A few months late, Help Point pilot debuts

By · Published in 2011

Created specifically for the subway environment, the Help Point is designed to be an easily recognizable communications tool for customers who need to either report an emergency or ask for travel directions. Photo by Felix Candelaria for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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?

Categories : Subway Security

21 Responses to “A few months late, Help Point pilot debuts”

  1. Joseph says:

    I really want to know what the INFO button is used for. I can see it being more of a distraction than anything.

    • “Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon.”

    • Scott E says:

      Think of the red button as 911, and the green button as 311. You can call to ask “how do I get to Times Square” or some other non-emergency inquiry. Of course, it will only get used when trains get cancelled, and passengers already inside of the turnstile area need to figure out alternates.

    • Kevin says:

      I somehow doubt the station agents will be very helpful when responding to green button Information requests.

      • Scott E says:

        I don’t think it necessarily goes to the agent at that particular station – it could be an agent somewhere else or at a centralized point. Will that lead to shorter lines at the booth in favor of these “call centers”? Will it lead to job cuts? We’ll see.

      • Andrew says:

        If they’re not willing to do their job, they should be fired and replaced with people who are.

  2. Alex C says:

    Are those numbers for real? $500,000 per station? That sounds rather colossally expensive.

    • Typo on my part. According to reports, it’s $300,000 per station which is still fairly expensive. Keep in mind, though, that for non-island platforms, you’d need at least around 20 per station. Does $15,000 per device with wiring costs, etc, sound like too much or too little? I have no idea.

      • Alex C says:

        $15,000 for a plastic or metal enclosure, a light, an intercom and some buttons does sound like a lot. Either way it’s not the devices but the wiring and installation that’s probably taking up the vast majority of the price. Even then that sounds insanely expensive. Honestly I don’t know if it’s worth it. Vandalism, sadly, is alive and well in the subway system and I don’t know if these would survive a year in stations near schools, let alone unattended stations. Throw in the standard MTA lateness and over-budget and this is one investment that just doesn’t seem worth it. If anything I’d confine these to underground stations where cell service isn’t available.

  3. I think they should have webcams so that the customer service people can see what’s going on.

  4. Ray L says:

    These look great and a lot easier to spot than the current ones. Let’s just hope they hold up well.

  5. Donald says:

    Great idea. I’m sure the next time there is a fire, crime, or medical emergency in the station, someone will magically pop out of the intercom and help. Seriously, this cost cutting “safety” device is just for show. Security theater at it’s finest.

    • The current status quo is “no phone access, no working intercom.” I don’t see how this is anything other than upgrade, albeit a potentially costly one.

    • Ray L says:

      Station agents still have to call emergency responders, so you end up waiting for FDNY/NYPD/EMS regardless. It’s not like they can handle a fire, crime, or medical emergency on their own.

      • Andrew says:

        And station agents have never been located every 150 feet along the platform. Station agents can’t see what’s going on in most of the station, and it’s often a considerable walk to reach one when needed.

  6. KPL says:

    How is this any different from the blue lights used throughout college campuses?

    • John says:

      Who said it was any different? It’s the exact same idea as those.

      • KPL says:

        Do standard blue lights cost that much? Couldn’t they have used a COTS product that have already existed? I thought there had to be something special/different about these phones that warranted the price listed above.

  7. Ray says:

    My two cents,

    Seems this project could be merged with the telecom build out. Wire the stations once for wifi/4g and one or two these response terminals for the few without them.

    Create a new underground info/help number 111.

  8. Al D says:

    The blue lights, in person, are highly psychadelic.


  1. […] to which New Yorkers will subject them. Antenna Design New York Inc., the same firm behind the Help Point pilot program, has constructed a stainless steel enclosure with components that are durable and easy to clean and […]

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