Home View from Underground Building a better subway turnstile beep

Building a better subway turnstile beep

by Benjamin Kabak

New York is a city of noise. Amidst the hustle and bustle of pedestrian life, the largely unnecessary honking of horns and the blaring of car alarms, and the sirens that go by at all hours of the day, we tend to block out the aural distractions. Thus, a simple beep, while annoying at the wrong time, is very easy to ignore.

For subway turnstiles, that’s a problem. For every MetroCard swipe, failed or otherwise, an MTA turnstile emits a beep. No matter the outcome, the beep is the same, and even the slight double-beep of a failed swipe or a triple-beep of an empty card aren’t distinct enough to catch the attention of someone who’s already trying to zoom through. In other words, a stiff turnstile arm to the gut is far more likely to draw someone’s attention that a double beep.

As problems go, it’s not a particularly pressing one, but with the MTA eying a complete overhaul of the fare payment system within the next few years, the agency is particularly primed to do something about it. Enter James Murphy. The former frontman for LCD Soundsystem has been pushing his plan to make the subways more tolerable for a few years, and he recently garnered a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. Murphy’s solution doesn’t solve the problem of differentiating between swipe outcomes, but it would make the subways, he says, sound more pleasant.

For the past 15 years, Mr. Murphy has been crafting what he says is a low-cost musical solution: He has worked out a unique set of notes for every station, one of which would sound each time a passenger swipes his or her MetroCard to catch a train. The busier a station becomes, the richer the harmonies would be. The same notes would also play in a set sequence when the subway arrives at that stop. Each of the city’s 468 subway stations would have note sets in different keys.

As Murphy notes that other subway systems have far more soothing sounds, he isn’t the only one proposing a solution. Still the MTA doesn’t seem too open to the idea:

[Spokesman Adam] Lisberg said Mr. Murphy’s plan “is a very cool idea,” one that several people have independently proposed over the years. But it might be hard to put into practice, he said: It’s likely to require a lot of time and money, and probably means temporarily taking each of the city’s 3,289 turnstiles out of service, something the authority is not inclined to do “for an art project.”

“If you screw something up,” Mr. Lisberg continued, you risk breaking the turnstile. Given the 5.5 million passengers who use the system on an average weekday, he said the transit authority was “not inclined to mess with anything that could get in their way.”

In other words, please swipe again.

You may also like


Andy March 4, 2014 - 4:00 pm

I really like this idea. You can make the beeps much nicer and improve the ADA feedback at the same time. While we’re at it can we make the beep of the next train signs a bit nicer too?

SEAN March 4, 2014 - 4:08 pm

Building a better subway turnstile beep

The best solution I could think of is the beep should be replaced with an audio message such as OK, or what ever is wrong with the card so problems could be adressed on the spot if the card is rejected. This will aid new riders or those who have visual challenges.

Eric March 6, 2014 - 5:29 am

“OK” is too long. A beep is perfect for when you pass through the gate successfully. A voice saying “Uh-oh” or whatever would be fine for the less frequent cases when the card is rejected.

Quirk March 4, 2014 - 4:11 pm

You’ll get a new beep in 2019. Just be patient

Alex March 4, 2014 - 4:31 pm

I can see doing something more musical with the coming upgrades. Maybe a major key tone for a successful swipe and a minor key tone for a failed swipe. Make it pleasant even when it’s sounding over and over again at a busy station. But making it unique to every station just doesn’t seem very practical, especially given the MTA’s finances.

BoerumBum March 4, 2014 - 4:39 pm

I’ve always wondered why they didn’t just reserve the beep for failed swipes. You swipe and hear nothing? Great, proceed through the turnstile. You swipe and hear something? Take a look at the message, because you need to do something differently.

sonicboy678 March 4, 2014 - 6:00 pm

I have an idea: look at the damn signs on the turnstiles! If you’re visually impaired (read: blind), fine; more distinctive sounds would be great. Use the normal sound for “Go”, a sharp tone (not actually deafening) to alert someone to try again, a doorbell-style tone for access with a card that no longer has enough for a fare, and a minor chord for a card with insufficient fare or is expired.

Eric Brasure March 5, 2014 - 10:14 am

The problem with that, though, is that those screens are positioned in such a way that you CAN’T see it unless you go back and look. This problem is particularly bad on the HEETs (which should all be removed anyway.)

sonicboy678 March 5, 2014 - 8:28 pm

Yeah, if you’re one of the many people dumb enough to not look in the first place. Hate to say it, but that happens all too often. It’s not there to just be ignored. People fail to look at it to even see if they’re running low on funds and then try to swipe later only to be greeted with “Insufficient Fare”, which goes back to them not paying attention in the first place.

Rubicondo Fugacis March 4, 2014 - 6:00 pm

Letting a sound designer have a go at it is a good idea, but along with that… keeping it simple. Good swipe? Happy tone, two notes going up. Bad swipe? Sad tone, lower and descending. And of course while choosing the instrument voices for these tones the specific background noises of the subway should be heard… so that the tones are in a frequency band, volume, compression etc. that is not competing directly with the ambience.

Kevin March 4, 2014 - 8:31 pm

Why can’t they just try this at one station as part of an Arts for Transit type program? It shouldn’t be too expensive to implement at one station for a period of time.

Duke March 4, 2014 - 10:59 pm

Eh? Success and failure sound totally different. Not only is the double beep distinct from the single beep, but when you have success in addition to the beep you will also hear the mechanical click of the turnstile being released. No click means swipe again. Am I seriously the only one who has noticed this?

BoerumBum March 5, 2014 - 9:32 am

During my morning commute, all the beeps from the multiple turnstiles constantly in use just blend together into a single, sustained note. There’s really no way to distinguish your beep from the chorus. That’s why I say, get rid of the good beep and just keep a notification for failure of one kind or another.

sonicboy678 March 6, 2014 - 7:51 pm

Sure you can. It’s the one you hear clearest, unless your ears are broken, in which case you shouldn’t be able to hear a damn thing. Call it offensive, but honesty is not always chocolate and whipped cream.

Eric Brasure March 5, 2014 - 10:16 am

This problem would be completely alleviated if we got rid of turnstyles in favor of a door system like pretty much every other metro system in the world. A door not opening is a pretty clear indicator that something went wrong with your fare.

Benjamin Kabak March 5, 2014 - 10:22 am

Don’t hold your breath. The new fare payment system will utilize the current turnstiles.

Tower18 March 5, 2014 - 7:17 pm

Seriously, the system in Paris was terrific. They have both the low turnstile-style doors, as well as their version of HEET (for exit-only, as I recall) that was similar to airport security doors. You step on the platform, door opens, you exit, door closes, repeat. It works great. Nobody gets metal in the dick.

Miles Bader March 6, 2014 - 5:40 pm

Even better, use Japanese-style fare gates, which operate in reverse: they are normally always just open, and only close if you try to pass through without a pass/ticket, or with an incorrect one (the closing barrier is extremely fast, so will block you even if you try to run through).

This means that in normal operation, with a constant flow of incoming passengers, it will essentially be an open passageway, only blocking those that need to be blocked. This really speeds up operation, as people just walk normally through the barrier, with no pause or significant slowdown.

Daniel Pecoraro March 5, 2014 - 11:39 am

I think a better means of recognizing a successful or failed swipe is necessary, but I don’t know if Murphy’s idea (of having beeps in different keys at each station) is necessarily the ideal. Invariably, it has to be something that’s not vocal (because of the panoply of languages used in NYC). Some kind of major key/minor key double beep or tone would probably work.

(Also, cue the inevitable “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” reference.)


Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy