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Autumn 1992
City Journal Autumn 1992.
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  N ew York Views

Underground Managers
Keith Elliot Greenberg
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When Alan Kiepper became president of the Transit Authority in 1990, he quickly realized that the New York City underground could be a forbidding place. Ridership had been declining, and consumer surveys found that the fear of crime was the biggest passenger complaint. Graffiti, fare-beating, and the prevalence of vagrants were cited by passengers as creating a sense that the subway was an anonymous, dangerous place, ruled by no one.

“The attitude of the TA in the past was simply running and policing the trains,” Kiepper says. “Interaction with the customer was not the first priority. A lot of people have left the system, and we’re only going to attract them back by being more hospitable.”

Substantial efforts had already been made to improve the subway. The Clean Car program, begun in the early 1980s, had all but eliminated graffiti from the trains. A Transit Police effort called Operation Enforcement, which took an aggressive approach to controlling disorderly conduct, was being integrated into the department’s standard procedures by then-Chief William Bratton.

The stations themselves, however, were often dirty, disorderly, and in a state of disrepair. Kiepper realized that these problems could only be managed if someone were on the scene to take care of them right away. But no one was really in charge of the stations: TA superintendents, responsible for as many as twenty stations, were little more than invisible bureaucrats.

Thus, Kiepper created a new position in the TA hierarchy: station manager. Each station manager oversees the affairs of either one large station or several small ones; there are currently 31 managers covering 125 of the system’s 469 stations. On call 24 hours a day, they feel a sense of ownership for their assigned posts. The idea is to convert the stations under a manager’s charge into a little neighborhood, with the manager in the role of the old-time ward boss, familiar with and responsive to the needs of his community. Police assigned to the sector take on the attitude of cops on the beat rather than enforcers roving through a huge system. And commuters, noticing this personal touch, begin to treat the station with more consideration, feeling obliged not to crank up the tape player or litter the platform.

Station managers mingle with their customers. They stand near the turnstiles and dispatch scheduling information, they survey the attitudes of people who work near the station, and they help out customers who run into trouble. When the trains are running late, for example, Eugene Smith, manager of the Grand Central subway station, hands out free bus transfers. He’s even been known to write “Train Delay” on the back of his business card and give it to corporate employees so they can explain their tardy arrival at work.

Managers often venture into the community beyond their turf, speaking to community boards, schools, and organizations for the disabled. In one case, a station manager went to a junior high school principal to complain about students cutting across the tracks.

A manager is also responsible for keeping his station in good repair and notifying TA officials when things need to be fixed. Repair crews must respond within a set period, depending on the seriousness of the problem. If a manager reports a Code A repair, he has spotted a problem like a broken step on which a passenger might be injured. Repair crews must respond to the request within three hours and fix the trouble within a day. A Code B might mean a floor drain is needed to eliminate water on platforms. Crews have three days to correct the problem. A Code C is anything that is not a priority, like a column needing a paint job. That can take up to sixty days.

Roosevelt “Ray” Washington, a fifty-year-old native of North Carolina who spent six years as a token clerk, manages six stops on the D and Q lines in Brooklyn. When Washington started, commuters at the Sheepshead Bay station grumbled about the darkness under the trestle over the East 15th Street entrance and the water that leaked onto the newspapers at the concession stand there. He reported these problems, and within a month three high-powered sensor lights had been installed and drip pans had been affixed to the underside of the trestle. In the rafters on the other side of the station, pigeons were roosting and shelling passengers with droppings. Washington spoke to his repair crew and came up with an easy solution: Steel netting secured across the bottom of the rafters now keeps the bothersome birds out. Before the station-manager program, problems like these often lingered for months before being remedied.

Washington recently won an important amenity for the Sheepshead Bay station: a renovated public restroom. After listening to commuters complain about the inoperable facility, Washington rallied the various departments of the TA to replace the old plumbing, tear out the walls, install new tiles, and renovate the ceilings. He got assurances that the restroom would be cleaned each day and patrolled regularly by police to prevent vagrants from making it their home. By contrast, four stops away at the Coney Island terminal, which remains an unmanaged station, the men’s room is filthy and several toilets are broken.

When the homeless bed down in his stations, Washington is respectful yet firm. He’ll usually stir a sleeping vagrant with a loud hello, followed by, “Sir, there’s no sleeping on this bench.” Generally, the man will sit up. “If he’s sitting,” Washington says, “he’s no bother.”

At Grand Central, Smith says he has had to make some compromises. While Washington must deal with two or three vagrants a day in each of his stations, policing the homeless would be a full-time job for Smith if he enforced regulations to the letter. Thus, he allows them to sleep on the benches, but not the floor. As long as they’re not obstructing passageways or harassing commuters, Smith is satisfied.

Station managers are charged with building the morale of TA workers as well as customers. They oversee the token clerks, cleaners, and repair crews who work in their stations. While the managers offer positive reinforcement—Smith, for example, has initiated an employee-of-the-month program—some TA workers bristle at the added accountability. “They try to be so perfect, they’re petty,” gripes a clerk from Queens, once written up for neglecting to display his badge in the window of the token booth. I hope the program bites the dust.” But the program offers more-diligent TA employees an opportunity for career advancement. Most managers are former token clerks who worked their way up to the $60,000-a-year position.

The station-manager program is expanding. By the end of 1992, the TA plans to have managers assigned to two hundred stations; every station is to have a manager by 1995. This is welcome news to those who had concluded that the vast, crowded New York subway system, perhaps New York’s most vital artery, is beyond manageability.

 

 


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