Home View from Underground Building a better subway entrance

Building a better subway entrance

by Benjamin Kabak

Four Turnstiles (1) by flickr user Infinite Jeff

Every day as I head into Manhattan and back home again, I have to navigate the southern entrance of the West 4th St. subway stop. Prior to February, the fare-control area was a madhouse. The two long walkways to the uptown and downtown platforms lead not to turnstiles but to an emergency exit on one side and a floor-to-ceiling fence on the other. It was a supreme waste of space and funneled people at the city’s 19th most popular station into a tight area.

Then, earlier this year, Transit rearranged the turnstiles. They added two turnstiles at the top of each exit ramp which allowed people to enter and exit the station without having to go out of the way and into that funnel of people. As Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges said at the time, the changes “will provide better ingress and egress at the tops of the ramps, which currently doesn’t exist, thereby forcing customers to walk to the middle for both ingress and egress.”

After eight months, I can say conclusive that the changes almost work. Instead of seeing people crushed into an area with six turnstiles that lead directly to a wall, the two turnstiles on other end are used almost exclusively, and the ones in the middle are ignored. The changes have improved the flow of people only marginally because it has created a situation where people coming into the station and those coming out are jockeying for position at two turnstiles. It’s a swipe-eat-swipe world out there, and the person who dawdles while reaching for a MetroCard usually has to give way to someone charging out of the station. It isn’t an ideal set-up.

This past week, at CityRoom, The Times tackled subway improvements. Playing off of Transit’s renewed attention to its customers, the paper asked its readers to suggest ways in which the MTA could improve the customer experience. They ranged from the frequently discussed — eliminate the emergency exits — to the policy-oriented — require public elections for MTA Board positions — but one struck me as obvious. Said a reader with the initials JSL:

How about eliminating the two way turnstiles and subway entrances, and make them into one-way only entrances and one-way only exits (like in Paris)? Reduce the traffic jam created by people trying to go opposite directions on the staircases.

Another reader, Dennis DeMott, offered a similar suggestion:

How about something as simple as some pedestian traffic control at the busier/larger stations. A couple of signs or arrows painted on the floor so people keep to the right. Everyone is pretty used to things like barricades, up & down staircases and entrance/exit only turnstiles and most people will follow some simple rules if there are any in place. But there aren’t any! Right now it is a free for all.

It’s hard to find fault with these two ideas. Improving people flow is a key aspect to running a successful transit network, and the MTA doesn’t quite have this one under control. Riders block doors while straphangers waiting on platforms don’t allow those exiting to get off first. Heading up and down staircases can be treacherous as New Yorkers can’t seem to grasp the concept of walking on the right. Turnstiles move on a first-come, first-serve basis, and it isn’t unusual to see at a station with few turnstiles passengers trying to enter the system wait until the maddening crowd subsides before swiping in.

New Yorkers, the cliche goes, can’t be fenced in by rules and etiquette. We push forward no matter what. It might just be more pleasant for everyone though with a few one-way turnstiles and some suggestive arrows. If New Yorkers can be taught to move in an orderly fashion, a few turnstile bars to the gut might just be all the motivation we need.

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28 comments

epc October 12, 2010 - 3:46 am

It would be an interesting solution for some of the turnstiles, but I wouldn’t make a hard and fast split of, say 50-50 inbound/outbound.

The problem with the Paris model is that it doesn’t account for changing traffic flows. I’ve stood in line for ten minutes trying to leave a Metro stop because there were only two exit turnstiles, while the two “entry” turnstiles stood unused/empty. Fantastic if you’re trying to get on at that station, but poor optimization if you’re trying to leave.

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Andrew October 14, 2010 - 11:11 pm

The problem is that most of the time, there are more people entering than exiting, but when a train pulls in, there’s a large crowd exiting.

Generally, bidirectional turnstiles make the most sense, but it’s probably ideal to have one or two exit-only turnstiles (or high wheels or slam gates) and one or two entry-only turnstiles (so people can still get into the station as people are exiting).

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Nathanael October 16, 2010 - 7:46 pm

I’ve seen a funny, but smart, arrangement in some stations (can’t remember whether it was London or Boston or DC). The turnstiles themselves are two-way, but at any given time most of them are only one-way: they have a big red DO NOT ENTER sigh on the “wrong way”. Turnstiles on the left are DO NOT ENTER, those on the right are allowed-to-enter.

Turnstiles near the middle can have their direction reversed between morning peak and evening peak.

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jp October 12, 2010 - 6:43 am

Not the newest idea- many exits had one-way exit turnstiles lead to stairways out, without entrances. You no doubt remember the red/green light globes at entrances which indicated the entrance type.

Why were so many converted to two-way?

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Subutay Musluoglu October 12, 2010 - 8:07 am

Separating the turnstiles into two groups for entry and exits would have occurred had the MetroCard system been configured for deducting the fare upon exit, based upon distance traveled and time of day, similar to Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. When the MTA made a policy decision in the early 90s to continue with a flat base fare regardless of distance or time, it doomed the current turnstile configuration to the free for all it is today. Retrofitting entrances for separating the two flows in a manner that works and the average New Yorker does not try to circumvent would be diffcult and costly (see emergency exit abuse-we have no subway etiqutte, as Ben correctly reminds us).

One practioe which is observed inconsistently but should be codified is the movement on escalators – stand on the right, walk on the left, as is the practice in London. New Yorkers are known as fast walkers, but many of us turn into turtles when confronted with an escalator – we get on and turn into immovable statues. Some of us don’t mind climbing up a moving escalator especially if ww are trying to get to our destination faster. For reasons as yet unknown to me, but would make for an interesting social study, the practice is now observed in a few places, such as off the western end of the Flushing Line platform up to the Grand Central mezzanine, or at the Lexington Avenue-53rd Street Station. At those stations, without any prompting or signage or official NYCT sanction, the crowds automatically, almost organically. split into two streams at the start of the escalators – those who want to stand, and instinctly move over to the right, and those who would rather climb (or walk down) on the left. When observed it’s beauty in motion (or not). It would be nice to see it spread system wide.

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Christopher October 12, 2010 - 10:46 am

In the Bay Area only BART is based on distance. Muni which operates trolley buses, trolley / streetcars, subway LRT and cable cars is single fare. And they do have rules about entering and existing the subway as well as buses. People really do only generally get on at the front and exit from the back.

DC is a special case and their general hyper-rationality and love of rules permeates everything about that system. Don’t even TRY to stand on left side of escalator in DC, you will pique the ire of every transit rider in the DC metro area. Of course unlike us, they have few stairs and almost only escalators so to move at all you have to be focused on the stand right, walk left paradigm.

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Bolwerk October 12, 2010 - 2:53 pm

Don’t even TRY to stand on left side of escalator in DC, you will pique the ire of every transit rider in the DC metro area. Of course unlike us, they have few stairs and almost only escalators so to move at all you have to be focused on the stand right, walk left paradigm.

I gotta respect that. I may not be in perfect shape myself, but there should be a special place in hell for the kind of irritating, fat, selfish, or some combination of the three, fuck on an escalator nonchalantly blocking the way for those of us who don’t have a heart attack with each upward motion of our legs.

A close second are the heifers who choose to block entire stairways, waddling as slowly as their uncoordinated, flabby girths will allow. Or perhaps the noxious couples who slowly walk side by side as if there is no one behind them, ever-so-deserving of a one-way trip to a special ring of hell Dante wasn’t prescient enough to set aside for them.

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mike October 12, 2010 - 8:59 pm

You made my day.

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Sharon October 12, 2010 - 9:01 pm

All you need is one dedicated entry turn style or heet at each entrance.

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Nathanael October 16, 2010 - 7:47 pm

The flat fare was a plain error. Building the system so that it couldn’t easily be converted to distance-based or zone-based later was a plainer error.

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Scott E October 12, 2010 - 8:17 am

In fairness, I have seen arrows and signs on some staircases urging people to stay to the right.

I’ve also seen, on some popular Lexington Ave line platforms, lettering in the floor tiles instructing passengers to “STAND ASIDE” where the train doors will line up. This was no doubt a pilot, I wonder what effect it has had. (Conversely, the LIRR’s painting of “Watch the Gap” on platforms near train doors had lead to more, not less, congestion in these areas; but traffic patterns on the railroad are different).

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Red October 12, 2010 - 12:17 pm

I find those floor tiles useful as an indicator of where the doors will open. Not sure whether it has had on impact on people “STANDING ASIDE” or not.

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Kid Twist October 12, 2010 - 10:22 am

How about imploring people to find their MetroCards before they reach the turnstile, instead of standing in front of it and ONLY THEN fishing through their wallets/pockets/purse?

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Jack October 12, 2010 - 12:51 pm

Some notes from Tokyo:

The station I used to frequent every day in my commute – Akihabara – is a huge station with three JR lines and a subway line meeting alongside the terminal for a high-speed commuter line (Tsukuba Express). While the station itself is larger than anything in New York, what they’ve done is painted on the ground arrows from each exit leading to each train line (and vice versa). It’s a great system because it points exactly where you need to go, and since the turnstiles are all one-way, they point you to the exact turnstiles you need to get in or out.

Also, every station platform has painted on the ground lines indicating where to stand so that people on the train can disembark with minimum interference, and so that people waiting can get on the train much faster.

Granted, Tokyo’s subway system is in a league of its own, and Japan has many unwritten rules of conduct that would be impossible to bring to America. However, it also has some great ideas that would be worth looking into in NYC.

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Jack October 12, 2010 - 1:10 pm

One other note from Tokyo that would be much more difficult to implement, but would be much more helpful in the long run:

the station booths are always situated at one end of the turnstiles, with an extra-wide turnstile as a part of it. People who need to purchase tickets from a person do so at this gate, and then are let into the system manually, as are most handicapped (can’t remember any strollers in Tokyo). All help is done here, and people can access station agents from both sides of the turnstiles.

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Alon Levy October 12, 2010 - 1:20 pm

Singapore does not have anything remotely as busy as Akiba, but it too has the lines painted on the platform showing people where to stand. So does Shanghai. If you have the technology for trains to stop at precise points, permitting platform screen doors, you automatically get the technology to be able to paint those lines.

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Jack October 12, 2010 - 1:24 pm

Oh yeah, and NYC could easily manage these – I’ve noticed trains line up in the same place each time, at least on the 123. The real question is whether or not riders would respect said lines. I fear not.

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Alon Levy October 13, 2010 - 9:42 am

I think the IRT already has this technology – I’m not sure. The real problem is on some of the IND and BMT lines, where the same track pair often hosts trains with different car lengths and different door placement.

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Andrew October 14, 2010 - 11:13 pm

There’s no technology involved (except on the L). Stopping locations are indicated by trackside markers. A 10-car train always stops within a few feet of the 10-car marker. Not precise enough for platform doors, but good enough for painted markings.

Woody October 12, 2010 - 1:04 pm

“…improve the customer experience — eliminate the emergency exits…”

Eliminating the useless alarms would improve the experience, but eliminating the exits would be a bigger pain — especially for those of us who take our bikes on the subway when we get caught in the rain.

Most people use the emergency exits because, as discussed in this post, the MTA has failed at people flow management. Eliminating that symptom of failure would not fix the problem.

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Bolwerk October 12, 2010 - 2:57 pm

Oh, hell, you shouldn’t be taking your bikes on the subway anyway, at least not at peak times. It’s crowded enough without bikes.

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Jonathan October 12, 2010 - 11:42 pm

Sorry in advance for the tangent, but I took one of my infrequent trips on the subway today during the morning rush and I have to report that the standing-in-doors epidemic still continues. Is it fun for people to get swatted by my backpack as I leave the train? It’s certainly no fun for me to have to fight my way into the subway car. I don’t know what the MTA’s priority is for “sponsoring a pleasant, courteous environment,” but it can’t be more difficult than countdown clocks.

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Brmnyc October 13, 2010 - 2:14 am

At least the newer cars on the IRT lines have returned to the same door configuration as the old redbirds: doors that are not lined up exactly opposite each other from the left and right sides of the car (except for the end-cars with that annoying full-width cab with the blurry window that makes nearly impossible to look out the front–but I digress). Because the doors are offset, there is no longer the box where all standees tend to crowd together, instead of stepping into the middle areas where the seats are (and always extra standing space). Now the standing room areas are more evenly distributed from one end of the car to another. A modest improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.

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Brmnyc October 13, 2010 - 2:16 am

And by the way–I use W.4th Street, and I think the turnstile move has helped more than Mr. Kabak would have you believe. For one thing, I can exit straight out of the station now, and avoid having to push through the congested area in front of the token booth.

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Alon Levy October 13, 2010 - 9:45 am

I remember West 4th as being annoying to exit, but part of it is unmitigable: it was meant to be a transfer station, not a major origin or destination. But yeah, reconfiguring the 3rd Street exist turnstile is a nice addition.

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Andrew October 14, 2010 - 11:15 pm

I don’t understand the problem. Obviously, people going between the southbound platform and the west side of the street (entering or exiting) will use the new west turnstiles, and people going between the northbound platform and the east side of the street will use the east turnstiles. But why wouldn’t people going between the southbound platform and the east side of the street, or between the northbound platform and the west side of the street, use the middle turnstiles?

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gash22 October 18, 2010 - 8:59 pm

How about incorporating a 10-15 second delay before an emergency gate can be opened. They are still useful in an emergency, and people can take their bike/stroller out of them, but it eliminates the incentive to be lazy and the god awful buzzing.

I also agree that there should be at least one single direction entry and exit at each major entry/exit point.

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Andrew May 13, 2011 - 2:12 pm

“New Yorkers, the cliche goes, can’t be fenced in by rules and etiquette”

No. We New Yorkers, just like anyone, should be civil and courteous to others. Please stop perpetuating this stereotype, as if it is a point of pride.

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