Long confined to their metal-and-glass enclosures, booth clerks in the New York City subway will soon roam stations, shedding an obsolete role to engage with riders increasingly frustrated over safety and service.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that operates the subway, wants its 2,300 station agents to make a greater effort guiding people through 472 stations and more than 665 miles of track — roughly the distance from New York City to Chicago.
Station agents, whose job for decades was to process cash payments for rides, will also teach riders how to use the fully digital tap-and-go payment system that will soon replace the yellow-and-blue MetroCard. The shift in duties will happen early next year.
The M.T.A. and the union representing the booth workers have presented the change as a needed boost to transit’s appeal. More than half of subway riders report a lack of satisfaction with service, according to a survey conducted this past spring.
Many riders who use transit less than before the pandemic mentioned fear as the most common reason. Others are abandoning the system because of the popularity of remote work. Weekday passenger levels remain at just over 60 percent of prepandemic levels.
The new role was unveiled last week as transit leaders have launched an aggressive effort to make transit riders feel safer in the subway. In recent months, government officials have deployed more police officers in the system, installed cameras in train cars and hired unarmed security guards to stop people from skipping payments.
Mayor Eric Adams also announced last month that the city would begin involuntarily hospitalizing people with severe mental illness, removing them from the city’s streets and subways.
Transit officials say the effort is starting to pay off. During a City Council meeting on subway safety on Monday, they cited a 13 percent drop in crime during November compared with the same month last year even as ridership has risen since.
The reassigned booth agents are “going to be the eyes and ears across our station environment, from the turnstiles to the platforms,” Richard Davey, the president of New York City Transit — the M.T.A. division that oversees the subway — told council members. “They will be an invaluable resource for us as we continue to look at safety.”
Criminal complaints in the subway are up 30 percent this year through Dec. 11 compared with the same period last year, according to the police. Besides rising crime rates, a series of high-profile attacks on platforms and trains have been a source of anxiety. Among this year’s incidents were a mass shooting on the N train during the morning rush in April and the fatal shooting of a Goldman Sachs employee, Daniel Enriquez, on the Q train in May.
Under the changes, agents will be trained for four days to learn their new tasks, which include walking through assigned stations twice during an 8-hour shift to spot problems such as filthy conditions or broken elevators.
The authority has experimented with such a concept before — in late 2017, it launched a pilot program called “Wayfinders” that called for subway station agents to carry out customer service duties like escorting sick passengers from trains.
Subway station agents, once known as token clerks, have had less and less to do over the years. Their responsibilities were further reduced at the onset of the pandemic, when transit leaders banned cash transactions. Nearly all other major transit systems in the world redeployed ticket sellers long ago.
The change will offer job security for subway workers whose services have been largely replaced by machines, especially as the authority contends with a budget crisis triggered partly by the coronavirus. The authority has said it could face a budget gap of nearly $3 billion by 2025. Transit officials are already contemplating raising fares for riders, and the threat of layoffs looms.
“We can’t sit back and watch our members get phased out along with the MetroCard,” Robert Kelley, a vice president with Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, said in a prepared statement. “We are forging a new path with a new role that makes their presence in stations even more vital.”