At Grand Army Plaza, a subway stop I use on a daily basis, the fare control areas are designed to encourage riders to use the emergency exits. At the western end, four turnstiles sit atop a staircase with the emergency exit closer to both the stairs leading from the platform and those leading out of the station. At the eastern end, the stairs lead to two exit-only iron maidens on the south side and an emergency exit door on the north side. As you can imagine, I’ve seen those emergency exits used for nearly every type of egress, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen them used in an emergency.
On the one hand, this isn’t that much of a problem. So long as fare scofflaws aren’t ducking into the emergency gates, riders are using the path of least resistance to clear out of the subway system, and the straphangers using the emergency doors aren’t providing a humanity-laden counterflow against those trying to enter the system to catch a train.
This isn’t limited to Grand Army Plaza. I see it at Times Square near the Shuttle where the emergency exit is often the only way to avoid people entering; I see it at Union St. where the three turnstiles can’t handle the mass of exiting commuters at rush hour. I see it at Yankee Stadium where cops are on guard for fare jumpers, and I saw it, before Transit reconfigured fare control, at West 4th St., where it just made sense to use the emergency exits.
But there’s a catch, and that catch is the incessant, loud, obnoxious blare of the emergency exits. Much like the boy who cried wolf, the alarm sounds, and no one blinks. It’s just another noise in a city full of them, one relegated to background status, except its a background noise that pierces everything around it and may just be unsafe for human ears.
Over at The Times, videographer Ken Webb takes on the emergency exit issue, and he put together the film I’ve embedded atop this post. This is an issue no one wants to solve; it involves elements of ADA compliance and other regulations concerning safety. Self-important New Yorkers ignore the “emergency” part of the exit doors, and Transit is content to let the alarms blare throughout subway stations. And yet, there must be some way to fix it if only we thought about it for a few minutes. After all, nobody loves the sound of the emergency exit in the morning. Or at night. Or ever.