2001-06-27 / Editorials


Keep Human Element

According to Metropolitan Transit Authority spokespersons, token booth clerks at the 468 stations in the New York City subway system will soon go the way of Checker cabs and the Automat. Plans have been announced to remove all token booth clerks as part of the second phase of an MTA plan to improve service. Clerks at those stations which are open 24 hours a day will be taken out of the booths and made into customer service representatives; those at other stations will be reassigned. How this constitutes an improvement is beyond us.

At the 24-hour stations, the former token booth clerks will "interact with the public and keep an eye on the stations and not be chained to a box," an MTA representative said. There are several holes in this logic. Under the present system, a token booth attendant is in a central location that can be reached relatively easily by a rider who needs help or requests assistance for someone else. A token booth clerk who is at the other end of a platform or answering the call of nature is far more likely to be unavailable when help is needed.

At stations without customer service representatives, station managers, cleaners, track workers and others will supposedly take up the slack. This makes no sense at all. These people were hired to do their specific jobs, not act as substitute emergency service officers. While we are sure that any and all of them are more than willing to aid a passenger in distress in whatever way they can, they have not been specifically trained to deal with medical emergencies or police situations. And like token booth clerks who will now be asked to patrol platforms instead of waiting in a centrally located booth with a telephone ready to hand, there is no guarantee--indeed, no good probability--that a subway worker will be anywhere near a passenger in distress.

An MTA argument against having token booth clerks call for a passenger's assistance is the fact that clerks must first call their command. A spokesperson for the MTA claimed calling the 911 emergency hotline from a platform public telephone is faster. We wonder how many subway stations this person has visited recently. At too many platforms telephones are few and far between and all too often the number of phones in working order is far exceeded by those out of service for one reason or another. In many medical or police emergency situations a person in trouble for whatever reason simply cannot reach or use a telephone. A token booth clerk is far more able to pick up a phone and call whatever forces are needed into action.

The push to eliminate token booth clerks is also bound up with the MTA's campaign to render tokens defunct in favor of MetroCards. The arguments against banishing tokens from the system also hold considerable merit. While MetroCards are in many instances efficient and easier to use, and while we find the discounts and free transfers contingent upon their use helpful and financially rewarding, we wouldn't mind having a nickel for every train we've missed while "please swipe again" flashed at us at a turnstile. When a MetroCard machine registers an incorrect balance or won't take a $10 or $20 bill to whom can a beleaguered passenger turn but a token booth clerk? Senior citizens cannot use MetroCard vending machines if they want their senior discounts, essential to many older people on fixed incomes and limited budgets. If a MetroCard van does not visit their neighborhood regularly, the token clerk is their only immediate recourse. The system still needs human beings in token booths in order to function efficiently for all the people who use it.

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