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.