As I took a walk around the outside of the new Atlantic Ave.-Barclays Center subway entrance on Monday afternoon, I chuckled to myself when I spotted a free-standing pole with a green globe on top of it. The subway globe strikes me as an iconic part of the subway system, albeit one that isn’t very old, and the globes themselves are supposed to broadcast a message to the public. These days, based on emails and Twitter comments I’ve received, no one really knows what they mean.
I’ve always associated the globes with the subway system and for good reason. Once upon a time, the globes were simply white with the word “subway” written through them. The color system in place today with red and green globes made their New York City debuts, so to speak, at around the same time I did. The MTA installed the globes in 1982, about a year before I arrived on the scene, and they were introduced as a safety measure.
One of Randy Kennedy’s classic Tunnel Vision columns from 2002 explores the history behind the globes, complete with a vintage Motel 6 reference:
The globes are always the first interaction that riders have with the system, sometimes a block or more before they even enter it. The globes are supposed to serve as a kind of beacon, announcing that the system is intelligible, that people are in charge down there, and that they have, in the comforting words of Tom Bodett, left a light on for you…
in the early 1980’s, mostly to try to prevent muggings, transit officials started a color-code system to warn riders away from entrances that were closed at night. The original idea was to follow the three-color stoplight scheme: green meant that a station had a token booth that never closed; yellow meant a part-time token booth (but in some places, with a token, you could still get in through a full-body turnstile); and red meant an entrance with no booth and no way to get in (though you might be able to get out, through one-way full-body turnstiles).
As the number of words in that description indicates, however, this system was much, much more complicated than go, slow down, stop. So the yellow lights were discontinued a decade ago to simplify things, transit officials said, meaning that the red lights would serve the yellow lights’ purpose, as well as the purpose that the red light used to serve. But then the MetroCard was introduced in 1994, meaning that many entrances that had been exit-only were equipped with full-body card-entrance turnstiles. And then, responding to concerns that the colored lights did not give off enough light, transit officials several years ago began installing what they call “half-moons” when station entrances were rebuilt. These are globes that have a colored top half and a milky white bottom.
I reached out to the MTA for their official take on the globes today, a decade after Kennedy re-introduced New York to this convoluted history, and even now, the meaning is malleable. A Transit spokesman told me that green globes indicate entry and exit 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a Metrocard, and that red globes indicate exit only. There are, he said, very few station entrances remaining with those red globes.
A simple survey of my daily commute, though, reveals a different meaning. The globe in the photo above sits atop the staircase that leads from the end of the Shuttle platform to the sidewalk outside the police station on 43rd St. and Broadway. This station has two iron maiden entrances, but it is unstaffed and open only from 6 a.m. to midnight. The red globe seems to indicate that no one is downstairs and the station closes — or at least that’s my interpretation.
Around the city, other red globes do indeed indicate exit-only areas, but some also seem to signal a part-time entrance. With fewer station agents, perhaps the MTA should reconsider the use of colors and associate red with a shuttered booth for those among us concerned with personal safety. For now, though, these colored lights seem almost vestigial, a reminder of a time when New Yorkers are far more worried about heading underground and encountering the wrong person or no one at all.