Opinion: Does Brewster train station offer lesson for Danbury?

The Danbury train station.

The Danbury train station.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

We need to be less reckless in replacing people with machines in public and/or quasi-public places. Even when something like the pandemic provides and ostensible warrant, the outcome of these experiments are often counterproductive in every sense — including the fiscal one. The Danbury Parking Authority, with the legislative assistance of the city, has undertaken to try to replace the human attendants selling parking spots with machines sold by company called, ominously enough, “T2.”

Admittedly, these machines, which will cost around 100,000 just to install, might offer some specious conveniences if all the electronic accompaniments, such as the downloadable app, are working properly. But, as with all automation, there is a flip-side rigidity as a cost of the so-called conveniences. In the parking case, cash is being phased out: so you must have a working smartphone and/or working credits cards, or pre-bought cards if you want to use the garage. (Also, privacy is out the window.)

Less tangibly, but more worryingly, the garage will be a less welcoming and secure feeling place for folks looking to visit and patronize the downtown. Despite the authority’s pledge to grandfather in existing employees as a walking clean-up and ersatz security crew (rather than “wasting their time” waiting for customers as described by the authority), the place will increasingly become sterile (in a bad way).

As an example of the kind of slippery slope of general deterioration that can occur with knee-jerk automation, one need only look at the nearby Brewster Metro-North train station. The MTA decided, a few years back, to ostensibly augment the long-time human ticket seller there, inside the downtown centerpiece station building, with ticket selling machines outside over the tracks. Later, under inevitable budget pressure, Metro-North, with the machines already in place, axed the human agent. Once the private canteen remaining in the station (now unjustly trying to answer train-related question in addition to slinging coffee and bagels), was driven out of business by the pandemic-caused dearth of commuters, the train authorities had a security pretext to finally the shut the station building altogether — a huge blow to train riders and downtown Brewster. To add insult to injury: thanks to appearance the of abandonment, as is always the case, the property surrounding the station is now littered upon and vandalized.

This is not necessarily the grim fate of the Danbury parking garages (it would be difficult to actually close them, for instance), but the Brewster debacle illustrates the surprising risks to succumbing to the often nihilistic temptation to automate. Clearly, human sourced service schemes are more resilient in the face of unexpected situations like the pandemic. We must, more generally, be aware the “substitution myth” in regard to new technology: society is complex, interwoven fabric of people and technology and it is just plain fanciful to think we can replace people, or preexisting technology, in a neat, isolated fashion. Civic leaders and residents cannot, and should not impede technological progress , but we need to more cognizant of the unavoidably profound effects that accompany said progress before greenlighting specific projects.

James Root is a Danbury resident.