Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Human Face of Mass Transit

The weekend edition of the New York metro, a newspaper given away for free, offers the lead headline, "A 'human face' for subways" to describe an MTA plan to decentralize management of New York subway lines. Better service on the subways is a great idea, but the MTA will get better results from this plan if it affirms the work of the people who are already the human face of the transit system: transit workers.

As the grandson of a transit worker and the author of a book on transit workers (Transit Talk: New York's Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories), I've studied transit workers' reactions to their work. For decades, one word appears again and again in their demands for what they want on the job: dignity. That shouldn't get lost in the drive for passenger satisfaction.

As Greg Lombardi, line general manager for the L train puts it in the metro, "It's about pleasing the customer". Good point, but in our consumer society most settings for the pursuit of customer satisfaction are the stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues of a modern consumer society.

Transit workers, however, labor in a system that recalls the hard years of the industrial revolution. For many transit workers the job is dirty, dangerous, tedious, and physically demanding. For that, their labor deserves recognition and a proper reward.

In a consumer society, many consumers forget about the producers who make their comfortable lives possible. (When was the last time any of us inquired into the work conditions of the people who make our clothes or cook our food?)

As the MTA goes forward, it will get better results if its labor policies and public relations efforts recognize transit workers for what they are: the men and women whose labor makes New York a 24-hour city. And the human faces on the buses and subways that New Yorkers ride every day.

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