To respect the emergency exits, or not

By · Published in 2009

In case of emergency, go around. (Photo by flickr user rlboston)

For reasons unknown 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 well.

This time, WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman provides us with the source material. Schuerman recently went underground to talk to straphangers about their views on the emergency exits and those who ignore the whole “emergency” part of the exit. His results and analysis of the various types of riders reveal a lot about New Yorkers’ approaches to subway riding. Mostly, it seems, we are a selfish bunch when it comes to following the rules. As long as I get home faster, many think, I don’t care what the signs say.

The NPR story — embedded at right — focuses on the “ear-splitting” emergency exit alarms and the three categories of people who use them. Schuerman starts with what he terms Trailblazers, those who use the emergency exits with little regard to anyone else. “Quite frankly when I’m leaving the subway it’s always an emergency because I need to get home,” Kasia Reterska, a PR officer at the International Center for Transitional Justice, said to him. Selfish much?

The second group of people Schuerman calls Pragmatists, and I’m sure we’re all a little bit of a pragmatist. These are the folks who will go through emergency exits as long as someone else has opened it. It’s even more pragmatic if the station attendant has disabled the alarm.

Finally, Schuerman arrives at the Moralists, those who think it wrong no matter what. The sign says “Emergency Exit,” and unless it’s a real emergency, that exit will remain closed. “You know,” Nicki Garcia said, “it’s not an emergency to leave here.”

As for Transit’s response to those Trailblazers and Pragmatists, well, it is against subway rules to use the emergency exits in non-emergency situations. As of mid-August, cops had handed out 871 emergency exit-related $50 tickets, but that total is but a drop in the bucket compared with the total number of violators. Andrew Albert, the transit riders representative to the MTA board, believes that Transit should eliminate the emergency exits in favor of more HEETs or turnstiles. After all, most New Yorkers, he says, are too impatient to wait at emergency exits. Still, Transit has no plans to do so.

In the end, I am left wondering if Jose Ponce and Reterska are indicative of the attitude of subway riders. “Sometimes it’s too packed and you’re in a rush and the alarms go off and it gets annoying,” he said. “You gotta get somewhere, man, everybody has to gotta get somewhere, just turn them off, that’s what I think – turn them off.”

We all have to get somewhere, and the rules should not apply to me. These are the people in your subway car.

30 Responses to “To respect the emergency exits, or not”

  1. Josh says:

    At one of the stations by my house, Fort Hamilton Parkway on the West End Line, station attendants have been placing signs over the doors along the lines of: “Please read — this door is for emergencies only.”

    The emergency exits are so heavily used because after coming down the stairs from the subway platform, they are directly ahead of you, and connect right into the stairwell headed for the street. A slew of people prefer this over the “appropriate” route of walking through a set of doors, around and through the turnstiles, and then back through another set of doors.

    I’m a bit of a “moralist” myself, but with this type of station design, I can understand why people are so tempted to use the emergency exits. It’s not even explicitly about time-saving — the path through the emergency exits is a logical extension of the path they were currently taking.

  2. rhywun says:

    Just eliminate the middle-man and put a Metrocard reader at the door. Price to exit: $50.

  3. Peter says:

    “…a PR Officer for the International Center For Transitional Justice”

    Wow. Sounds like something from Monty Python, The Onion or Orwell.

    There are signs sayinig “No Littering”, too. I guess everything is Transitional….

  4. JP says:

    It’s about self-reliance: why does it have to be so hard to get out? Why does someone with a baby stroller, large suitcase, bicycle or wheelchair have to wait for someone to help them at the desgnated end of the platform? In the NPR article, the person in the booth can turn off alarms to any e-exit within line-of-sight, but not say, at the other end of the station. But aren’t the MTA cutting down on those positions? What if I have to get out but my agent is wandering around the station or asleep at their post? Then I have to make everyone around me uncomfortable.

    With my bicycle, agents have instructed me to use the gate, even though I am fully able to get it either over the turnstiles or through the vertical ones… their response- “you could get stuck”. Has anyone heard of someone stuck in a turnstile?

    It’s not about morality: I’ve yelled at people for doing it, but then walked off a car onto a sweltering platform that smells of human waste. There’s a crowd of thirty people trying to use the vertical turnstiles, and oh look- a door that beelines me to fresh air. There’s no danger to wait my turn but why should I hang around that shithole (literally) when I can just exercise my freedom and get the heck out of there? And yes, I’ve been to the stairway landing on that south end of Carrol St on the F- the serially recurring pile of dung. Maybe the gatebreakers are trying to beat the crowd to get past that in a hurry?

    Emergency is left open to interpretation here. Maybe my nose is bleeding. Maybe my movie starts in two minutes and I don’t want to be late. Maybe someone is chasing me with a knife. Maybe I just feel dizzy because it smells so bad and it’s so hot. Maybe my kids are getting out of school and if I’m not there, someone will steal them. Is the subway used for organ delivery?

  5. Scott E says:

    I’m one of those pragmatists. If the door is already open from someone in front of me, and I can squeeze through before it closes (without touching it), then I view it as no harm-no foul. Otherwise, I could go through a turnstile, reaching an impasse with those across from me trying to go the opposite direction through that very turnstile.

    I view it similar to an airport. To enter the secured area, one has to go through the metal detectors and send their bags, belt, and shoes through X-ray. To exit, there is no barrier whatsoever, just a half-attentive guard making sure everyone’s walking in the proper direction.

    Unless the subways have clear, separately defined entrances and exits, we will always butt heads as we try to go opposite directions through the same turnstiles. The door alleviates this.

  6. Marc Shepherd says:

    It’s interesting, Ben, that you describe those who use the emergency exits in non-emergency situations as “selfish.” Look up “selfish” in the dictionary and explain how it applies in this situation.

    • I guess selfish isn’t exactly the right word because the Trailblazers aren’t acting to the exclusion of others. Ms. Reterska’s attitude, however, is clearly selfish. Shd could care less if she inconveniences others as long as she gets home quicker.

    • Joel says:

      Selfish: 1. a. Devoted to or concerned with one’s own advantage or welfare to the exclusion of regard for others. (OED)

      Emergency Exit alarms are very annoying and painful to the ear, like a baby crying. Except I wouldn’t say the baby is being selfish, while the person using the Emergency Exit in a non-emergency situation is concerned with their own welface to the exclusion of those of us who hate that sound.

  7. digamma says:

    If you exit the L train at 8th Avenue via the western staircase, a massive crowd of people gets funneled into this tiny area with two turnstiles, one of which has people trying to get in. I’m not claustrophobic but that place is dangerous. There, I’m a Trailblazer.

  8. Tony says:

    There are alot of station exits that only have heeps and a emergency exit. In these places the crowds of people have no choice but to use the emergency exit it is a safety thing with the big crowd in a small place with no place to go.

  9. D Train says:

    Try the exits at Cortelyou on the Brighton Line. The emergency exit is the most useful exit of the whole station. It’s also a problem of piss-poor planning on the part of the MTA. They seemed to have installed these emergency exits with no regard to actual human interaction and study. IF there was any justice or planning in the world, someone would have realized that the turnstiles at Corteylou are inefficient during rush-hour and would have noted the actual efficient exits are the emergency exits. The solution is swap the position of the turnstiles and exits (leaving the emergency exit in the middle) but that costs money and time. Sure was easier to just plop the EX wherever there was empty space. And us humans being industrious creatures, have now found this new exit is more efficient.

    Thus, the use of the Cortelyou emergency exit during rush hour by 90% of passengers will continue unabated.

    • anonymouse says:

      Similar concerns used to apply at the Broadway end of Broadway-Lafayette. They recently put in another 3 turnstiles in addition to the 4 that were there before, and use of the emergency exit has dropped to almost nothing.

  10. Chris says:

    One aspect that is not discussed so far is the ability of the turnstiles to count the number of passengers exiting. When using the door there is no counting done. I’m not sure if the MTA uses the exit statistics, but I imagine that it would be useful to track station usage and to give an estimate of fare-beaters (if X people exit the system and there were Y swipes of the metrocard to enter, then X-Y are fare-beaters).


    • Scott E says:

      I don’t think they count exits – particularly because there are a number of HXT (High Exit Turnstiles) in the system that are purely mechanical — they have no means of counting or reporting counts back to a centralized location. Even if they did count them, the counts would be meaningless because of all the people streaming through the open doors.

  11. SEAN says:

    As a person who is disabled using the E exit is a nessessary action when a station is particularlly busy. Forest Hills has the exit off to the right side away from the booth & turnstyles. In Jamaica Parsons/ Archer station the E exit is open most of the time, allowing faster access to Airtrain & LIRR trains. The booth is right there, so fare beating is less of a problem.

  12. StreetsPariah says:

    Were there more/better exits at subway stations, this wouldn’t be an issue. At the Canal St JMZ exit, there are only three turnstiles, and one emergency exit door. No HXTs or HEETs. Now try that during rush hour without the use of the emergency exit. There’s just no way. What’s so great about the emergency exits is that they are one way, so there are no collisions between those entering and exiting. Everyone gets through faster.

    What no one seems to talk about in this debate is that no one (or very few, none that I’ve seen) is catching the emergency exit doors to ENTER the subway (despite it being quite easy to do so). We New Yorkers may have questionable morality, but even we have our limits.

    • rhywun says:

      I see punks sneaking in through the emergency exit once in a while. I’ve never seen anyone do anything to stop them.

    • Scott E says:

      At the Penn Station 1/2/3 entrance, there’s usually a police officer hiding behind the elevator. He can look through the elevator(made of glass) and nab the farebeaters who walked in through the out door. I’ve see them writing tickets all the time – I can only assume that’s what they’re for.

  13. Mike Nitabach says:

    It’s been about seven years since I’ve used the subway regularly; I took the E or the F between 53rd & Lex and Washington Square, and sometimes the 6 between 51 St and Astor Place.

    In all the fifteen years I used the subway a lot, I cannot remember noticing anyone ever going out an emergency exit and setting off the alarm. Was I oblivious, or this is a relatively new behavior pattern?

    • Scott E says:

      Mike N – It’s only recent (within the past two or three years) that Emergency Exits have existed throughout the system. In response to the London Underground bombings, they retrofitted the gates with panic bars, so anybody can open the door from the inside to quickly evacuate a station, if necessary (and I believe they added gates as well). There might be an early Second Ave Sagas blog post about it.

  14. Mike Nitabach says:

    That would explain why I never noticed it! Thanks for the info!

  15. JP says:

    Lots of stations have gates for high-volume egress… at baseball stadiums, coney island, and some of the other more popular stations. Look closely and you’ll see them; sadly they’re locked- which is beyond foolish. They only operate when there’s a planned high-volume event like New Years Eve at Times Square, perhaps.

    Providing a safe and easy exit seems more like a necessity and less like an emergency-only-option. A no-brainer, really. And they’re issuing *tickets* for this?

    There’s no practical reason to make people feel like they’re held hostage. Oh wait- they would have to pay someone to guard it.

    How much would higher-efficiency exit-only turnstiles cost? The new vertical ones are so slow!

    • Andrew says:

      It seems to me that the basic problem is twofold: first, HEET’s are slow, and second, even where there are standard low turnstiles, there aren’t enough of them.

      Now, remember that the entire MetroCard system, including HEET’s, was developed when crime in general, and fare evasion in particular, was relatively high. It’s much lower now. So perhaps the solution is to get rid of HEET’s and use standard turnstiles instead, even at unattended entrances. And install a lot of them. At busier stations, designate some as exit-only, and position them, if possible, so that they’re the first ones exiting passengers encounter.

      Yes, some people will jump the turnstile. It’s not the end of the world. Make sure the penalty is large enough that it’s not worth it to take the risk.

  16. Noah says:

    So part of this problem has been precipitated by the advent of the HEET’s, which are both slower for egress and now allow for entry, when formerly they only accommodated entry into the system. As such my pragmatic situation exists which I commented about on the previous thread, where at the 5thave station for the EV, for me to exit someone can’t enter, so if there is a line of people trying to enter the system then it is better for them, me and everyone behind me to use the emergency exit. There is also an amount of safety as it is unsafe to have a huge number of people backing up escalators. In the old model people couldn’t enter and the exit flow was higher, look at 7th ave 9th street and you will see people exiting out of the one old exit twice as fast as through the HEET’s. Also as was pointed out in the previous thread, they don’t collect entry and exit data from HEET’s. The real thing they are afraid of is people gaming the system by sneaking in through an open exit door, ticket people for entering illegally, but not for leaving especially when there is often good reason that isn’t as cut an dry as the above examples.

  17. Hermann says:

    “Selfish” what?! New York subway platforms are so putrid with human feces, piss and vommit aplenty we ought to commend the Reterska and Ponces of the world for breaking up the bottlenecks and freeing dronelike rule-followers from these deplorable and putrid surroundings. Really, maybe a litte common sense and innovation would help our society every now and again, don’t you think?

  18. Gil says:

    Has anybody been to the exit at the end of the S train that lets you out on the east side of Times Square and 42nd? It’s got an emergency exit, and one tiny single two-way turnstyle that is supposed to feed both entering-with-metrocard people as well as those exiting the most recent S train arrival.

    I tend to not Trailblaze. But when it’s rush hour, and there’s that single two-way turnstile, and people exiting the subway system keep preventing people from swiping their metrocards to get in, and there’s a long line on both sides, I hit the emergency exit and everybody follows. And not only do me and the others get an actual exit, but it allows the enterers to take over the turnstiles without being held up by the exiters. To possibly catch that S train I just got off of.

  19. Christop says:

    What about the station house on the downtown platform of the 4/5 at Bowling Green? You have the majority of the train trying to leave and get to South Ferry through 3 turnstiles while retarded tourists fresh off their Statue of Liberty tour try to figure out how to get in while standing in the middle of the turnstiles. I’ve always been against E-Exit use but in this instance I often have no choice.


  1. […] me as much to walk through the door after it’s already opened (some might say I’m a pragmatist). I guess I always thought it was like a drug crime, wherein the dealer (the person who makes the […]

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