Home View from Underground The great Emergency Exit debate

The great Emergency Exit debate

by Benjamin Kabak

Not the most practical of emergency exits. (Photo by flickr user rlboston)

As the great social mixing bowl of New York City, the subways provide ample opportunities for people from all walks of life to interact on a daily basis and make choices that impact each other. Should one offer to give up a seat? Should one cut one’s nails on a half-empty train? Should one block the doorways as other straphangers try to exit?

While the answers to those three questions are “probably,” “definitely not” and “get the hell out of the way,” other debates are not so clear cut in the minds of many riders. Enter the emergency exit. The emergency exit doors represent the pinnacle and subway egress. The gates are alarmed sometimes, and they’re far faster than the traditional ways to leave the system. A commuter in a rush will bypass long lines at the HEET exits or turnstiles, and if the alarm goes off, so what? While it is against New York City Transit regulations to use the emergency exists in non-emergency situations, that stops no one.

Yesterday, as part of a new series on Underground Ethics, Hillary Fields, a writer and editor at Beliefnet, inaugurated her column with some musings on the Emergency Exit debate. She writes:

Each morning, as I approach the IRT line, the dilemma looms larger and larger. The Subway Emergency Exit. Meant, as is so clearly blazoned on its push-bar, to be used only in cases of, you know… emergency. Should you dare to make it your egress, it will shrill loudly–nay, I daresay deafeningly–piercing the eardrums of all those around you. The sound echoes off the dingy station tiles, lingers unendingly in the air, pisses off the riders on the platform, wears out the alarms, and drives the beleaguered station agent just that tiny bit closer to a lethal meltdown.

So why the f*&k does everyone and his brother think it’s OK to use it instead of the turnstiles?

It is, of course, a personal decision and one many make to maximize time, other riders be damned. Fields takes a life lesson from her emergency exit experiences. “It amazes me,” she writes, “how expedience takes precedence over values at times like these, and perhaps can explain some of the other behaviors I see on the fly.”

Anyway, check out this new series. It will make for some interesting debates over how to approach personal actions underground. No one, after all, likes hearing the emergency exit siren, and everyone likes to exit the subway faster than that other person on the train who elbowed them on the way up the stairs. Choices, choices, choices.

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Noah June 2, 2009 - 12:28 pm

I confront this problem almost everyday. I get off the E or V most mornings at the 53 and Madison (5th ave stop) and the preferred exit has one HEET and an emergency exit right next to it. It is a pretty busy station and the exit I use (the north one) is the one that seems to get the most traffic, most mornings I use the emergency exit because of people trying to enter the station through the HEET, it seems unfair to all to force them to wait to for me to go through the HEET and it would take too long for all of the people exiting the station to use the Single HEET, this seems to be what most people do at the this station. I think it is completely acceptable in situations like this one.

Raymond Stensholt February 28, 2014 - 5:03 pm

no it is not ever OK

Batty June 2, 2009 - 12:54 pm

Has nothing to do with trying to get around people – the turnstiles are slow to get out. The ones that are floor to ceiling freak me out (got stuck in one once) so if I have any sort of bag I need to go through the emergency exit or squeeze my face against the bars and hope nothing gets caught. Not fun.

digamma June 2, 2009 - 1:26 pm

When you’re exiting a station at rush hour, opening the emergency exit is a must. Otherwise nobody can get in and there’s a crush at the turnstiles.

Joe September 23, 2010 - 1:07 pm

I hadn’t read reports of people being crushed at turnstiles before emergency gates were installed. rush hour or no rush hour

Rhywun June 2, 2009 - 1:33 pm

As long as people are still getting arrested and fined for using the emergency exits, you can bet I will not do it. In my daily commute (no HEETs), the emergency exits save people at most a few seconds. Totally not worth it. Which of course makes me strange, because everyone else uses them. I do occasionally follow someone else out the emergency exit, but I refuse to set off the “alarm” myself. Said “alarms” having become just so much background noise–just like car “alarms”.

gri August 13, 2009 - 9:39 am

Getting arrested for opening the emergency exit unjustified is an interesting point. How about us parents with strollers. The emergency exits are the ONLY way in and way out unless you want to take the kid out, fold the stroller, heave it over the turnstile, catch your kid, unfold stroller get kid in. Annoying enough but maybe even outright dangerous if there is more traffic…

Benjamin Kabak August 13, 2009 - 9:53 am

There’s a proper procedure for getting the station agent to open the emergency exit. Follow it, and no one will get arrested.

Joe September 23, 2010 - 1:09 pm

what did you do before emergency gates were installed? fly over?

Working Class June 2, 2009 - 1:51 pm

Exiting through the HEETs is alot slower than through any other method especially because almost everyone has a bag or 2 with them. I have followed people through the emergency exits many times and most times there were police standing right there doing nothing to the people that first opened it.

Boris June 2, 2009 - 2:07 pm

The alarms are not loud enough. I hate changing CO alarm batteries because of having to get close to one (even the low battery squeak is tinnitus-inducing). Install such alarms on the emergency exits and people will avoid them.

skunky June 6, 2009 - 10:17 pm

brilliant. solve the problem of annoying alarms by…. making them louder? really?

tomhoser April 28, 2010 - 3:05 pm

No, the solution is to eliminate the audible alarms which do nothing but piss people off. You would have thought people would have learned from car alarms. Just use a light that is visible to the staff so as to be alerted to fare beaters, actual emergencies, etc.

Joe September 23, 2010 - 1:12 pm

I think Rhywun has the right idea. if we fine enough people, they would stop. do we see people running red traffic light?

Kai June 2, 2009 - 2:13 pm

The solution would be to install more HEETS (especially the exit only ones… “HETs”?). In many locations this would be possible because currently there is yards of fencing in these locations.

Other than that… Now that the MTA is OK with leaving low entrance turnstiles unmanned, why not restore these in some high-traffic locations?

EMK June 2, 2009 - 2:57 pm

During certain hours, stations can’t handle the amount of people exiting stations. People [usually] trickle INTO the station, but exiting the station ALWAYS happens en masse. The bottleneck effect is too annoying not just at the turnstiles, but also in the stairwells.

I know the MTA likes to record how many people exit each station via turnstile counters, and using the emergency exit makes those numbers come out on the low side. Still, it doesn’t excuse the fact that station entrances can’t handle the increase in ridership since some stations were built. Fact is, they need more turnstiles (or a better way of counting riders) for exiting passengers. Till then, that wide exit door looks pretty appealing. The MTA should realize that those wider doors are more efficient and there should be more of them.

Usually, when the masses exit a station, any poor unfortunate soul trying to catch the train in the station has lost all chance of getting through the turnstile. Perhaps that is the new moral question – should the masses wait and let riders make the train they just vacated, before blocking all the turnstiles? Or does the desire to get the hell out of the damp, hot, gross station take precedence to anything else?

Raymond Stensholt February 28, 2014 - 5:09 pm

speed up your commute. Your commute. Selfish.

Scott E June 2, 2009 - 3:39 pm

In some places (think Penn Station), nothing will help avoid people from using the Emergency Exit. Many times, I’ve dashed from the IRT platform to the train station concourse with under a minute to catch my train. I often look at the crowd leaving from the Emergency Exit (there’s always a line for the door), and the crowd entering through the turnstiles, and make a split-second decision which way is faster.

High Exit Turnstiles (called HXT’s) would never get used at Penn Station. They’re simply too slow. (They also don’t have electronics wired to them to count passengers leaving, by the way).

Grrrumpy Miner June 2, 2009 - 6:15 pm

Alright…Whatever station I work,I see people use the gates because its 2 steps closer to the exit.I tend to wonder if they go thru the exit to save 2 seconds of their life that they will never get back instead of doing the right thing.Another point,someone goes thru the gate and walks to my booth and ask me “How do I shut off the alarm”? I tell them the only way the alarm doesn’t go off is not to use the gate in the first place.Sometimes,I wish cops were around to write tickets for those who abuse the system so that others heed the warning and follow the rules.

Scott E June 2, 2009 - 9:20 pm

Actually, at Penn Station the cops ARE there — but they’re usually inside the fare gates hiding behind the elevator, ready to ticket anyone who tries to slip in while others are shuffling out.

But to clarify my above post, I never go out through the Emergency Exit anywhere but Penn (not that it makes it right). I do admit, once, to opening the door to allow a parent pushing a stroller into the station, since the token clerk was asleep and couldn’t help.

Ed June 2, 2009 - 11:59 pm

I also won’t open Emergency Exits but will follow some other idiot who is walking through them.

I agree that many stations are poorly engineered in terms of allowing more people to egress. Apparently the Romans built the Colosseum so that 40,000 people could exit in something like fifteen minutes. Once again Roman engineering trumps whatever we come up with.

Except for the Second Avenue Subway, I’m fine with forgoing all capital projects in favor of improving access and transfers in the existing stations.

Guido June 3, 2009 - 12:15 am

The emergency exit is under the control of the station agent. Note that there is a button on the door that signals the agent to release the door in cases such as riders with strollers or bicycles. When I am exiting and see a bottleneck occurring, I will buzz the agent and then proceed without triggering an alarm.

One would think that a conscientious station agent would be alert enough to release the exit when congestion occurs at the turnstiles. I have seen this happen, but all too rarely. TWU workers in general could not care less about the riders’ safety and comfort.

Working Class June 3, 2009 - 4:19 pm

What you want the clerk to do would get them fired if they are caught. They are not allowed to just open the gate because there is a traffic jam.

tomhoser April 28, 2010 - 3:21 pm

That’s the problem people not using reason just outdated rules

Matt June 4, 2009 - 1:21 pm

The station agent at 23rd St, uptown, on the F/V line used to do this every morning. A huge crowd would always exit at this station (usually 1/3 to 1/2 of the train it seemed) and the agent would release the gate. It really helped alleviate crowding. I believe a new agent is now on that shift and doesn’t want to or know how to disable the alarm.

Matt Cvetic June 3, 2009 - 10:48 am

I don’t have any problem using the Emergence Exits. They help solve a legitimate problem of exit congestion at so many stations. And I don’t understand not using them except for a)the noise and b)blind obedience to a sign. What is being taken away by using the emergency exit? Nothing. Are the emergency doors made unusable in a real emergency? Of course not. Do people lose their opportunity to exit though tunrstiles? Nope. Everyone gets to work/home faster. Don’t we all want that? My solution for this problem is to do what many stations already have done. Turn off the alarm.

Woody June 3, 2009 - 11:17 am

Turn off the alarm. It’s that simple. The noise never deters anyone from whatever it is they aren’t supposed to do. It is just noise.

And is anyone keeping count of places where the only way you can exit with your bicycle is through the Emergency gate?

skunky June 6, 2009 - 10:20 pm

this seems to be the most practical solution. why is there an alarm at all? it’s not like we’re in a supermax prison where a claxon is warranted for escaping transit riders…

as with car alarms, they’re useless since no one pays any attention to them anyway.

Gary June 3, 2009 - 11:32 am

I’ll second what Noah said about 53rd and Madison. In some places, like that one, using the emergency gate is not merely a selfish act, but one that benefits the line (usually 8 deep) trying to access the subway when the crush of 80 people are exiting.

The noise is annoying, but worth it. I’ll add that I have very serious concerns about egress at a lot of stations in the system. We are one fire away from a tragedy at some of these stations.

Grrrumpy Miner June 6, 2009 - 9:55 am

I will say this….as a station agent,its easy to complain and harp on the siren that goes off.I’ll go a step further,Station Agents do not go to your place of business and tell you how to use your computer,or how you stock shelves,how you handle your own customers,flip burgers,make cabinets,etc….so what gives you the right to tell us how to do OUR job?

john b June 8, 2009 - 10:29 am

because we pay you. your taxes don’t pay my salary or my health benefits.

if your waiter spits in your food, i’m sure you would tell me not to do that. but where do you get off telling them how to do their job? oh thats right, you pay them for their service.

Grrumpy Miner June 8, 2009 - 12:08 pm

OH…..I see John B.Last I checked the name John B does NOT appear on the authorized signature on who pays me.NOW until I see your Name John B on my paycheck than you have a gripe.HOWEVER the name John B does not appear anywhere on my paycheck So now your argument “Because we pay you” is moot,neutered and baseless and has no grounds for discussion.Now as for going out to eat,I tip my waiter/waitress very generously for a job well done.I treat the help with the same respect and courtesy that they give me.I have enough class not to use the “Because we pay you” line like the smart ass you make yourself out to be,as I also know a waiter/waitress are underpaid,underappreciated and they work hard for their money.So find another argument John B.

john b June 9, 2009 - 11:21 am

i would normally let this go and ignore you but i think this is a very important point to make. its not a matter of class, my analogy about the waiter was just a comparison. its about reality here, just because a name does not appear on your paycheck does not mean that that person did not pay into the pool of money that is your source of payment. by your logic then that pool of money should only consist of the taxes paid by the people signing your paycheck and to be snide here that would be a lot less than you get paid now. your response to my analogy is either a wild misinterpretation of my point or a deliberate red herring. my post was not about what token booth clerks get paid but where that source of payment comes from and hence the rights attached to it. so my argument has neither been mooted, neutered nor proven baseless by your response unless you ignore objective reality.

on a side note i never use the “because we pay you” line with waiters but i do expect service to be commensurable to what i am paying. if you do respond please do so to my argument and refrain from baseless character attacks.

These are the people in your subway car :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog June 9, 2009 - 3:22 pm

[…] off a piece on Beliefnet, last week, we discussed the ethics of using the emergency exit to speed up travel times out of a crowded station. While it is illegal to use the emergency exit […]

Grrrumpy Miner June 10, 2009 - 1:17 pm

First of all John B…I never said YOU personally have no class,don’t know you probably never will.But believe it or not,you also said my taxes don’t pay YOUR salary or health benefits.Now I don’t know what you do for a living but in someway or another somebody pays for your salary and health benefits whether you work in the private sector or not(to use your analogy).My argument was the “Because we pay you” crack.The general public and yourself have no idea what we have to go thru in an average day.Most think our job is just sitting there reading a paper and blasting radios and hating the people we serve,well its not.On top of unruly kids who get out of school,customers who do not know how to swipe their cards or read signs or train disruptions,people who feel that they are better than everyone else,and supervision lurking around finding something to get rid of you,and thats just the tip of the iceberg.Also on top of that,Papers like the NY Post taking pictures of sleeping clerks,or the NY Daily News going thru emergency gates that we are supposed to be locked (Which got us into this argument in the first place).Believe it or not,I care about my job and in what I do,I give everyone the courtesy and treat people the way they treat me back (Same as waiters/waitresses)I do enjoy what I do and take my job seriously,do my job right and do it well with the respect of customers as well.Try doing my job for a week and see the mental stress we have to go through whether its Times Square or Broad Channel.I’ll go one better….Was in Los Angeles 3 years ago and the Mrs was looking for a blouse to wear for dinner,In NY the clerk would tell you “Whatever’s out there is all we have” and in LA,they will go above and beyond for you and find a blouse that would look good not only for dinner but for anytime.Now thats how I do my job…try to appease the customer and give good customer service in which they look for as well.People should expect good customer service,not demand it.

New SubTalk puts underground ethics on display :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog June 18, 2009 - 11:34 pm

[…] two weeks, I’ve talked a bit about the ethics involved in riding the subway. We looked at the age-old debate concerning the emergency exits and then went in-depth on some of the more selfish people in the […]

Iris August 3, 2009 - 3:38 pm

I suffer every morning at the 33rd St./Manhattan exit of the “1” train going south. Every day, some selfish cretin — wearing headphones, invariably–non-chalantly barrels through the emergency door, setting off an excrutiating sound, and leaving poor, suffering victims in his or her (mostly his) wake as they line up to use the “lawful” gate. I am appalled that no transit personnel, police, or anyone will do anything about this. I have taken matters into my own hands at times. I have followed the perp out, calling behind them things like, “You are not allowed to do that. It hurts” or “You know that’s illegal, right? Please don’t do it.” When they hear me, they look indignant and act rude to vile. They tell me to “F___ off,” call me a “C—- or a B—-” and often say, “Stop harrassing me; this is New York.” I have even made attempts to stand in front of the door, but people intent on barreling through have no qualms about pushing me out of their way and calling me all sorts of expletives when I ask them not to and to use the other door. The alarms are outrageously loud. They make my ears hurt and my heart ache. But here’s my question: Why keep the alarms rigged? What purpose is served when no one — absolutely no one, not the police, not MTA staff, not Transit Police — does anything when the alarm is sounded. So what purpose are they serving ? Who can we petition to either : a) dismantle the deafening alarms; or b) start issuing tickets with fines to deter the behavior.

To respect the emergency exits, or not :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 25, 2009 - 12:00 am

[…] to me, this summer has been one of ethics underground. We started it off with a brief post on the emergency exit debate, and we will end it there as […]

Harry August 25, 2009 - 7:34 pm

I would reason that since the trains on the Lexington Avenue line are critically overcrowded (esp. Rush Hour. Perfect example, the Fulton Street stop) that the emergency exits are the only way to reduce the overcrowding on the platforms when the trains come in.

If MTA is worried that people will try to jump the fares by going in when these doors are opened, I can tell you that it’s like a fish trying to swim upstream in a flood – the exiting patrons would run him/her over (and be pretty annoyed at the fareskipper in the process).

A guerrilla art attack targeting subway etiquette :: Second Ave. Sagas April 21, 2010 - 1:19 am

[…] daughter’s discarded chicken fingers and fries under her seat, I’ve looked at those who abuse emergency exits, those who do not give up seats to the aged, infirm or pregnant, those who grope others. The […]

Alarms ineffective at emergency exits, says Riders’ Council report :: Second Ave. Sagas September 8, 2010 - 12:01 pm

[…] exit rules either to enter without paying or to exit improperly. The emergency exit debate has been raging for years and with no end in sight. The NYCTRC report confirms what we know: that emergency exits are far […]

Emergency exit stings: entrapment or enforcement? :: Second Ave. Sagas May 19, 2011 - 12:16 pm

[…] when we talk about the great emergency exit debate, we do so in the context of exiting a station. Should those who think they are in more of a hurry than others risk the ear-piercing sounds of the […]


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