A New Job Description for M.T.A. Workers: Professionally Nice

Tonya Cooper, left, and Jamila Rose, two customer service ambassadors, helping New York City subway riders inside the Times Square station.

“Good morning all! Have a nice day!”

The seven words stopped Lina Shah as she scurried through the subway turnstiles under Times Square on a recent morning, in the thick of rush hour. The words are more typically heard when entering a department store, the automaton drone of a hired greeter. But they seemed so incongruent in the dour tunnels of the New York City subway that Ms. Shah paused in the middle of her commute to find their source.

Then she heard the voice again: “Good morning to you! Have a good day, now!”

There, standing on a busy passageway connecting the Port Authority Bus Terminal with the A, C and E lines was Tonya M. Cooper, a longtime employee of the agency that runs the subways, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, rattling off good morning salutations at a rate of 32 a minute.

Since November, Ms. Cooper and 40 other transit workers have been shifted into a job that is based largely on the notion that being unrelentingly nice can go a long way to help bolster the image of a flagging, frequently curse-inducing subway system.

“You’re so friendly!” Ms. Shah, an accountant, told Ms. Cooper, after watching her direct a man to the A train, and kneel to tell a little boy, and his mother, which exit to use. “It’s nice to know somebody cares.”

The position, officially a customer service ambassador, or Wayfinder, is a pilot program introduced as part of the Subway Action Plan, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $836 million initiative to begin addressing the problems riddling the subway system. The plan, which followed Mr. Cuomo’s declaration of a subway emergency last year, focuses on substance, like repairs to infrastructure signals and tracks, as well as on less-tangible elements, like the system’s ambience.

That is where the Wayfinders, clad in orange vests and wearing baseball caps embroidered with “Here to help” on the back, come in.

The program, which is expected to double in size in the next few weeks, appears to reflect the governor’s insistence that upgrades to the subway must include what people who engage in corporate speak refer to as the user experience.

Each Wayfinder completes a multiday course during which they role play improvised scenarios with frustrated customers pulled from their own experiences and strategize how to better defuse fraught situations. They are equipped with cellphones loaded with the agency’s mapping app to help them dole out advice on things like how to use a MetroCard machine. Above all, they are instructed to be friendly.

“This is giving our customers information that they need, where they need it, when they need it,” said Veronique Hakim, the Transportation Authority’s managing director, who rejected the notion that the workers are merely subway public relations agents. With better information, served up individually, Ms. Hakim said, customers might not do things like hold up trains by holding car doors open to ask if the train is going in their direction. Sick passengers could be helped more quickly if there are workers on the platforms, Ms. Hakim said, rather than relying on employees in station booths that they cannot leave.

“This is about actually providing all of those things that help or contribute to moving trains more efficiently,” Ms. Hakim said.

The new role also adds relevance to a group of employees who have become increasingly sidelined by technology: the position is open only to station agents, a job veering toward obsolescence since vending machines now handle the bulk of the fare transactions. By 2023, the agency will phase out MetroCards entirely, as the yellow cards give way to contactless readers that will work with credit and debit cards, among other payment methods.

In 1995, there were about 3,500 station agents; last year there were about 2,500, according to the M.T.A. While station agents may have less to do, they still sell MetroCards, and offer directions and solutions to problems like what to do with a faulty card.

The Transportation Authority in 2016 spent $300 million on the agents, who make an average of $113,000 in total compensation a year.

“We want to preserve our members’ employment so they can continue to take care of themselves, and their families, as the M.T.A. shifts to a new electronic fare payment system,” said Tony Utano, the president of the Transit Workers Union Local 100, which negotiated the creation of the ambassador job. Modern payment systems on the bridges and tunnels operated by the M.T.A. led last fall to the end of manual toll collection and the shifting of about 450 collectors into other jobs. The ambassadors are in 15 stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

At the glossy new Fulton Street station in Lower Manhattan, Lular Ellis, 48, stood by the turnstiles, her head swiveled as she spotted a woman struggling with a MetroCard machine and she walked over to help. As a station agent, Ms. Ellis spent much of her 25 years inside a booth encased in bullet-resistant glass, relics of a less-safe city.

“When you’re inside the booth you get a little more hostility,” Ms. Ellis said. “I don’t know if it’s the glass that makes them braver or us braver, or what it is — but when you’re outside face to face with them they’re more engaging, and you can help them better.”

As she wanders the station, customers appear grateful, even when she can do little more about a train delay than offer an alternative route and a sympathetic ear. “I think this is something that transit should have done a long time ago and it would have desensitized the public as far as feeling that transit is so aggressive and no one is helpful,” Ms. Ellis said. “The personal engagement, I think it softens the outlook — even when there are service disruptions.”

Rushing to her job in Midtown, Ms. Shah, the accountant, said she was encouraged by the changes intended to soften the subway’s image. The cheery greetings and bespoke directions do not make up for the subway’s failings, she said, “but it’s nice.”

“Now if they reduced the subway fares,” Ms. Shah said. “Now that would be something.”

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