Home Transit LaborTWU Another dive into the great station agent debate

Another dive into the great station agent debate

by Benjamin Kabak

There once was a token booth. (Photo by flickr user gilly youner)

While heading back to Brooklyn from Midtown last night, I entered the 6th Ave. IND at 42nd St. That entrance on the north side of 42nd St. — underneath the Grace Building one one side and the Bank of America building on the other — is a bit odd. It features a row of turnstiles and no station agent. The booth too has long since been removed, a victim of the MTA’s aggressive cost- and personnel-cutting efforts.

Usually, I see people enter the station without incident, but tonight, as four young kids dressed in the colors and jerseys of the Ireland soccer game went to take the B or D up to Yankee Stadium for the match, at least one of them jumped the turnstile. No one was around to stop them, and it’s possible that even a station agent ensconced in a booth wouldn’t have been much of a deterrent as the offender didn’t take stock of his surroundings. I just smiled to myself.

The station agent debate has laid dormant for a few years. Citing security fears, union officials and transit rider advocates alike protested the MTA’s plans to cut station agents and dismantle token booths. It was a sign that this decision was a permanent one, unlikely to be reversed. Each station still had an agent on duty at all times, but that often meant an agent was located across four tracks or an avenue with no view down the platforms. While station agents are offer a passive presence, even the psychological element seemed to be removed.

For its part, even as concerns over system safety in an age of terrorism remain, the MTA has long maintained that the system has never been safer. During my talk at the Transit Museum last week, Joseph Nugent, the Interagency Liaison between the NYPD and NYCT, claimed that station entrances without agents are generally safer. Nugent said that customer diligence and heightened awareness has led to this result, but it’s possible that, without station agents around, fewer subway riders are reporting potential crimes. Jammed Metrocard readers and turnstile jumpers remain a low-level concern, but NYPD enforcement has stemmed that tide.

Now though as the TWU languishes without a contract, the debate is back. With an assist from Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, the TWU is again demanding more station agents. “Machines can’t do the job that we do. They’re constantly out of service,” TWU Local 100 Member Derick Echevarria said to a New York 1 reporter last week. Of course, what job the station agents do varies drastically from person to person with some apathetic and some very helpful.

As part of the protest, the TWU has presented a petition to the MTA, but the agency says it has no plans to restore any agents or booths. In the indeterminate future, MTA customers will be able to use Help Point intercoms for immediate access to a centralized information or emergency alert system, and underground cell service will assuage some safety concerns as well. I’ve tended to err on the side of fewer station agents as I’ve often found those in the booths less than friendly and not particularly helpful, but I understand why people may want more of them around.

What’s really going on here seems to involve the TWU’s agitating for attention. The union’s contract situation remains unresolved, and until Tom Prendergast is confirmed as the MTA’s CEO and Chairman, nothing will happen. It’s been 17 months since the last contract expired, and the union is looking for any sort of political support or traction. The station agents won’t come back, and the TWU knows it. But it’s an easy way to get some press coverage amidst slow negotiations.

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Paddy Mullen June 12, 2013 - 7:30 am

Small note, I think you forgot a word in this sentence:
While station agents are offer a passive presence, even the psychological element seemed to be removed.

Great blog, I love reading your stuff.

Andrew June 12, 2013 - 7:33 am

If the TWU wants to make the claim that station agents should be restored in the name of safety, then the TWU needs to establish that station agents improve safety.

It’s certainly not what I’ve seen anecdotally, and it’s apparently not what Nugent believes either. Station agents are not cops – they don’t arrest criminals and they generally don’t even leave the booth. They can call the cops if they are aware of a crime, but (a) that isn’t very helpful for a crime that lasts a few seconds, like jumping a turnstile, (b) they can’t call the cops for a crime they’re not aware of, and regardless of a station’s layout, most of it is out of sight of a station agent, and (c) any other subway rider can also call the cops (from a payphone, or from a cellphone at an outdoor station or at one of the underground stations outfitted with cellphone service).

I might give the TWU a bit of credit if they didn’t try to obscure the facts. Contrary to Echevarria’s claims, machines are doing the job that station agents used to do. Prior to 2000 or so, everybody bought their fare media (MetroCards or tokens) from the agents. Now, even at entrances with agents, most riders buy their fares from the machines. (No, the machines aren’t perfect, but they’re also not rude.) And as you point out, every station has a full-time agent (except on the Dyre branch, whose stations have never had agent coverage at night).

Remember, any dollar spent on a station agent is a dollar not spent on a train operator or bus operator. I’d rather have my money go to subway or bus service (or, frankly, to small raises for NYCT’s nonunionized workforce, now up to five years and counting without a raise).

Bolwerk June 12, 2013 - 1:46 pm

The fundamental question is, how much safety do you really need? We quite literally keep adding “safety” features, all the while with crime dropping. Good Guys With Guns aren’t can’t possibly have the coverage necessary to take crime down to zero, and those Good Guys aren’t always good guys anyway.

The TWU is exploiting the hangover of the crime waves of the Nixon-Reagan/Koch eras to keep alive labor practices that should have been set aside decades ago.

Andrew June 12, 2013 - 9:22 pm

I question whether the presence of an agent has any impact on safety at all. If not, then your question becomes irrelevant.

Nathanael June 17, 2013 - 1:51 pm

London, last I checked (which was a while back), has a number of uniformed agents who walk around the station (rather than being ensconced in a booth).

(I believe they have chairs for when they get tired.)

Anyway, that seems to be much more helpful both in terms of providing information and as a security “deterrent” than an agent who is not allowed to leave the booth.

(London has agents in ticket booths too, of course, but mainly at extremely busy stations where there are lots of people buying complicated fare products.)

Paddy Mullen June 12, 2013 - 7:33 am

The station agents don’t seem to provide a lot of value in comparison to their salary/benefit package. I would rather see that money go towards better signage, more cameras, and centralized station managers.

al June 12, 2013 - 2:24 pm

All those cameras need computer video analysis to identify actionable information. The technology that drive human motion tracking on Microsoft Kinect can be used to identify activity like fighting, stabbing, and turnstile jumping.

Nathanael June 17, 2013 - 1:51 pm

Or get confused and misidentify dancing as “fighting”.

D in Bushwick June 12, 2013 - 9:56 am

God forbid a station attendant would wipe that tile with some soap and water.
We’ve all watched these people move at an absolute snail’s pace and can’t really be bothered with doing any actual work.
And to think of the back-breaking work a hotel room maid does for peanuts and no benefits…

John-2 June 12, 2013 - 10:11 am

As long as the city’s crime rate stays low and the visual look of the system doesn’t fall back to the 1970s-80s era, the TWU will have a hard time making their case with the public, thanks to the general image station agents developed over the years of basically being the underground (or elevated) versions of U.S. Postal Service window clerks.

Unless the public is fearful to the point they demand more human eyes in the stations, the agents don’t have much justification for return because riders didn’t see them as very useful in the past.

llqbtt June 12, 2013 - 11:36 am

I use a Transit Check Metro Card and could care less personally. On those few occasions when I’ve forgotten my card, I use a TVM.

However, some of the more complex stations, and some stations that are heavily utilized, and still other stations that have a propensity for wayward souls (tourists mostly) really need to have more agents than they presently do.

As entirely counterproductive as it is, it’s still 1 thing to cross Bushwick Ave for a station agent (& then cross back!) and entirely another to attempt to navigate a confusing underground labyrinth, say at Grand Central to find another.

John Doe June 12, 2013 - 11:55 am

Please! They should fire all the do-nothing station agents. Remember that poor woman who was raped while the pigs sat around. Here’s that article to refresh your memory.


Rob June 12, 2013 - 2:03 pm

I remember when the metrocard turnstiles were installed, we were told they were designed to stop jumping/fare evasion. Have they not proved to be effective at that?

Andrew June 12, 2013 - 9:23 pm

They were designed to make it difficult, not to make it physically impossible.

Nathanael June 17, 2013 - 1:53 pm

It is never worth it to stop 100% of fare evasion. At some point it costs a lot more to prevent fare evasion than you would have gotten from the fares. And most of the people who evade the fares are pretty poor.

It’s worth it to deter fare evasion to the point where most people pay the fare, of course — if you make it too easy to evade the fare, then eventually everyone does it because you feel like a sucker if you pay the fare. But it’s not worth it to try for 100% fare payment.

Preston June 12, 2013 - 3:08 pm

The whole jumping the turnstiles thing to me is funny because how many people would that agent have to stop from doing that to re-coup the money that costs to keep attendants there 24 hours. I think there are better ways to protect from people jumping the turnstiles than hiring 3-4 full times workers to man the booth.

When it comes to safety, I would rather see emergency phones/buttons for calling 911 because truthfully most agents will just lock themselves in the booth and call 911 themselves if something is happening. Look at the recent San Francisco incident. Installing cameras in stations and having security people watching multiple stations for things would be a much safer plan. I’m actually shocked that there aren’t cameras in the stations already for many other reasons.

Demetria June 12, 2013 - 4:56 pm

And what incentive is there for a station agent to poactively pursue/call in turnstile jumping anyway? Not much I’d wager.

Over the last few months I’ve had a few run ins with station agents, the highlight of which happened at 1am at 23rd Station (N,R)on a Friday night a few months ago. After no trains passing by for close to an hour finally an N arrives, just to slow down to a crawl and then speed up again, not stopping. After that I exited the platform and asked the station agent what was up (in fact there were THREE station agents on duty?!) and the one sitting behind the window stared at me blankly and then said “wait for the next one”. When I asked “When is the next one coming?” the response was “use your head”, and then he turned away. Needless to say his sound advice and helfpulness sure justifies the expense of having him and his two colleagues there.

In many other countries that I have visited, there are only station agents at select, busy stations. Why not the same for the subway? LIRR and Metro North already does it.

Nathanael June 17, 2013 - 1:54 pm

That is pretty terrible, isn’t it. The station agents are supposed to be providing information and customer service, but apparently those ones… weren’t.

smartone June 14, 2013 - 11:50 am

My question is .. didn’t insistance of union to have station agent in stations deter some additional entrances to the subway being built?


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