Two years ago, a Brooklyn graduate student was raped on a platform at the Canal Street subway station. Police caught the assailant quickly, thanks to a token booth clerk who witnessed the attack and called for help.
Because of her gratitude to the quick-thinking clerk, the student, then 25, took the courageous step of speaking publicly about her ordeal just a few months after the attack, at a City Council hearing on a plan to close token booths. Removing clerks, she testified, would be a dangerous mistake.
"If not for the help of the token booth clerk," the student said at the July 2001 hearing, "my perpetrator would still be on the streets today."
Subway crime is down sharply in recent years but many New Yorkers still fear underground violence. That is one reason why there was a sharp outcry when New York City Transit recently announced another plan to shut down a number of token booths, this time an unprecedented number — 177, which is almost a quarter of the total — and replace them with MetroCard vending machines and high entrance/exit turnstiles. As part of the plan, some 450 clerk positions will be eliminated through attrition. In demonstrations and in a series of hearings that ended last week, residents, political leaders and community groups argued that safety and service are being sacrificed for the sake of the bottom line.
"The subways are a service industry and there's a combination of both safety and convenience that a station agent serves that cannot be duplicated by a vending machine," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney with the Straphangers Campaign, a riders' advocacy group that has been working to preserve the booths. The proposed change, he said, "is about saving money, not serving the customers."
But transit officials say the agency's plan makes sense from almost every point of view. Yes, shutting the token booths will save $8 million for the remainder of this year and more than $20 million in 2004. But the plan, they say, could actually help deter crime in the subway while providing riders with better service. By taking clerks out of sealed, bulletproof booths and training them to help customers face-to-face, officials say that transit employees will become more responsive, whether they need to summon help or simply give directions.
What's more, replacing part-time booths with MetroCard vending machines and high entrance/exit turnstiles increases convenience by allowing more entrances to be accessible 24 hours a day.
"What we're doing is just what's done almost everywhere else in the world," Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit, told The New York Times recently.
PAYING MORE FOR LESS SERVICE?
The controversy over token booths has erupted at what is already a contentious time for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit's parent agency. After bitter contract talks that narrowly averted a strike by the Transport Workers Union last fall, the transit agency says it faces a $1 billion deficit and must raise fares to help close it. The bus and subway fare might go up to $2.
In December, several Democratic state senators announced they would try to force the authority to open its books and threatened to establish a state oversight board to audit the MTA's finances every year. The authority, the senators said, has been unable to satisfactorily explain how it went from a surplus of $300 million to a projected deficit next year of $1 billion. Governor George Pataki has called the senators' demand partisan grandstanding.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority released seven options for higher subway and bus fares and conducted ten public hearings in New York City and the suburbs. It calls these options "several examples indicating the range of possibilities" for fare pricing structures. The "possibilities" include raising the average fare paid by riders by 10 percent, 20 percent and 33 percent. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects that a 33 percent fare hike would produce $574 million more in revenue annually while reducing ridership by 110 million. On the other side of the spectrum, the 10 percent fare hikes would raise about $190 million in revenue while reducing ridership by 25 million.
Local public officials have also been quick to condemn both the fare hike and the token booth proposal, saying that people will end up paying more for less service. Several local leaders have seized on planned closings in their neighborhoods to rally constituents and to assert that the transit authority is planning on removing personnel from stations at time of heightened concern about terrorism in the subway system.
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, for one, recently joined members of the Straphangers Campaign in handing out leaflets protesting the closings. He has issued statements castigating the transit authority.
"MetroCard vending machines, which often malfunction, can't call the police or an ambulance or help you with directions," Markowitz said. "We all realize the severity of our fiscal problems, but we should never do anything that will sacrifice the safety of our subway riders."
The current booth closing plan revives an idea floated more than a year ago, even before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that it expects a deficit. The plan ended up being put on hold after a judge ruled that transit officials could not change the hours of booths without first holding hearings and putting the matter to a vote of the MTA board.
The hearings held around the city this month were part of the effort to comply with the court's wishes.
24-HOUR ENTRANCES, EMPTY STATIONS
Although every station would still have at least one 24-hour booth after the proposed closings, critics argue that the plan would diminish safety by forcing passengers who need assistance, especially the elderly and disabled, to venture through empty station corridors or along dark streets in search of an attended entrance. The blind, the elderly, the disabled and people with baby strollers or large packages would be especially affected.
The Utica Avenue station on the Brooklyn IRT (3, 4) line in Crown Heights is a case in point. At this station, New York City Transit wants to close a part-time booth at Schenectady Avenue and Eastern Parkway. By replacing the booth with vending machines and high-entrance/exit turnstiles, an entrance that now closes at 9 p.m. will be accessible around-the-clock.
But it also means that riders looking for help from a token clerk will have to walk 550 feet to Utica Avenue, almost the length of two football fields. Early this month, Brooklyn Democratic Councilmember James Davis brought a crowd to the intersection to protest the closing. Davis, a member of the council's public safety committee, complained that the closure would create both an inconvenience and a hazard.
A TOKEN CHANGE
"Token booths" underground actually predate the subway token by almost half a century. When the first IRT subway line opened, the station clerks, positioned inside ornate oak-and-brass booths, sold tickets that passengers then presented to a guard, who chopped it in half and let them enter the platform.
With the advent of the nickel-in-the-slot turnstile around World War I, the choppers disappeared and the ticket booths became simply a place to get change. The first tokens were introduced in 1953, when a fare increase to 15 cents made it impossible to pay with a single coin.
Ever since MetroCard debuted in 1994, New York City Transit has been working on ways to wean people off tokens, although officials insist that they have no plan to leave the stations completely unstaffed.
"We appreciate the significance of some token booth presence in our various stations, which is why each affected station will maintain a full-time booth in the complex," Katherine N. Lapp, the executive director and chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority told the City Council Transportation Committee in January. "It is also important to keep in mind, however, that the MTA's significant investment in the MetroCard and its enormously successful transition to the MetroCard as the primary fare instrument was intended to move NYC Transit into a state-of-the-art system and reduce reliance on token booths as the primary means of purchasing fare instruments."
Machines, the transit authority points out, give riders choices: they can accept ATM cards and credit cards in addition to cash and they can be programmed to operate in many languages. And by drawing riders away from tokens, they shorten lines at booths.
There are now 2,226 vending machines in the subway. According to the transit agency, almost 85 percent of riders now use MetroCard and 56 percent of them buy their cards from vending machines. Since 1999, sales at vending machines have grown 168 percent. In addition, the installation of new high entrance/exit turnstiles in tandem with the vending machines has made 93 part-time subway entrances accessible at all times.
And although some people complain about the vending machines, transit officials contend that most passengers like them. The authority says its own recent surveys indicate that 67 percent of the people who use the machines, which are designed to resemble ATMs, rate them either "excellent" or "very good."
VENDING MACHINES COMMON ELSEWHERE
Transit users in other cities might be surprised at New Yorkers' fear of booth closings. On other systems in both the U.S. and abroad, automatic fare systems and even unattended stations are common.
From day one, riders of the Washington, D.C. Metro and San Francisco's BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), both of which opened in the 1970s, have required riders to use fare cards purchased from vending machines to enter stations. Even Calcutta's subway has relied on an automated fare system since 1994. Closer to home, the Newark City Subway (yes, Newark has a subway), which is basically an underground trolley line, has no booths either. Riders pay when they board the cars, using either cash or a ticket purchased from a machine.
And while many subway riders don't realize it, there are already five rapid transit stations in Manhattan that are completely unstaffed. Riders of the PATH system, which serves New York and the New Jersey communities of Hoboken, Jersey City, Harrison and Newark, buy fare cards from vending machines or put cash directly into the turnstiles.
There are no booths or station attendants. Closed-circuit cameras watch the platforms and stairwells and passengers can get help or information by picking up hotline phones located near entrances and exits.
NEW YORK IS 'DIFFERENT'
What other cities do, however, may not be applicable in New York, critics of the transit authority's plans say.
New York's subway, with 468 stations and six million riders a day, is among the largest in the world and it dwarfs other systems in the U.S., making it hard to patrol. Even PATH, which has unstaffed stations in Manhattan, is comparatively tiny, serving less than 300,000 riders a day.
What's more, the New York system is an old one. While subways like Washington's were designed to have bright lighting, clear sight lines and other safety features, New York's subway is a warren of twisting passageways and dark corridors, a legacy of both its age and the fact that it was cobbled together from three competing systems.
Nevertheless, even some critics believe that change is inevitable and replacing token booths could work — if it is not done hastily.
"We agree that we are probably coming to the end of the era of humans vending transit," the Straphangers Campaign's Russianoff says. "But this plan is just about budget numbers. There is no evidence that they are training people to become station agents, to handle the changeover to dealing directly with the public instead of working in a bulletproof, climate-controlled booth. So far, it's just rhetoric."
But transit officials believe that, eventually, riders and employees will find that automation actually makes their trips faster and easier. As NYC Transit President Reuter told the Times, though, it will take time to persuade people: "The skeptics are there initially, but I think they will be converted."