Home View from Underground Video: On Transit’s emergency exit problem

Video: On Transit’s emergency exit problem

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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54 comments

Michael K March 19, 2014 - 1:22 am

I don’t really think this is an issue. The alarm seems to deter fare beaters while accommodating heavy exit flows during peak times.

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Benjamin Kabak March 19, 2014 - 8:46 am

You should stand at the 43rd St. entrance to Times Square if you think the emergency exit doors do anything to deter fare beaters. 🙂

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Michael K March 19, 2014 - 12:24 pm

I usually see cops at the gate at 40th and 8th where I catch the A.

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Benjamin Kabak March 19, 2014 - 12:29 pm

It’s far, far more likely than not that cops aren’t at the gate. I think you’ve pointed to the exception, rather than the rule, due to the fact that 40th and 8th is right at Port Authority.

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Theorem Ox March 19, 2014 - 1:28 am

I agree with Ken Webb and with you that the alarms on the gates are not serving their purpose and are quite an (potentially harmful) annoyance.

I think it would be best for the MTA to officially allow the de facto practice of the using the emergency gates as a service gate / auxiliary exit. It probably will be cheaper than re-configuring fare control in many stations.

Start by re-wiring the crash bar so that it doesn’t trigger the audible alarm. Perhaps as a compromise, a large button can be installed near/on (set up so that accidental triggering are minimized) that will sound the alarm and alert the nearest station agent on duty. for genuine emergency situations where attention is warranted.

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Eric Brasure March 19, 2014 - 4:53 pm

Why were the alarms put in place in the first place? This wasn’t an issue 10 years ago.

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TAE March 19, 2014 - 2:39 am

I don’t think the MTA intended the “Emergency” in Emergency Exit to be optional. The alarms should be made much louder and more obnoxious to drive that point home.

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tacony March 19, 2014 - 9:39 am

Your solution to the loud annoying noise is to make it louder and more annoying? The problem is that the person who first pushes the button is relieved of hearing the noise almost instantly once they’re outside of fare control and on their way out of the station. It’s all us poor schlubs behind him or her who have to endure it. Please god no!

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Ike March 19, 2014 - 5:29 pm

With new technology like LRAD devices, the alarms could be made highly directional (though admittedly I don’t know how expensive that would be). The alarms could be made extremely loud for those going through the emergency gate and barely even audible for those exiting properly.

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Urban Residue March 19, 2014 - 6:56 am

The problem is that the MTA took existing service gates and called them “emergency exits.” Nobody has stopped using them for their original purposes. The alarm seems like harassment for anybody in a wheelchair, or taking a stroller or bicycle on the subway. I have little doubt that analysis would demonstrate regular use of the services gates is necessary to maintain an acceptable peak hour level of service in many stations.

If emergency exits are necessary, the MTA should actually install some, rather than putting some signs on the service gates and pretending they’re for emergency use.

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Brandon March 19, 2014 - 7:37 am

I agree with this.

In less busy stations theyre also used more often at HEET exits, because its faster for people than exiting through the HEETs.

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Nathanael March 19, 2014 - 3:06 pm

Why were these converted from existing gates to “emergency exits”? That was a completely anti-straphanger thing to do. This should be reversed.

Given their necessity for wheelchair or stroller access under the current layouts, it’s particularly ridiculous.

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pete March 19, 2014 - 11:49 pm

IIRC someone sued the MTA and a NY State judge said MTA isn’t exempt from NY State building code just because it is a government owned corporation with its own law enforcement. https://web.archive.org/web/20051103032200/http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/361275p-307771c.html http://www.wnyc.org/story/87198-wheres-the-fire/ I can’t find the exact complaint that caused the MTA to start installing the the doors.

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Ferdinand Cesarano March 20, 2014 - 10:01 am

I’d like to mention again that these emergency exits were not converted from existing gates; the service gate that is used by people in wheelchairs and by bicyclists (and which is in view of the station agent booth) is a different thing to the emergency exit (which is often far away from the booth). In many stations the emergency exit was placed where there previously had been no gate whatsoever.

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Nathanael March 21, 2014 - 3:43 am

In every single station, as far as I can tell, the emergency exit was placed where there was once a full-service exit. NYC Transit was not going to pay for digging new stairwells!

Toronto is actually doing that now, digging second exit stairwells in many of its stations which had only one exit, and it’s ferociously expensive.

Were these places in NYC places where the original gates were closed long, long ago? I wonder how long ago?

I mean, HEETs are also a retrofit in almost every station.

In some of the older stations, turnstiles are a retrofit, replacing the original ticket choppers!

I suppose the real story here is that exits were closed (or the width narrowed, etc.) during the period of declining ridership for the subway, which started in 1948.

Ridership is back to 1950 levels and they need to be reopened.

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Nathanael March 21, 2014 - 3:45 am

Obviously most people alive today won’t remember the 1948 station configurations and so it may seem like there was “never” an exit there. But I’ll lay bets there was once an exit at every one of these locations.

Ferdinand Cesarano March 21, 2014 - 11:12 am

Who said anything about digging new stairwells? At the stations on the J along Jamaica Ave., the emergency exits were placed where there were formerly iron fences with no opening in them. I cannot believe that these are the only such stations.

Alon Levy March 19, 2014 - 9:35 pm

Re accessibility: is any of those closed service gates at accessible entrances? If the gate is at the bottom of a stairwell, then it’s inaccessible either way.

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Maggie March 19, 2014 - 8:09 am

This happens everywhere, not just at the hub stations you mention. I think Urban Residue is correct and it can be traced back to when they reconfigured stations and eliminated booths in so many stations. Besides the unending alarm (useless now for “real” emergencies)what happens in smaller stations is because more people can go through an emergency door quicker than a turnstile, they’re create a dangerous clog in the stairwell.

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John-2 March 19, 2014 - 9:16 am

It will be interesting to see how the Emergency Exit gates have been placed at Hudson Yards, and how they’ll be configured at the three SAS stops. Those will be the first four new stations designed from scratch after the current exit system was established, so you would think the MTA’s architects will move the gates to where they aren’t in the most common travel path for people trying to get out of the subway, but can still be used by ADA passengers or parents with strollers. But if the end up in the exact same spot as in the 75- to 110-year-old stations, it wouldn’t be a shock.

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Nathanael March 21, 2014 - 3:46 am

I suspect passenger loads are simply too high for the current “legal” exit layouts. Remember, this level of ridership was last seen in roughly 1950, and I’m sure there were more exits then.

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James March 19, 2014 - 8:21 am

I’ve always wondered why they didn’t put a 10-second delay on them, like you often see on emergency exits in office buildings. Hold the bar for 10 seconds, then the alarm will sound and the gate will unlock. It would deter self-important people in a hurry just enough to send them through the turnstiles, but still make the exits available 1) in an emergency and 2) to those who need a service gate for a bike, package, etc.

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EN March 19, 2014 - 10:22 am

Delayed egress is generally illegal in NYC. Very specific conditions must be met to use it. Delayed egress in assembly areas (subway stations included) cannot be used at all.

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Alon Levy March 19, 2014 - 9:36 pm

Because when there’s an actual emergency, they’d have stampedes.

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R2 March 19, 2014 - 8:58 am

Another notorious one: Grand Central, on the Lex, north end. This past Monday the exit was sealed. In the last few years, the exit was simply silenced. Today, back to normal: blissful silence and folks use it to exit quickly.

Look, people are going to use the path of least resistance no matter what. Reconfigure where practical and not too costly. Turn off alarms that everyone ignores. Finito.

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Jim D March 19, 2014 - 9:40 am

Open the gates for exit and remove the alarms, but increase the fines significantly for attempting to gain access to the station through the gate to beat the fare.

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Herb Lehman March 19, 2014 - 9:46 am

I use the emergency exits all the time. It’s not a matter of saving a couple of seconds; it’s a matter of letting people who are frantically trying to rush for their train through the turnstiles make their train without getting in their way and possibly getting clobbered by them. Anyone who uses the Bowling Green station during rush hour will understand this; the people running for trains there are animals.

As a couple of people have suggested, just turn off the nuisance alarms, and triple or quadruple the fine for fare beating.

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Larry Littlefield March 19, 2014 - 9:54 am

I may have contributed to the problem. In the wake of 9/11, BMT trains between Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan were relocated to the Nassau Loop. Half of the tracks on the Manhattan Bridge were still out as I recall.

The trains were packed, and there was a huge exit volume at Broad Street, near the new NYCT headquarters. Because volumes had been so low at the station before 9/11, and most of that had been from the other direction (down from the Williamsburg Bridge), all that was open for exit on the side coming from the Montigue Tunnel was one iron maiden. It could take 10 minutes plus to get out of the station.

I pointed out to those at NYCT that the result could be disastrous in the event of an emergency, say a track fire that filled the station with smoke.

Then NYCT got a bunch of post-9/11 security money, and the emergency doors were installed at stations systemwide. I’m not sure that was really required everywhere, especially at those IND stations with their huge mezzanines.

Certainly not at my home station at Prospect Park 15th Street, with its many stairs up to a mezzanine with many exits. But I think the default was just to put them everywhere. So we get the scream too, when the Bishop Ford kids are blowing through the emergency exit on their way out.

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Nathanael March 19, 2014 - 3:09 pm

(1) Just let people out; make these actual exits.
(2) Hell, why not make them entrances?
(3) If there’s a serious problem with turnstile jumping, put some transit fare checkers back in the subway

Sometimes there’s no technological shortcut for doing the right thing.

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SEAN March 19, 2014 - 11:19 am

YES! Please turn off the alarms – they serve no useful function. Where possible the turnstyles should be entry only & the emergency doors should be exit only. And yes raise the fines by all means.

At Sutphin/ Archer the door is usually open anyway to assist travelers with luggage. There’s usually a cop nearby so fare jumping is a bad idea.

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BrooklynBus March 19, 2014 - 4:53 pm

At some stations they are turned off. What is the logic?

They shoud be kept open at busy stations when large numbers need to exit like was done years ago.

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Ferdinand Cesarano March 19, 2014 - 12:37 pm

I am glad to see some attention to this matter. The noise pollution is a huge problem, especially at night. Where I live in Woodhaven, the bleating of the alarms that accompany every train in both directions at the Woodhaven Blvd. and Forest Parkway stops has been a terrible scourge. When I complain to the station agent, they say that I have to tell the police.

Furthermore, I think that these gates didn’t replace exisitng service gates in most stations. The service gates are right in front of the station agent’s booth; the new emergency gates were largely installed where solid iron fences formerly were.

While the problem is noise pollution (in addition to the loss of a means of calling for help in an emergency), a solution could be to make the alarms even louder. If the alarms were piercingly loud, then more people would object to their constantly going off; and the emergency exits might start to be used only for their actual purpose. And in that case the alarm would actually cause alarm.

Still, the best remedy is to crack down on this abuse. I mentioned that the MTA people tell me to take my complaints to the police. And, indeed, it’s partially the fault of the police for having allowed the public to become accustomed to abusing the emergency exits. I once accidentally called 911 from my apartment, and then hung up. Minutes later, police appeared at my door. If the police had from the beginning treated the use of an emergency exit as the equivalent to a call to 911 (analogous to the way the Fire Department treats the pulling of a fire alarm), then people would never have gotten into the practice of abusing the emergency exits.

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Nathanael March 19, 2014 - 3:10 pm

If you make the alarms TOO loud, people will start cutting them regularly. And people will agree with that.

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Ferdinand Cesarano March 19, 2014 - 3:45 pm

Hmm. How would anyone without a detailed schematic of the wiring know exactly which wires to cut in order to disable the alarm? And the idea that people could start opening wall panels and fiddling with the wiring without being caught is very hard to believe.

The solution I most favour is enforcement: start treating activating the emergency exit alarm like pulling a fire alarm, and start treating the false activation of this alarm as a crime. But making the alarm extremely loud would help also, as fewer people would be willing to set it off.

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Nathanael March 21, 2014 - 3:49 am

Enforcement is stupid in this case. What’s needed is more ‘legal’ exits.

These get opened most reliably when there’s crowding on the platforms, which is actually dangerous, y’know?

Make it loud and evil enough and people WILL figure out how to smash it. There’s always a way. And it doesn’t matter how much you “enforce” it if everyone is cheering the person who smashes it.

You don’t want to make the police the enemy of the public, and “enforcing” against things which most people think are a good idea is how you make the police the enemy of the public. Think about it.

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Ferdinand Cesarano March 21, 2014 - 11:41 am

More legal exits would be great at those few stations that need them. However, not every station is a Fulton St. or a Grand Army Plaza; most stations do not experience the kind of crowding that needs to be relieved by extra exits.

The stations on the J along Jamaica Ave. were served perfectly by their existing exits; there was no issue of crowding which created the need for additional exits. The emergency exits created exits where there were none before. They were not installed in order to relieve crowding; they were installed in order to give passengers a means of escaping (and of alerting the police) during an emergency.

Every building has fire doors that are attached to a fire alarm. These doors are to be opened only in case of fire; when they are opened, a very loud and very intrusive alarm sounds, and the fire department is called. If you open one of these doors for your own convenience when there is no fire, you will get in trouble.

This is the model according to which the subway emergency exits should be operated: when one of these exits is opened, the alarm should be extremely loud, so as to signal clearly that this is an emergency situation; and the police should be summoned.

By allowing these emergency exits to be abused and treated as convenience exits, we have lost a potential means of alerting the police when an actual emergency is occurring. And by having alarms that are just loud enough to be annoying but are not loud enough to signal an emergency situation (and, therefore, not loud enough to discourage the frivolous activation), we have created a great deal of noise pollution in the process.

I am no lover of police, and I deplore their frequent excesses. But enforcement of the correct use use of the emergency exits is an appropriate use of police power.

BruceNY March 19, 2014 - 11:16 pm

Your point about the ‘annunciator’ which signals when a train is approaching is well taken, and is just another example of the MTA’s poor choices of how it chooses to get the public’s attention.
In Tokyo, when a train is approaching, you hear some mellifluous chimes, and then an recorded announcement. In New York, it’s a series of loud, harsh beeps.

In New York, when you swipe your metrocard, a harsh beep sounds regardless if your swipe worked or failed.

In New York, customer service exits are re-branded as an emergency exits, and are wired to emit a harsh, squealing noise.

In New York, “kneeling buses” emit a deafening, screeching warning tone when lowering themselves to curb level.

Why is it always a harsh, unpleasant, deafening, squealing noise that is used to get our attention?

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Ferdinand Cesarano March 20, 2014 - 9:51 am

Sorry to have been unclear; I was not complaining about the sound which tells you that a train is coming. While that sound may not be the most beautiful in the world, it is not too loud; you hear it only in the station.

I was complaining about the alarm that sounds with the opening of the emergency exit door. That one can be heard for blocks around every night, after every train drops off its passengers.

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D in Bushwick March 19, 2014 - 12:38 pm

I’ve witnessed several exit doors with inadequate metal mesh barriers that allow people to reach around and open the the door to enter the platform. That seems like an easy fix.
And what about the MTA Meth-heads who disable the only ticket machine at smaller stations so that riders are forced to pay them to enter or miss the train?
My station on the L train has two sad skeletons who create this scam. It forces many people to go back up and walk two blocks to the other end to renew cards while they miss their train.
I bet the Swipe-for-Meth scam is a bigger fare collection problem.

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Nathanael March 19, 2014 - 3:11 pm

Something to be said for having a station attendant at every station.

In London, they’re getting them out of the booths and having them sit out in public. I guess the union nixed that in NYC.

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Spendmor Wastemor March 19, 2014 - 7:17 pm

” two sad skeletons”

They’re happily taking your time and money.

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ajedrez March 19, 2014 - 1:33 pm

I personally don’t think the alarm is that loud. Some people describe it like a piercing shriek or something, but maybe it’s from hearing all the other noise in the city, but the alarm just seems like background noise to me.

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Eric Brasure March 19, 2014 - 4:55 pm

At some stations the alarm has been greatly lowered in volume. I don’t know who does that or how it’s determined.

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AMM March 19, 2014 - 8:37 pm

“Self-important New Yorkers ignore the “emergency” part of the exit doors,”

“Self-important”? I call it “self-reliant.”

New Yorkers are reminded every day that the people who are in charge of things can’t be trusted to handle things. Incompetence and self-serving decision making are the rule, not the exception. (I remember that on September 11, the ones who survived — or helped others survive — were the ones who ignored PA and NYC officials and did what they judged best.) The way TA “improvements” in subway station layouts seem designed to make already miserable traffic flow patterns even worse are just one example. The only thing that’s “emergency” about the exits is what the TA chose to call them. (BTW, there are _real_ emergency exits — but they’re in the tunnels.)

I do see one small (very small) ray of hope. When they redid the Fulton Street (4/5) station, the Dey Street exit has a bank of non-alarmed exit doors which are (wonder of wonders!) aimed at the main part of the platform. If the TA managed to do many of the most heavily-used stations with the same attention to passenger convenience, maybe we’d get out of the habit of using the “emergency” doors.

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Nathanael March 21, 2014 - 3:51 am

“When they redid the Fulton Street (4/5) station, the Dey Street exit has a bank of non-alarmed exit doors which are (wonder of wonders!) aimed at the main part of the platform. If the TA managed to do many of the most heavily-used stations with the same attention to passenger convenience, maybe we’d get out of the habit of using the “emergency” doors.”

This!

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Andrew March 20, 2014 - 11:38 am

Why doesn’t the MTA just install new sliding door turnstiles ala the new ones installed in Boston a few years ago with high doors. Not only do they improve passenger flows but they allow for people with large bags, luggage, strollers, kids, etc. to enter and exit normally and not have to finagle there way through the tiny cumbersome gates. With this you could eliminate the emergency exit doors (or make them into real emergency exit doors), eliminate the use of the doors for about 95% of the population, and possibly eliminate another need for having station agents at stations with very normal or less passenger flows (or eliminate them all together).

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pete March 20, 2014 - 11:38 pm

MTA is afraid people will tag along through the open gate on 1 fare, possible a dozen people per fare. Also is the problem of an gorilla on bathsalts violently kicking the retracting gate while it is in its extended position. The gate parts are made of plastic. A couple kicks and the gate is shattered or seized extended/closed. Kicking the steel NYCT turnstyles arm will eventually break your bones, not the fare gate. Remember Port Authority/PATH/Airtrain JFK has retracting gate turnstyles that take metrocards. NYCT chooses not use them.

PATH, Airtrain, and LA Metro share the same physical turnstyle (screw hole compatible), in gate or arm varieties.
http://la.streetsblog.org/2009.....ut-slowly/
http://la.streetsblog.org/2010.....t-go-away/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F.....nstile.jpg
http://www.parabit.biz/images/.....ardier.jpg

NYCT’s turnstyles are also used in Chicago http://fullofsnark.com/2011/10.....n-asshole/

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pete March 20, 2014 - 11:52 pm Reply
Andrew March 21, 2014 - 12:42 pm

I love how every New Yorker is now a miscreant but people in most other major city in the world is just pleasant and awesome. Just ridiculous. The problem is that the MTA is overly concerned with fare evaders that they will not embrace any new technology nor put any trust in the fare paying public. Instead we have a entry system based on 90s technology and 50s/60s infrastructure. As people have pointed out in the comments the way to properly take care of fare evaders is through proper enforcement and not a jail-like atmosphere.

You can’t jump over or crawl under the sliding gates, the ones in Boston are fairly robust. Maybe a new entrance aesthetic will lead to MTA actually trying to keep stations cleaned. I would personally love to see someone try to smash through the doors.

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pete March 21, 2014 - 7:14 pm

This is what happens when you dont have NYC’s Penal grade turnstiles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp5-DKWTh_Y
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvOYAwXwF-0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bndgqZg5O0c
BART is distance based fare like DC Metro, so walking OUT without swiping is fare evasion

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pete March 21, 2014 - 7:20 pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zP8_lm7tK4 Insurance for fare evasion tickets! Smart thinking.

pete March 21, 2014 - 7:31 pm

Ever heard of selling swipes? What about selling door openings? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzY3jn0P938 in this video the seller opens the door and collects the money, in theory, I guess he could just always stand in the paid area to trigger the gate to open

more CCTV vids http://www.youtube.com/results.....&sm=3 m

Nathanael March 21, 2014 - 3:54 am

I discover upon research that “slam door” exit gates — not “emergency exits”, just normal exits — were common on the original BMT subway lines.

NYCT needs to get over the attempts to stop fare evasion with technology. The only way to really cut back on fare evasion is roving fare-checking cops.

It’s worth noting that turnstiles were originally installed in the IRT because the IRT *employees*, the ticket checkers, were cheating the company. Perhaps NYCT still has this problem… but geez, I hope not.

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Mark March 22, 2014 - 10:39 am

It is one of the many loud noises I experience in my day to day life in NYC. I have no qualms with using the “emergency” exit – and being the guy to open the gate – it has nothing to do with being “self-important” or “above the law.” I want to get off the subway platform along with dozens of other people – there are limited turnstiles, usually with people frantically trying to make the train I just hopped off. Now if someone could have just as easily used a turnstile, I’m annoyed at the noise, but we can’t have it both ways (or its not worth the cost to have it both ways). I’d rather have the option to exit through the e-exit, and not get all worked up when someone uses it when they shouldn’t.

An aside; is the reporter really using an iPad as his decibel counter? The 6 train screeching through Union Square will kill my hearing long before the buzzer.

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