Home MTA Absurdity The MTA’s left hand/right hand problem

The MTA’s left hand/right hand problem

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the past few months, Matt Flegenheimer of The Times has documented a few of what can charitably described as the MTA’s operating quirks. He wrote about the mad dash that happens between uptown express and local trains at 34th Street when an express Q faces off with a local N, and he profiled the way 6th Ave.-bound commuters at Essex/Delancey fill the staircase as they attempt to guess if the F will show up before the M or vice versa. A modern system, of course, would automate service announcements concerning these train operations, but the MTA isn’t there yet.

Today, Flegenheimer tracks down another operation quirk, this time concerning a privately-operated exit at the 5th Ave. station on 53rd St. The full story is here, and I’ll excerpt:

Beginning at 9 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays — as several signs on the platforms can attest — the station’s Madison Avenue exits are closed. But an interior gate often remained open about an hour longer, laying the trap that led riders to the escalator, the turnstiles, the gate and, after a few moments of deliberation, the decision: Jump the turnstile to seek another exit? Call for help? Or, for those without unlimited-ride MetroCards, spend a second fare, not to enter the subway system, but to escape it?

First, the explanation. The top level of the station is owned by private companies, whose personnel control the street-level gates. On two recent nights, the gates were closed at or around 9 p.m. The gate on the platform is operated by Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers, who say their shift schedules usually summon them to the station around 9:45 or 10. “I don’t know why they make the schedule like this,” one worker, Daniel Martinez, said as he locked the gate last Thursday evening. He began his evening at the station at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue at 9 p.m., he said, and needed to perform several errands there before walking toward Madison Avenue. “For those 30, 45 minutes,” Mr. Martinez said, “I’m saying to myself, ‘How many times have people gone up and come back down?’ ”

On that night, and another, 48 hours earlier, the answer was about 20. Some paused for minutes at the turnstiles, contemplating a moral calculus that, according to transit officials, appears to be unique to 53rd Street.Over the course of two weeknights, about half of the riders hurdled over or ducked under the turnstiles. Several cajoled fellow passengers, who had not yet left the subway system, to push the emergency gate open. And the rest swiped their MetroCards, though for some, like Ms. Lingley, the possession of an unlimited-ride card eased the pain.

The rest of the article concerns an examination into the ethics of turnstile-jumping. Even the MTA workers in this case urge riders trapped between a functioning turnstile and a locked exit to eschew another fare, but between the way the NYPD operates and the fact that many people using this station are tourists, the MTA has managed to capture some additional fares. Just jump.

Now, the MTA grew a bit defensive over this article last night, and Adam Lisberg stressed on Twitter last night that the problem had been addressed. But I wanted to know why it took a New York Times article to solve the issue. The reporting process for issues such as these isn’t transparent, and even with a streamlined website, it’s not immediately obvious how to report a problem.

I see this, though, as a problem that shouldn’t have arisen in the first place. When the MTA forges agreements with the companies that operate these station complexes, it should pay attention to work shift schedules and the reality of the situation. Somewhere along the way, the left hand of real estate stopped speaking with the right hand of worker operations, and as a result, some subway riders found a working fare control area with a locked exit on the other side. That’s nearly as bad as New Jersey Transit’s $100,000 fence.

You may also like


David Brown February 28, 2013 - 2:07 pm

I am constantly standing on the stairs (Between Essex (M) and Delancy (F) waiting for either train (I need to go to West 4th to catch the A, C or E to head to Penn Station). It can be a madhouse down there (Particularly when its 7:00 AM, and I know I have limited time to catch the 7:39 AM to Carle Place).

Someone February 28, 2013 - 2:10 pm

Where’s Carle Place?

Wait, there’s a 7:39 AM train? I thought trains didn’t run on schedules anymore.

VLM February 28, 2013 - 2:13 pm

LIRR train. Take a look here.

Someone February 28, 2013 - 2:25 pm

Or, you could have just just done this.

BTW, thanks for the link, now I can prank people into doing their Google searches for me!

Jerrold February 28, 2013 - 6:23 pm

At the cost of coming across as kind of ignorant.

Someone February 28, 2013 - 7:49 pm

Yeah, but still…

Bolwerk February 28, 2013 - 2:47 pm

Um, transit doesn’t run very reliably if it has no schedule to follow.

Someone February 28, 2013 - 4:29 pm

Um, okay.

Alex February 28, 2013 - 5:40 pm

No, they actually DO run on a schedule. At least in theory. If you look at the PDF schedules on the MTA site, they will often say “every 8 minutes”. I find that the R, N, and D actually are generally within about 2 minutes of the schedule, at least during rush hour in the morning. For whatever reason — probably being farther along in their routes and having encountered switches and merges — they are less reliable heading southbound. Nevertheless, I am able to time my commute in the morning pretty accurately, believe it or not.

Josh February 28, 2013 - 4:10 pm

Similarly, back when I used to live near Jay Street-Metrotech (back when it was called Jay Street-Borough Hall, to be nitpicky), I had a favorite spot to stand on the mezzanine at West 4th Street so I could see the F train pulling into the station on the downstairs local track and the C (or E) train on the upstairs local track, and also hear the A train pulling into the station on the express track above me (though it was tough to distinguish between trains on the downtown and uptown express tracks). Man, countdown clocks would’ve been useful.

Jacob March 1, 2013 - 2:35 am

I used to hang out at the 4th St. mezzanine as well, heading northbound (either A/C or B/D).

Someone March 1, 2013 - 10:55 am

Or even ‘train is approaching” signs.

Someone February 28, 2013 - 2:09 pm

And that is why you should never let private companies operate public entrances.

VLM February 28, 2013 - 2:13 pm

I think that’s a drastic conclusion. There are certainly benefits to having private companies operate public entrances — including more entrances! The lesson is to make sure whatever you are telling the private operator aligns with your own internal operating procedures and policies. It’s not that hard to do.

Someone February 28, 2013 - 4:30 pm

I was trying to get across the point that the MTA should not have public turnstiles and private entrances mix into each other. If they’re going to have private entrances, make sure that the turnstiles are open during the same hours as the entrances.

Ron February 28, 2013 - 7:13 pm

Wow, great insight….

Miles Bader March 3, 2013 - 1:36 am

Private entramces work fine, but need to be designed and operated with reasonable care. That’s true of almost anything, right?

A great solution, for instance, is make sure the entrance is always open to the outside, even when the associated store or whatever is closed. I’ve commonly seen this done using steel shutters that block off the “store” bit after closing hours, but during open hours, they feel very integrated.

Bolwerk February 28, 2013 - 2:45 pm

Couldn’t the MTA just offer to close these entrances?

…between the way the NYPD operates….

At times, you can probably add “assault on an officer” to the list of the many morally defensible crimes in NYC. The caveat is getting away with it.

Someone February 28, 2013 - 7:52 pm

MTA (to private business): Hey, how about you close the entrance at the time we want, rather than closing it at your own time.

No way. They’ll lose entrances and revenue..

Nathanael March 5, 2013 - 3:32 pm

“At times, you can probably add “assault on an officer” to the list of the many morally defensible crimes in NYC. ”

Considering that an NYPD officer *assaulted a judge* and got away with it without even being charged, you most certainly can.

Jerrold February 28, 2013 - 6:20 pm

It’s good news that the MTA responded to the article.
But I couldn’t help noticing the vagueness of their statement.

The problem has been “addressed”?
Does that specifically mean that the upstairs and downstairs closing hours have been coordinated?

Benjamin Kabak February 28, 2013 - 6:23 pm

If you read The Times article, you’ll see how it’s been addressed. They’re better coordinating schedules with the private operators of the entrance.

anon February 28, 2013 - 6:49 pm

Missing big story out of DC Ben…..

Benjamin Kabak February 28, 2013 - 8:44 pm

What’s the story? Sequester + SAS or something else?

anon February 28, 2013 - 9:45 pm

something else. This string speak of left and right hand. Let’s just say the right hand man is leaving… wonder where he is going?

Benjamin Kabak February 28, 2013 - 11:03 pm

Are you saying Prendergast is leaving to go to DC? Or someone else…?

anon March 2, 2013 - 9:05 pm

no someone is leaving yonder perhaps to come here. http://ny.tv/metropolitan-tran.....66230.html

Nyland8 February 28, 2013 - 6:58 pm

At 33rd and 7th there’s a Sbarro pizza that has a second dining floor below – at grade with the 1 Train. There are a handful of businesses, and a building entrance, that close in the evening behind a roll-down gate. But through that gate there is still a push-bar one-way door that allows people to exit the dining area and head for the turn-styles.

The point I’m making is: Why is ANY exit ever closed – “privately operated” or otherwise ?? Transit users should always be able to take the most convenient exit. It’s really only “entering” that those privately operated entities are concerned with – and that is easily mitigated by providing a single-file passageway with two push-bar doors. Once the last person exiting the subway is through the first door, and it closes behind them, nobody can enter that way.

By demanding this type of arrangement with all entrances – privately operated or MTA operated, it means that the subway riding public can ALWAYS take the most convenient exit – and nobody can ever be trapped between a closed gate and a turnstile.

John-2 February 28, 2013 - 10:07 pm

I can see a reason to close when you have a situation such as with the Equatable Building on the 4/5 at Wall Street — there’s just not a heck of a lot down there at night, yet at the same time once you’re in the building via the walkway from the IRT, you pretty much have full access. I can see where the building owner wouldn’t be all that hot about providing overnight security downstairs just to make sure subway passengers were not attempting to access anyplace they didn’t belong in the wee hours of the morning.

Phantom March 1, 2013 - 12:04 am

Its not convenient to be mugged at late hours at a deserted exit.

And absent closing, some areas leading to the exit stairs would become homeless camps.

Its sound policy to have some exits closed some of the time. London does this too, and I bet other cities do it also.

Michael K March 1, 2013 - 12:02 am

For those that are interested, here is the local newspaper article on the “Big Fence”:


Michael K March 1, 2013 - 12:06 am

More News coverage:

As documented in The Record on Jan 20th Local section and Feb 22nd please see:

Jan 20th

Feb 22nd

Mayor and Council Support has been established:

A Town Hearing has been established:

And…here is the commuter petition:


Think twice March 1, 2013 - 11:09 pm

Another trap:

In Jay St/Metro Tech there’s a lone escalator that only leads up to an exit/entrance. Anyone who thinks that they’re going to the A/C/F, has no way to come back down. No way, except to run down the moving escalator they came from…in the opposite direction. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Phantom March 2, 2013 - 12:10 pm

Think Twice

Thats an easy mistake to make -its not that well marked — I’ve made it!

And yes I had to run down the moving escalator to avoid having to pay another fare!

Someone March 3, 2013 - 4:07 pm

*runs up escalator* I’m screwed. *tries to run back down, gets trapped, sues the MTA*

Patrick March 4, 2013 - 6:02 pm

It’s not that easy of a mistake to make, just keep walking until the station gets brighter. But, yeah the overhead signs are small

William March 29, 2014 - 1:18 am

I find this amusing. I live in Boston, where there is the famous song about Charlie getting stuck on the MTA (now the MBTA). It seems that this could conceivably happen in NYC, if one entered this area and was unable to exit.


Leave a Comment