Home View from Underground Rethinking station design to encourage passenger flow

Rethinking station design to encourage passenger flow

by Benjamin Kabak

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?

You may also like


John-2 September 23, 2013 - 12:48 am

One of the problems in designing a flow solution for New York’s subways is that there are so many variants on the basic design, just on the cut-and-cover local stops that are a single flight underground.

So while you could come up with Solution X that might by viable at 30-40 stations, you’d still need to fashion Solution X – Revision A that might only work at 3-4 stations, along with other options based on stairway capacity, underground space outside of fare control, track visibility from outside fare control, etc. And that doesn’t even take into account the express stops or the local stops with transfer points, where flow to and from the platform might come from a fare control that’s actually part of another line.

Brian September 23, 2013 - 12:55 am

10 stations a year? Yay 46+ years from now everything will be good.

Benjamin Kabak September 23, 2013 - 11:37 am

I’ve leveled the same complaint about station painting. Because of the high costs of and time it gets to perform lead remediation, the MTA estimates painting 10 stations every year which is both pathetic and insufficient.

That said, I don’t think every single station in the system needs to re-engineered for better passenger flow.

JD September 23, 2013 - 1:18 am

One of the biggest improvements would be dedicated entry and exit turnstiles. I know it would be an issue in some areas with limited space, but it makes a huge difference in other cities.

AMM September 23, 2013 - 10:45 pm

I agree.

The decision to make all turnstiles in the system be two-way was incredibly stupid. It’s not so bad at stations with little traffic, or where at any given time most traffic is only going one way, but it is a disaster at stations with lots of two-way traffic, such as GCT. At every turnstile entering passengers have to negotiate with exiting passengers as to who goes first or who will divert to the next turnstile — where the negotiation process begins anew.

This causes all kinds of turbulence and back-ups. If one bank of turnstiles would only work as entrances and another bank only for exit, the stream of entering passengers would be separated from the stream of exiting passengers, greatly reducing turbulence.

Nathanael September 24, 2013 - 10:21 am

Almost all urban rail systems have separate entry and exit turnstiles. The MTA system is…. weird, to say the least.

Most modern turnstiles can, in fact, be changed from entry to exit in SOFTWARE. They display a big red X if you’re not supposed to go through in this direction, and a big green arrow if you are supposed to go through in this direction. I have no idea why New York did not implement this world-standard system.

Andrew September 24, 2013 - 8:51 pm

While segregated flows are certainly operationally superior, they also have an intrinsic inefficiency, especially at a bank of turnstiles that only serves a single track (i.e., the typical run-of-the-mill local station with a separate entrance on each side of the street). Most of the time, there are very few exits – and then a train pulls in, and suddenly there’s a large surge of exits over the course of 30 seconds or a minute – and then it’s back to nearly-entry-only again. Since most control areas have only two or three or four turnstiles, how would you program them to adequately handle the off-surge when a train pulls in while still avoiding backups while nobody’s exiting?

Lots and lots more turnstiles would, obviously, solve that problem, but lots and lots more turnstiles would have added lots and lots to the cost of the MetroCard project – not to mention the tight space constraints at many stations.

Don’t forget that ridership is much, much higher now than it was in the early 1990’s, when the MetroCard system was being planned. (And, on the flip side, crime was much higher, which explains the reliance on HEET’s at unattended entrances. If the MetroCard system had been designed today, there probably wouldn’t have been any HEET’s at all.) Hindsight is always 20/20.

Nathanael September 28, 2013 - 3:33 am

“Since most control areas have only two or three or four turnstiles, how would you program them to adequately handle the off-surge when a train pulls in while still avoiding backups while nobody’s exiting?”

Well, you couldn’t have done it in the 1980s, but nowadays the programming could be based on the realtime arrival data.

Buckley January 3, 2015 - 5:40 pm

Back in the day the IRT designed its stations with separate entrance and exit kiosks. The terminal stations in the Bronx even employed a Spanish Solution in which exit platforms were completely outside of the fare payment zone. I’m not entirely sure why but these stations no longer use the exit side platforms and separate exit and entrance staircases have become desegregated. In addition, if you look at A. P. Robinson’s 1864 designs for a subway, you will find seperate entrance and exits. It seems that this was once a very popular idea in New York but for whatever reason proved ineffective and the practice abolished.

Alon Levy September 23, 2013 - 3:27 am

Removing the turnstiles and going POP helps passenger flow.

Of course, POP becomes less useful on very busy systems. So it’s the most useful for passenger flow when trains are not very crowded but stations are, as on Northeastern commuter rail. (When nothing’s crowded POP wins on implementation cost, but that’s a separate discussion.)

Kai B September 23, 2013 - 12:06 pm

Even replacing some HEETs with the low-level turnstiles would help. During the last round of station agent cuts the MTA decided it would not replace the turnstiles with HEETs.

During previous station agent cuts, however, HEETs were installed. Thus you have a station such a newly agent-less platform such as Flushing (G) n/b with plenty of low-level turnstiles while much more heavily used stations such as Spring Street (8th Ave) only have HEETs and exit-only high-levels on an entire platform.

Spring Street (8th Ave) s/b’s Spring Street exit is a also a great example of bad placement of turnstiles. Two of three are placed in such a way that only the first car of a stopping full-length train will make use of them. The rest of the passengers slam the gate or slowly squeeze through the remaining high-level exit-only turnstile.

Nathanael September 24, 2013 - 10:22 am

HEETs aren’t wheelchair accessible either, not as if the MTA gives a damn. In modern systems, there’s usually a wheelchair gate at one end.

Andrew September 24, 2013 - 8:39 pm


Rob September 23, 2013 - 9:56 pm

Definition of POP, please?

Benjamin Kabak September 23, 2013 - 10:34 pm

Proof of payment. Compare that with a swipe or contactless system.

Bolwerk September 23, 2013 - 10:35 pm Reply
Chris September 23, 2013 - 7:54 am

What’s the deal with the blocked off sets of stairs and corridors at the 7th Ave station, anyway? I presume there used to be additional entrances?

Benjamin Kabak September 23, 2013 - 11:38 am

It’s a shuttered entrance. It would at least be a good HEET candidate for peak hour access. I’m not sure when it closed but a few years ago, Park Slopers agitated for a reopening. It went nowhere.

Marsha September 23, 2013 - 8:57 am

How about labeling staircases as UP and DOWN? I know that numerous people will ignore those designations but most won’t. It seems to work at the Brooklyn stations that have these labels and they are certainly needed in Manhattan.

Ryan 6 Train September 23, 2013 - 10:19 am

This doesn’t even work in the slightest. I used GCT for years and the back of the 4/5/6 dumps out to one skinny staircase that is UP only in the am rush and without fail someone would still ram their way down it. The reason? The turnstiles are just above, they would see a train in the station and rather than walking the extra 10 feet to the down stairs they would charge down that staircase like salmon against a tidal waive. Sometimes people would just shove them back up and they’d have to go the other way. I did see a fight once or twice, but not as often as you might think.

I always thought having some sort of gate element or an attendant at the top to direct traffic would help at the extreme peak times. Then again labor costs money, and equipment breaks. Not an easy problem to solve.

AMM September 23, 2013 - 10:36 pm

I agree that UP and DOWN staircases don’t work at GCT. But I don’t think it’s just NYers being stupid. One problem is that the platforms are so crowded that getting to any staircase at all is a problem. Even getting off the train is a problem. Basically, the busy stations are overloaded to the point that nothing short of a complete rebuild (possibly including track realignments) can make passenger traffic run smoothly.

In my ideal (fantasy) world, GCT would have separate platforms for boarding and deboarding. (Yes, I know that it would be very, very difficult to do this, even assuming the money were there.)

Larry Littlefield September 23, 2013 - 9:18 am

I have only found passenger flow to be an issue in one station at one point in my life. That was when service was diverted to the Nassau Loop after 9/11, and there was only one high wheel turnstile to let people out at Broad Street.

The only real passenger flow concern is some kind of emergency, in which entire trains empty at one station and passengers flee all at once in panic. That’s why we have those emergency gates with the screeching noise post 9/11.

alen September 23, 2013 - 9:38 am

put a camera facing a turn style and record everyone entering. import the video into a computer and you can automatically catch jumpers and identify them by face. if you see a trend then send cops there to catch them. otherwise you can save the money and ignore it

Berk32 September 23, 2013 - 10:25 am


Bolwerk September 23, 2013 - 12:16 pm

Our society didn’t get around to lead paint abatement in time to save you, eh?

Alon Levy September 24, 2013 - 3:13 pm

Who won the Cold War, anyway?

Nathanael September 28, 2013 - 3:34 am

Military contractors, apparently.

JMB September 23, 2013 - 9:41 am

Excellent article Ben, passenger flow seems to be constantly overlooked yet would be a great improvement system wide. I would love to see my home station (86th on the R) get looked at since it is constantly suffering from the problem you mentioned. Specificaly:

1.) Staircases to the street are not adequate, especially when you have so many trying to get out and so many trying to get in due to express buses unloading. The northern exit only has 1 stairway to the street, not sure why they didnt do two even though there are two on the southern main exit. Could be an easy fix.

2.) Getting from platform to mezz is a crush load pain in the ass. You’re still waiting in line to get up the stairs and more trains keep dumping pasengers. Quick fix could be them to open up the narrow staircase that used to be used for the dispatch office at the station. Its definitely abandoned now, could be an easy solution.

SEAN September 23, 2013 - 11:01 am

I’m sene occasional issues with MNR in White Plains, New Rochelle, Stamford & Bridgeport with passenger flow.

Bridgeport is particularly tough since there’s only one access point on the New Haven side creating long lines to both the stairs & elevator. In adition the bus terminal & the parking garage are located at aposing ends of the Manhattanbound platform. This causes bidirectional padestrian flow towards the center of the platform causing unessessary crowding.

Bolwerk September 23, 2013 - 1:49 pm

May not be feasible in most cases, but what about a higher-speed exit escalator?

SEAN September 23, 2013 - 2:02 pm

What are you saying! Don’t you realize that an escalator that moves faster than a sloth is a potential accident? Now we cant risk that can we?

Bolwerk September 23, 2013 - 2:51 pm


Not sure what the term even means exactly, but ESA plans to use them. As long as they let people out but not in, they should improve flow, maximizing how much turnstile real estate can go to entering passengers.

JAR September 23, 2013 - 9:07 pm

An escalator is only as good as, and can only be as fast as, the area that it dumps people into. Accidents don’t happen because the escalator is moving too fast, it’s because people don’t step away from the end of an escalator fast enough, or don’t have enough room to do so.

BoerumBum September 23, 2013 - 2:08 pm

Ben – Were there any plans to cut (or reopen) additional exits from busy stations that currently have only one? I know this is a perennial hope of riders of the L Train (e.g. 1st & 3rd Ave stations in the East Village), and there are a number of other stations that could benefit from this, as well.

Andrew September 24, 2013 - 8:31 pm

This would be incredibly useful at 1st Avenue – an Avenue A entrance would probably be busier than the existing one. But it would also presumably trigger ADA, adding considerable costs on top of a project that would already be quite costly.

It would be less useful at 3rd Avenue, and presumably, if SAS ever makes it that far down, the L would get a 2nd Avenue exit regardless.

llqbtt September 23, 2013 - 2:17 pm

At the Union Square northbound 4 5 6 platform: remove the bench and re-position the garbage cans from the center or remove them entirely. There is little room on this platform in the first instance and these installations further remove valuable floor space. The uneven columns are bad enough.

Andrew September 24, 2013 - 8:55 pm

The Marcy Avenue turnstile change makes a world of a difference. The entrances at the Manhattan end of the platforms used to back up down to the sidewalk – they’re smooth sailing with the new low turnstiles.


Leave a Comment