Sunday, December 30, 2007
Iron Maidens, Subway Safety and a Good Cop
In an age when an emergency evacuation of a New York City subway station is a terrible possibility, the Transit Authority's decision to close token booths and install high entrance and exit turnstiles is a disaster waiting to happen. All of the ingredients were on display yesterday at the Herald Square Station--along with a commendable support for journalistic freedom on the part of a police officer that I'll get to later.
When I got off the uptown N at Herald Square just before 4 pm, rushing to get my friend on a 4:10 pm train out of Penn Station, it took us an unusually long time to exit. In our corner of the station the usual turnstiles were closed, leaving open only the high entrance and exit turnstiles (nicknamed "iron maidens" for their resemblance to a medieval torture device) that admit people with a swipe of a Metrocard and--in theory--also allow them to depart.
But with hordes racing in and out of the station, the congestion at the turnstiles was fierce. People couldn't enter and exit at the same time, so you got long lines (at least six people apiece) on either side of each iron maiden. There were people waiting to leave, people waiting to enter, and people brazenly striding through the "emergency exit" door--each one setting off an alarm on the way.
I got my friend on his train, then returned to Herald Square to photograph the crowds around 4:30 pm. They were as thick as ever, and I was sickened by the thought of all those people trying to get out in an emergency.
To compound the problem, the token booth was closed, depriving passengers of the advice and oversight that token clerks used to provide. (There were some police officers in sight on the far side of the iron maidens, but if there was a need for a quick evacuation they wouldn't have been able to do much.)
I took pictures of the lines outside the iron maidens, the empty token booth, and passengers walking out through the emergency exit.
One passenger, angry that I had photographed her as she walked out of the emergency exit, said I had invaded her privacy. She asked me to destroy my picture of her. I explained that the law on these matters says that you have a right to privacy in a place where you can reasonably expect privacy. A subway station isn't one of them.
Unsatisfied, she summoned a policeman. Police Officer Vargas listened to each of us, examined my identification, and then made it clear to her that she didn't really have a case. I thanked him and left quickly, but I'd like to take this opportunity to salute him.
I got away with my camera and my pictures intact (you can see a photo of the crowding above). Still, I have a nagging concern about the iron maidens and empty token booths. The turnstiles just don't let people out of the stations fast enough. And the roving "station agents" that have replaced the token clerks are no substitute for them.
When the Transit Authority proposed its current policies on token booths and turnstiles in 2001 (before 9/11), the Straphangers Campaign and Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union both recognized the foolishness of the plan. Today, in a dangerous world, it doesn't look any smarter.
Does anyone else have some thoughts on these problems? And ideas for what we might do about them?