Home Subway Security Pondering the late, great token booths

Pondering the late, great token booths

by Benjamin Kabak

Even as they tore down token booths across the city, the MTA erected a new one at South Ferry in 2008. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

For the past few years, the MTA has waged if not a war then an assault on station booths. The once-ubiquitous boxy structures that were the home to token agents and then the jack-of-all/no-trades station booths have been axed along with the employees who used to work in them. Even though the MTA’s finances may some day recover, the station booths have been physically removed from many stations, and only those that remain will be staffed.

When the MTA first announced the decision to axe station employees and their booths, I viewed it as one that would challenge perception rather than impact reality. The tangible impact would come in the arena of fare-jumping as once-reluctant hoppers would climb off the turnstiles with impunity. The overwhelmingly vast majority of people would continue to pay.

The perception of safety though presented a real concern. Although station agents are not authorized to stop crimes and in fact are instructed not to leave their booths, they provide another set of eyes and a lifeline to a telephone that can be used to summon the authorities. Although station agents have made headlines for falling asleep as their posts, if anything, the presence of a station agent can be comforting to someone not so keen on a late-night subway ride, and today, those security blankets are dwindling.

Last week, Pete Donohue took the MTA to task for its whole-scale eliminate of station agents. Instead of Occupy Wall St., an amorphous protest against everything and nothing, New Yorkers, he wrote, should be protesting the MTA’s decision to remove personnel from the subway system. “I always feel safer when I see someone in the box,” he said, “particularly late at night when there are fewer riders around.”

Donohue reimagines the role of the station agent:

Occupy the Booth would protest the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s staff reductions in subway stations and demand more uniformed MTA personnel to help straphangers and tourists. If the job of assisting riders leaves these workers with extra time, have them occasionally pick up a broom and tidy the place, or maybe change a light bulb or shoo away the rats.

The MTA shuttered booths to cut expenses and close budget gaps. The pink-slipped clerks were directed to report to a former public school in Brooklyn that the MTA had taken over for use as a training facility. There, they had to turn in their uniforms, keys and badges. It was a sad parade of civil servants, many of them single mothers, carrying their transit gear in black plastic garbage bags. In the past, when senior executives were shown the door, they received full salary for one year as severance. The clerks got a MetroCard.

The vacant booths remained in place. Police made use of a few: They covered the glass with newspaper on the inside and cut peep holes to spy on swiper scammers at nearby turnstiles, hoping to catch them in the act. I’m not so sure it was terribly effective. It was a swiper who told me about the strategy in a Bronx station when I wondered about the newsprint curtains. The cubicle must have been empty. Two teen-agers with backpacks hopped the turnstile and no police emerged. The booths mostly served as big boxy reminders that you’re paying more for less. Then they started disappearing.

I never shed too many tears over the departure of the station agents. They were useful a few times a day for certain riders unfamiliar with the city and the system, and they’re still nominally in place in at least one booth in every station. Yet, if the MTA and its unions had reconstructed the role of the agent to take ownership of his or her station, to be a face, to take a broom and sweep up now and then, perhaps the authority wouldn’t have been so quick to remove the station booths themselves forever, thus lending an air of permanence to the whole thing.

Of course, the unions would be rightly concerned with employee safety, and with rising assault numbers, those concerns would likely be justified. But instead, the MTA has effectively cut off its station booth nose to spite its face. These booths aren’t coming back any time soon, and no occupation, for better or worse, would have much of an effect on them.

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Bgriff November 30, 2011 - 12:45 am

Some mass transit systems–Berlin, with its honor system fare payment, comes to mind–have no station agents anywhere, whatsoever. There are of course differences in crime rates and other factors that make it an inexact comparison, but Berlin’s U-Bahn is also open 24 hours a day on weekends, and they seem to fare just fine.

Kai B November 30, 2011 - 8:44 am

Many areas of Berlin actually have a pretty high crime rate, especially petty crimes.

In Vienna, my other hometown, which just nailed “world’s most livable city” in the Mercer study (third year in a row), medium and large stations have one supervisor, while small stations are remotely monitored from the nearest larger station. These supervisors aren’t meant to be customer-facing, they’re behind a glass wall with a small little window that can be opened should there be an emergency.

They also yell at you via the PA system should your foot slip one inch over the yellow line (tons of cameras).

Kai B November 30, 2011 - 5:23 pm

Here’s a pic of what this supervisor booth looks like. Certainly not for selling tokens:


Christopher November 30, 2011 - 6:57 am

Honestly station agents are way less of a deal then income inequality, I’m sorry that Mr Pete Donohue doesn’t understand what Occupy was all about. Furthermore as someone who has been assaulted by MTA workers for being a homosexual I can’t say I’m terribly sorry to see them out of the station. How about taking the police away from arresting peaceful protesters and put them to work protecting the people of New York in the Subway system or at the very least hire some actual security guards armed with walkie talkies to patrol the stations.

The station boxes serve absolutely no purpose, often you can’t even hear them through their microphones. We aren’t going to save the MTA, build an efficient system and convince people not to use cars if we maintain silly holdovers from 100 years ago.

Kim November 30, 2011 - 12:12 pm

Sorry Christopher, nobody is buying your “Occupy” propaganda.

Barbara November 30, 2011 - 2:31 pm

Kim, don’t speak for everyone. I didn’t appreciate Donohue’s slap at Occupy Wall St. either.

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 11:48 am

Christopher,is your last name Lee by any chance ( a man who writes derogatory letters to NY Daily News Voice of the People ) ? I don’t know what happened between you and a Station Agent,but obviously we are not all guilty of the same,some of us ARE gay,and some are more professional .Donohue wasn’t against Occupy Wall Street,the MTA employees that got laid off are victims of this economy like many other people being represented at that demonstration. The boothes are not useless,we do provide a service which is greatly unappreciated and taken for granted.If we were allowed to take credit cards then we could compete with the vending machines.

Larry Littlefield November 30, 2011 - 8:45 am

And pension inequality. Increases in pensions in 2000 have led to cutbacks in workers on the job, period. No one told us the price we’d pay when the deals were done — for the most part no one told us about the deals. Its’ actually worse for the police and schools than for the NYC transit system, because they got pension deals on top of pension deals.

Of course the debts are worse at the MTA.

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 11:54 am

We are negotiating a new contract right now with the MTA,they are going after our benefits and wages like any other labor Union has to deal with and fight against.We already lost our good health benefits which were replaced with an inferior one,and now they are tring to make us pay 6K towards it !Why do you think we are spared from all the attacks that are going on against other organized labor ? They also want to get rid of conductors on the trains,do you think conductors are useless ?

Benjamin Kabak December 5, 2011 - 11:56 am

They also want to get rid of conductors on the trains,do you think conductors are useless ?

Yes. Entirely so. You only need one person driving a ten- or eight-car subway.

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 12:31 pm

people need to ask a conductor a question before boarding the train,or getting off,especially when there are changes in routes and lines.if there’s a crime on the train,or the doors don’t operate properly,the conductors can help you.you are very smug to think that other people’s jobs are anymore less valuable than your own,cluelees to what workers do everyday

Benjamin Kabak December 5, 2011 - 12:34 pm

That still doesn’t answer why you need two people driving a train. One person can do what you just said, and calling others here smug and clueless just because they disagree with you isn’t going to win you friends.

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 12:45 pm

I’m not trying to win your friendship,MTA workers are maligned and villainized in the public and the media,the news exagerates the salaries of all organized union labor (teachers,Police,Firemen etc.) by adding the estimated cost of benefits to the amount reported.I do acknowledge that some Agents are not friendly and nice enough,but sometimes it appears that way because of the strict MTA rules we must adhere to and limitations of a flawed system.The train is long with many cars,people need access to conductors all the time to ask if the train is going to their desitnation,there are often changes made to regular routes and lines,or as i previously stated,in the event there is a crime or a disruptive passenger on a car,or the doors malfunction.Two “drivers” (Train Operators) won’t cut it

Benjamin Kabak December 5, 2011 - 12:47 pm

Only in New York do we need two employees to do the job of one. That’s why costs are so high. Look around at all of the systems that manage with just one person on trains. You don’t see lost, clueless people there.

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 1:13 pm

Jesus,the trains are long with many cars that need attention,the passengers need assistance,there is a difference between a Train Operator who drives the trains,and train car conductors.The Operator driving the train can’t pay attention as to whether someone’s purse or baby stroller got caught in the doors,or someone’s being attacked.They can’t tell you if it’s the right train to get on!The public doesn’t understand what is entailed in the working of a complex system,every employee’s duties.The MTA doesn’t care about the passengers or customer service,they just want to increase profit by cutting labor costs,like any company.Just because we are public employees whose salaries are paid IN PART by citizen’s taxes,doesn’t mean we are valuable or should be regarded with such scape goatism low regard.

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 1:15 pm

aren’t valuable

Benjamin Kabak December 5, 2011 - 1:17 pm

I take it you don’t think too highly of automatic train operations or communications-based train control either, right?

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 1:45 pm

right,correct,the MTA just wants robots and machines,not only do i think it’s unsafe and not beneficial for the customers,but what is a society without jobs for people to work in ?

Philip Fischetti August 31, 2012 - 12:37 am

Did you know they tried that in the 60’s when i worked Grand central in a booth.An experimental train ran one station from grand central to times square with no conductor and no motorman.Guess what it slammed into the abutment at times square.Would you have liked to be on it?

Benjamin Kabak August 31, 2012 - 12:50 am

Good thing it’s 50 years later then with the resultant progress in the realm of trains technology, huh?

Kai B November 30, 2011 - 8:51 am

I’m also curious how the police are assigned to stations. Some stations, particularly in the outer boroughs, have a little booth on the platform, often with an officer sitting there all night, while others do not. I never really understood how that is decided.

Scott E November 30, 2011 - 9:32 am

I think those police booths on the platforms are at where the tracks lead to longer under-river tunnels. They are either for security or for quick response to emergencies. They even exist in Manhattan (see Wall St. 2/3, Lexington Ave on the F, Grand Central on the 7), not just in outer-boroughs.

Kai B November 30, 2011 - 5:13 pm

Good point. Even Greenpoint Avenue G has one for the “under-creek” tunnel to Queens.

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 11:57 am

In general,there just aren’t enough police to go around as there should be,they are needed every where, some stations are dangerous,and many have a lot of fare beaters who get away with it.I find that midtown manhattan stations are better maintained than most.You know the police budget gets slashed all the time too

UESider November 30, 2011 - 9:11 am

I’m not sorry to see these guys go, most were unhelpful and discourteous

There is nothing these agents did that couldn’t be done more efficiently with technology: cameras to monitor stations and dispatch police (the booth agents don’t leave their booth, anyway), post a map for tourists (do residents really need to pay full time booth agents to serve as tour guides in the internet age? Besides, I’ve happily answered questions numerous times from tourists/visitors/fellow riders regarding where the trains go or how to get somewhere – why can’t tourists ask a rider?)

Booth agents shouldn’t be a government jobs program funded by straphangers, the jobs should evolve to the business needs of the mta – see Ben’s suggestion that they roam the system cleaning, replacing light bulbs and maybe doing some light maintenance (like putting the phone receiver back in the cradle or sweeping up a bit)

Maybe we can adopt a walmart first and hire pleasant grandparently-types to roam the system as uniformed ambassadors to help people, keep a watchful eye, and maintain some humanity in an inhumanly system…

Philip Fischetti August 30, 2012 - 11:48 pm

I happen to come across this site,and see how people regard token booth clerks.Its a shame reading what some of these arm chair generals have to say in regards to booth clerks,when they know nothing about the job and what was involved.First of all,we had to
take abuse when ever a passenger thought a train should be standing by waiting when he came onto the station,it was our fault.When they had no money they thought it was ok to jump the turnstiles,and when we yelled( to protect ourselves(because if you didn’t and a Transit authority investigator happen to be on your station you were written up.I retired 32 years ago and in those days the booths were wooden structures and were held up routinely.You as a passenger were safer than most clerks were.
In the early 60’s every station and every train had a transit police officer on it from 8pm to 4am in the morning.This stayed
in effect for quite a few years.There were booths open on each end of the station manned by a clerk,and little by little one was closed ,and created problems on the dead ends.Muggings ,rapes,and some deaths.What i witnessed in 20 years in the subway most passenger won’t in a lifetime.People falling on the tracks,pickpockets,muggings and even females being molested in the late nights.I’m glad i did my best and prevented some.The fair was 15 cents a token when i started and eventually went to 60cents when i retired in 1980.Most people in General were decent
and i was decent to them.People blamed us when we went out on strike.We had no choice the union and the transit authority closed us down,we couldn’t have worked if we wanted to.Not to mention it cost us afterwards three days pay for every day of the first strike(12 days.
So please don’t judge every clerk by some,and until you find yourself some late night in chance of being mugged,you would welcome a clerk in a booth.I saved quite a few,even leaving the booth to do so(which was in violation to our rules.I am thankful to the transit authority and the people of NYC for giving me my job,and a pension i’m still receiving for 32 years. No offence to anyone,your transit system is still the best.No, i don’t ride anymore,living upstate, and don’t have a pass to do so.I could have had one for life,but living where i do, had no need for it.
Next time your in Times Square on New years eve think of working a booth there,and be responsible in those days for every token in it. Think what it had to be like for a clerk.
P.F. Retired.

RATS on a TRAIN November 30, 2011 - 10:16 am

How about allowing NY Litter Pigs to throw their greasy food wrappers and sugar drink bottles into these empty booths?
Add a few traps with Rodenticide and we’ll have no track garbage or rats.

Rob November 30, 2011 - 11:18 am

Interesting and only slightly related… Many straphangers, myself included experienced the Metrocard machines on Monday night take money off my Transitchek card without adding money to my Metrocard. Calls to the Transitchek card company indicate that the MTA is claiming a problem related to “Cyber Monday”.

Ed November 30, 2011 - 12:25 pm

I’m also not sorry to see the station agents go. However, I also agree with Ben that it would be useful to have two real station agents, working in shifts, in most stations. Unlike the fired “station agents”, they would be responsible for everything that is happening in the station, including keeping it clean and at least calling the police for help with crimes and emergencies, and would roam through the stations. That would still mean getting rid of the booths.

John-2 November 30, 2011 - 12:43 pm

I think part of the problem is changing the view of what a station agents’ job would be in the 21st Century NYCTA. In New York, the booths and their workers are still somewhat tied to the concept of what a token clerk’s job was for 75 years, and that job naturally kept the worker tied closely to the booth. Any clerk’s job now should be more akin to what the station attendant’s role is for WMATA, where working the booth is part of their job, but they’re not supposed to be tethered to the thing during their entire shift (and to be fair, you can find the same problems with some of the D.C.-are station agents as you’ve found with the booth workers in New York since the advent of portable video cameras).

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 12:06 pm

The reason Clerks are not permitted to leave the booth,is to prevent robbery of the funds inside the booth.We are barely allowed to leave even to use the restroom.People on here keep describing the job of an MTA cleaner,not a Station Agent.The booths are open 24 hours,and we all work normal eight hour shifts.We sell metrocards,provide directions and information,give out maps.We give change which the vending machines don’t,and the machines often break down and sometimes take your money but don’t give you rides.We report emergencies to supervision and the police,and also serve as security guards at night in dangerous areas.It is true that some clerks are not as curtious as others,and we do wish the microphone systems worked better.

Benjamin Kabak December 5, 2011 - 12:08 pm

Which station agents serve as security guards at night? The answer is none of them, and that’s the real problem.

Mimi December 5, 2011 - 12:35 pm

all of the night Agents provide a safer environment just by being there and being able to call for police.we are not superheroes with guns who will intervene in violent crimes.we can’t leave the booth in case there could be a robbery of funds inside the booth.

jj December 4, 2011 - 11:40 am

Token booth clerks in NYC are the least helpful I’ve ever encountered .
In London , Paris , Stockholm and Tokyo , I’ve met friendlier , more helpful clerks each and every time I’ve visited those cities

A December 5, 2011 - 12:33 pm

The reason station agents dont clean is because there’s a job for that called cleaner. Lightbulbs involve the lighting department. Painters, the painting dept, and so on. I’ve never seen so many disgruntled people glad people lost their livelyhood and happy for a system that is in shambles and rapes them at every opportunity.

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