Here’s the MTA solution, via NYPD edict, on how to fix the “crisis” of fare evasion: constant siren wailing from exiting with no one there to do anything about it.
This is one random minute at 14th.
— Jeremy Wilcox (@jwilcox79) January 16, 2019
New York City, they say, is a cyclical town. Neighborhoods wax and wane; popular restaurants open and close; the city rises and falls; and even the Mets may be good again one day. Not everything that comes back is welcome, and four years after finally silencing emergency alarms, the MTA has turned some back on, at the request of the NYPD, in an effort to fight fare evasion. That ear-splitting sound, the subject of much consternation a decade ago, is back.
I first wrote about the debate over emergency exits back in 2009 when the conversation focused around the the ethics of opening doors knowing an ear-splitting siren would follow. In 2010, the New City Transit Riders Council issued a damning report on the ineffectiveness of the alarms. With the alarms still armed, Riders Council observers witnessed thousands of riders streaming out of the doors (and a handful entering without paying through the doors). In 2014, The New York Times created an op-doc on the doors, and when 2015 dawned, the MTA silenced the alarms, seemingly for good.
“Our customers,” then-agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz said, “have been quite clear in displaying their annoyance and letting us know that the alarms really were the number one annoyance for them as they travel through the system.”
Well, sounds that were annoying have been forgotten, and as the MTA and NYPD look to combat what they claim is a real increase in fare evasion, alarms at certain key stations have been turned back on. I first got wind of the unwelcome return of these alarms in mid-January when Twitter reports came in of alarms at Union Square, Columbus Circle, Jay St.-Metrotech and Times Square, among other stations. The alarms are not, as I can attest, back on at every station, and it seems that only a few fare evasion hotspots have been tagged for activation.
After some tense back-and-forth on Twitter over the need for the alarms, the MTA provided me a statement on the emergency exits. The NYPD, it seems, asked the agency re-arm some doors as part of a test. They noted to me:
NYPD is working to combat fare evasion and recently we complied with their request to re-activate alarms at several high traffic stations. This is a test for them to determine the alarms’ effectiveness in deterrence. At the same time, NYC Transit is working with NYPD to evaluate ways to reduce the inconvenience of the alarms for our paying customers and employees, looking into techniques such as enabling timed shutoffs. Nobody wants to hear an alarm going off, but revenue lost to fare evasion is revenue that can’t be used for running and maintaining the system, so we’re working with the NYPD to find the right balance.
Sarah Meyer, Transit’s Chief Customer Officer, also noted that the MTA should have an update on the effectiveness of the alarms “in a couple of weeks.”
The problems New Yorkers had with emergency exits haven’t gone away in the past decade, but the MTA’s priorities have shifted. Right now, the agency wants to fight fare evasion at certain key hot spots, and the gate sirens are one way to do so. The problem, of course, is one of action and reaction. As in the past, when the alarms go off, nothing happens other than lots and lots of noise. Cops or MTA employees (if any are even around) rarely, if ever, investigate, and the alarms serve as a clear signal to anyone nearby that a door that may be locked is now wide open. It’s almost an invite to potential fare evaders.
Outside of the noise pollution, the other problem with these alarms is how they stigmatize certain subway riders. Not everyone can get through NYC’s relatively narrow turnstiles (narrow to fight fare evasion in the first place, I should add). Parents or caretakers pushing strollers and people in wheelchairs who already confront a hostile system and those with large packages or suitcases simply can’t navigate the turnstiles. With stations including fewer and fewer employees, these folks are forced to enter through exits, and if the exits are now alarmed, the simple act of opening the day at the least inconveniences everyone and at the worst draws a crowd. I said this years ago, but the MTA could combat this problem by redesigning turnstiles to include wider, accessible entry gates that can fit wheelchairs and suitcases, as are standard in metro and subway systems throughout the world.
In fact, Meyer told me those gates are on the way as part of the MTA’s push toward more system accessibility, and I’m looking forward to them.
Ben, Alex Elegudin, Andy and I are indeed looking at wider, accessible fare gates. Hoping to bring them to the system soon.
— Sarah Meyer (@SarahMeyerNYC) January 15, 2019
For now, though, we left once again with subway alarms and a familiar debate. Can the NYPD respond to alarms in high-volume stations fast enough for them to serve as a fare evasion deterrent while the MTA responds to requests to open them fast enough to ensure people who need and have properly paid for access get it without causing an ear-splitting ruckus? That’s under review, and we’ll find out soon what end of the emergency exit alarm cycle we’re living through. Will it be the continuation of a quiet one or the dawn of a new, louder, siren-filled era?