the ones currently in use that are so easy to ignore and hardly ever work, are designed to be “highly visible and easy to use.” Nine of them are in place at 23rd St., and another ten have been put along the platform at the Brooklyn Bridge stop. As part of the pilot, the MTA is also working to determine whether wireless communications or a hard-wired line will better fit their needs.
In terms of functionality, the new ADA-compliant devices have both an emergency call button and a green information button that will connect straphangers with the station agent on duty. As Transportation Nation’s Jim O’Grady notes in covering what he aptly calls new subway emergency thingies, the audio quality will be digital and much improved over the current intercom system. “The older devices,” he writes, “did not have digital audio, which sometimes made it hard to hear and be heard. They also had an indistinct design that made them blend with their surroundings–few riders knew where they were or what to do with them.”
Transit head Thomas Prendergast highlighted these improvements as well. “These units have a fresh new appearance that will make the Help Points easy to identify. The sound will be crisp, clear and easy to understand which is an important feature especially in the subway environment,” he said. “As designed, the Help Points are major step beyond the Customer Assistance Intercoms now in our stations.”
As the pilot is beginning, the MTA is vague on future plans. The authority says that “the plan calls for the installation of the Help Points in all of the system’s 468 subway stations.” Early estimates put the per-station cost at $300,000, and the MTA would have to purchase 5000 intercoms to place one every 150 feet on station platforms. Total installation costs for the entire system then would reach $139,800,000. Maintenance costs would be substantial as well, and the MTA doesn’t exactly have the cash on hand right now. Can the MTA makes us safer without spending the dollars?