The Backward-Looking Metro

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Anybody who has ridden the Moscow metro has undoubtedly noticed the elderly women who sit hermetically sealed in their little glass booths at the bottom of the escalators. They look as if they have been sitting there ever since the metro first opened in the 1930s.

What function do they serve? From time to time, you can hear them yelling over the muffled loudspeaker in a strict schoolteacher's tone, "Stand to the right, pass on the left!" or "Don't block others!" or "Don't set bags on the handrail!"

And on their glass booths are plastered forbidding signs that remind passengers, "Escalator attendants do not give out information!" But in almost every metro in other countries I have visited, workers willingly give at least some kind of answer to my questions. Most commuters ask how to operate the automated ticket machines or how to reach this or that station if the city is unfamiliar to them. Only in Russia, visibly bored metro workers are cloistered away from the public in their little booths. They watch people go up and down the escalators for hours on end and put up signs telling people to leave them alone.

Moscow's escalator attendants probably earn decent salaries for a job requiring almost no skills. At least metro ticket cashiers earn more than 20,000 rubles per month, busily serving the seemingly endless line of passengers in need of tickets. And although every cashier could be replaced by automated machines, as in most large cities -- the cost of which could be recouped in under a year -- such devices have not been installed.

As far as I can see, the only function escalator attendants perform is to turn off the escalator in the event of an accident. But the escalators are equipped with automatic devices that do the same thing. Further, all of the aging attendants could be replaced by a centralized control room with monitors hooked to the underground's ubiquitous video cameras. Considering the hundreds of escalators the metro has, such a system could save the metro a lot of money.

The upside of a financial crisis is that it forces business people and government bureaucrats to invent better mousetraps to replace failed or ineffective models. Hopefully, this financial crisis will have the same impact on Russia. A good place to start would be to replace the aging and largely useless escalator attendants. This could be part of a larger process of improving labor productivity among all government employees.

There are many examples of the inefficient use of labor. Official statistics put the unemployment rate in Moscow at under 1 percent of the population, a record low for any healthy market economy. But near the entrance to every Moscow office building, store, restaurant and school, you will see a man dressed in camouflage standing guard. No country in the world has a greater number of guards per capita -- not even Israel, which is in a constant high-alert state against terrorist attacks. Could Russia's army of security guards be put to better use in the Moscow economy?

To get a better idea of how difficult it is for Russia to think innovatively, let's take another look at the metro. Why is it that the electronic clock above every set of rails displays the time elapsed since the last train departed rather than the time remaining before the next train arrives? The latter is clearly more important than the former.

Changing those clocks to focus on the future rather than the past would be an indication that the officials in charge of the country's economy have begun thinking in a new way. Unlike metro clocks and aging attendants, economic innovation and modernization are not just trivial details.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.