On a daily basis, I get to experience the sheer joy of the Times Square subway station at the heights of both the morning and evening rush hours. This isn’t something I’d ever recommend to anyone else as it is truly a mass of disorganized humanity. People are angling to get from the Shuttle to another train and from the 1, 2 or 3 trains to the Shuttle while others just want to get out of the station and still others want in. Combine that with the tourists who have no idea where they’re going, and it is amazing more fights don’t break out amidst the brushed elbows and shoved shoulders.
One of the problems with the space — and Times Square isn’t alone in this regard — is that it’s cramped and from an age before passenger flow was a thing studied at graduate schools and in engineering classes. It’s also a mish-mash of various systems with the Shuttle track system fairly inefficient and the integration between the BMT and IRT awkward at best.
History, though, doesn’t excuse the elements that have always been within the MTA’s control. Take, for instance, the way people enter and exit train stations. If you happen to have the misfortune of trying to get into a station — Times Square, Grand Army Plaza, 7th Ave. on the Brighton Line near me in Brooklyn — as a rush-hour train empties, good luck to you. All incoming turnstiles are temporarily flooded with people exiting, and those entering can either shove through the maddening crowd or wait. Even turnstiles that say “no exit” are useless as the bar spins with no resistance (or corresponding check to the gut).
Fixing these problems could go a long way toward solving the rat race feel of the subway system, and a few weeks ago, the Daily News published a short but intriguing article on an upcoming effort to streamline passenger flow. Today, The Times issues its follow-up, and although the specific details are still a bit vague, the MTA seems to be serious about experimenting with moving people through congested choke points.
Matt Flegenheimer writes about the MTA’s decision to “shuffle station furniture”:
The changes, part of a roughly $900,000 project, have drawn on observations of riders’ entering and exiting behaviors, bolstered by data on which specific turnstiles are used most at particular stations…
The authority has responded with a series of proposed tweaks culled from the Disneyland playbook of pedestrian funneling, using the location of turnstiles as cues to create a desired traffic flow. At a No. 1 train entrance at Rector Street in Manhattan — where a turnstile and emergency gate previously appeared at platform level, occasionally stranding riders on board as lines backed up into the first car — equipment was moved upstairs. The emergency gate has been exiled out of the typical walking path, perched diagonally from the top of the steps.
…So far, fare areas in three stations have been adjusted: at Rector Street, and at Marcy Avenue and Nassau Avenue in Brooklyn. Ten more hubs have been flagged for the next round of renovations. After that, the authority plans to continue modifying fare areas at an average of 10 stations each year. Jackie Kuhls, the authority’s chief budget officer for subways, said that much of the work involved tweaking past station layout plans that placed major entrances and exits near token booths, which receive far less traffic than they once did.
Without accompanying diagrams or overarching plans, it’s still tough to get a sense of what the MTA is doing on the whole. Are they solving choke-point problems or moving them upstairs? What Flegenheimer does reveal though is that some of those HEETs — the iron maiden-like high entrance-exit turnstiles — are on the decline while low turnstiles are on the raise. Even at unstaffed entry points where fare evasion are a concern, the MTA may decide that smooth entry trumps the limited revenue lost to those who hop the turnstile. (The ease of slipping through an emergency exit negates the benefits of the HEETs anyway.)
It sounds like a start though. Solving the mess at Times Square would be the gold standard in station redesign, and easy fixes such as truly dedicated exit and entry turnstiles at peak hours would be a big help. But should we expect anything revolutionary or are we stuck with the chaos that makes the subway system so uniquely New York?