Opinion » Ted Rall

Stupid Inhuman Tricks

Automation saves money, costs lives


NEW YORK-Commuters carrying luggage or pushing baby strollers know what to do when they exit the New York subway. Since the turnstiles are too narrow to accommodate large items, they push a call button alerting a token booth clerk to buzz them out via a service gate. Each side of every station has always had access to a continuously manned booth from which someone can operate the gate, sell fare cards and call in suspicious behavior to the cops.

Such was the way of the subway-until some nameless person got a stupid idea. You know the type responsible; every company employs one. At the Japanese bank where I worked during the '80s, he convinced management that they'd save a few bucks by canceling the employees' free morning snacks. In Los Angeles, he invented a parking meter that zeroes out the leftover time when a car pulls out, rather than leaving a nice surprise for the next lucky driver who pulls in. The Guy With The Ideas climbs the ladder by imagining ways to make everyone else's life as miserable as possible. He also convinced New York's transit authority to balance its budget by getting rid of token booth clerks.

I noticed the change earlier this year when I got off Manhattan's number one line at 18th Street, burdened by a couple of boxes too large to fit through the MTA's "iron maiden" exit-only turnstiles-an interlocking, rotating set of metal teeth. "They eliminated the clerk from this booth," a passenger on the other side of the gates informed me. "You're supposed to push the call button and the clerk on the uptown side, across the tracks, will buzz you in." A metal plate marked the location of the old button, but the button had been removed.

I suffered only minor inconvenience. Trapped on the platform and unable to exit, I waited for the next train, went to the next manned station and walked back to my destination. Still, I remember telling a friend that nothing good could come from this cheapskate arrangement.

If you set in place the elements of a worst-case scenario you'll eventually get one. In the case of the 18th Street station, it came during the early morning hours of February 19.

That's when German Cabrera was shot to death on the platform-murdered, cops say, by his girlfriend's husband. "Police and EMS [paramedics] had trouble entering the subway station," reported NY1 cable news. They helplessly watched for 18 minutes as life trickled out of the 26-year-old man. "First-responders finally had to borrow a MetroCard from a civilian to gain entry."

"My son bled to death because emergency responders could not reach him on time, and by the time he got to the hospital he was pronounced dead," said Cabrera's father. He is suing the MTA for $10 million and a promise to restore token booth clerks to stations like 18th Street.

Automation isn't always bad. Thanks to scanable passes, clerks who lost their jobs collecting highway tolls will live longer, with healthier lungs. And it's easier to find cheap fares online than to call around to all the airlines. But "new, improved" customer service-grouchy receptionists replaced by voicemail trees replaced by the horror of voice recognition-is increasingly turning dangerous as The Men With The Ideas search for new ways to cut costs. At the World Trade Center during the '90s, for example, doors to the roofs and several emergency stairwells were fitted with centrally controlled locks designed to be simultaneously released from an office in the lobby in the event of an emergency. But the planes that struck the Twin Towers on 9/11 severed the electrical lines running to the locks, leaving them sealed and dooming hundreds.

Despite the death of German Cabrera and litigation that will consume more money than was saved by eliminating the token booth clerks, the same MTA that screwed up at 18th Street is currently setting up for its next disaster. Subway trains have traditionally been run by a two-man crew: an operator, plus a conductor who opens and closes the doors. Especially at night, many New Yorkers sit in either the first or middle car, the two manned by these crew members. But starting in June, the L line between Greenwich Village and Brooklyn will become the first to eliminate conductors-despite the fact that a test of the new system in April ended in chaos.

"It is incredible," said a city council member, "that the MTA is going to take this step, even without completely testing to ensure safety of passengers and workers." Even more incredible will be the surprise and confusion of city officials when passengers lose their lives on the L train.