Home View from Underground With silenced alarms, emergency exits now just exits

With silenced alarms, emergency exits now just exits

by Benjamin Kabak

Noise pollution no more as the MTA has silenced emergency exit sirens. (Photo via flickr user rlboston)

As the MTA’s technology has improved, the amount of noise pollution in the subway system has gone up. While there’s only so much the agency can do to lessen the screech from metal-on-metal as subways bend around steep curves, the new rolling stock with its clear public address systems has led to a noted increase in announcements. We’re asked to be patient, sneeze into our arms, stand up, get out of the way, check ourselves, don’t block the door and say something if we see something. Much like some of those pesky delays, the sounds are seemingly unavoidable.

As 2015 dawns, though, the MTA is doing away with one source of easily avoidable noise pollution: The emergency exit doors with their ear-piercing sirens will be silenced. In effect, those doors are now simply exits as the MTA has finally caved to the reality of the flow of people out of subway stations that often do not have enough turnstile capacity to handle peak-hour crowds.

This move has been months in the making as the MTA has been slowly disarming the doors nearest station agents or simply opting against repairing failed alarms, but yesterday morning, WNYC’s Kate Hinds confirmed the news. “Our customers,” Transit spokesman Kevin Ortiz said, “have been quite clear in displaying their annoyance and letting us know that the alarms really were the number one annoyance for them as they travel through the system.”

Amusingly, as The Times’ Matt Flegenheimer noted, the MTA still maintains the rule that exiting through an emergency exit is against the rules, but enforcement is bare to nonexistent in this case. Straphangers routinely exit through these doors in full view of station agents and cops with no consequences, and that practice isn’t likely to change any time soon. Now, though, the blaring alarms will not greet customers trying to leave stations.

So what’s really going on here? The obvious is that, for years, the MTA has heard nonstop about the ineffectiveness of emergency exits from various rider advocacy groups. Straphangers didn’t care about the alarms and would routinely use the nearest — or least crowded — exit. So in one way, the MTA is simply giving in to popular opinion.

But there’s a deeper story here. First, the MTA is doing away with a source of noise pollution within the system and one that could be potentially damaging to the long-term hearing of station agents and other employees who were exposed to these sounds multiple times per hour. Second, this move can also be seen as one designed to improve station flow. As far as I know, the MTA is still working on plans to redesign station entrances. By removing the alarm, the MTA can study how people exit stations, and they’ll likely find that crowds optimize the emergency exits especially at stations with few other points of egress.

Ultimately, though, while New Yorkers generally welcome the New Year with parties, fireworks and a fair amount of sound, the end of the emergency exit noise is a welcome development. And now we know what we all assumed long ago: These emergency exits are simply just exist after all.

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Roadgeek Adam January 2, 2015 - 12:10 am

I for one, as someone who brings his bike in the subway regularly am glad to see this, cause I hate that bell trying to get out the exit.

Eric January 2, 2015 - 7:59 am

“Straphangers routinely exit through these doors in full view of station agents and cops with no consequences,”

Technically speaking, you can do whatever you want in sight of a NYC cop these days with no consequences… 🙂

capt subway January 2, 2015 - 8:50 am

Now if they could just stifle, once and for all, all the damned public service robo announcements on the R142s and R160s cars. You know:

“This is an important message from the NYC PD…….”, (yeah right!) and all the rest of the insulting and patronizing crap about bag checks, standing back from the platform edge, not going down onto the tracks (it’s dangerous down there!?!?! Who’d ever have guessed?), sexual harassment (it’s a crime – really – even in the subway? Fancy that?), giving your seat up to the elderly, pregnant or disabled (isn’t that “other-abled” now, just to be PC?) and on and on and on.

Upper management at the MTA – NYCTA, who probably rarely ever ride a train (most of them have “company” cars or even SUVs), never figured out that the vast number of their passengers much prefer to suffer their commutes in silence.

Justin Samuels January 2, 2015 - 10:10 am

I’m sorry but this sounds ridiculously whiny and complainy. With all the other noise in the tunnels, if you can’t bear the automated announcements then you have no business on a train.

A train is public transportation, not a limo that takes you around the suburbs. Deal with it.

Bolwerk January 2, 2015 - 11:08 am

The announcements are incessant, distracting, and completely pointless. They are not comparable to ambient noise, and they impose on transit users in a way significantly more dangerous travelers are not imposed on.

adirondacker12800 January 2, 2015 - 4:07 pm

Years ago the ambient noise on the train was so loud you might be able to tell something was on the PA system. Probably couldn’t make sense of it but hear that something was on it.

SEAN January 2, 2015 - 7:47 pm

The thing with MTA announcements is there over use & as a result riders tune them out. That could be a serious problem if a real emergency happens – like the boy who cried wolf.

Tower18 January 3, 2015 - 1:10 pm

I don’t think that applies, as emergency announcements are made my the actual conductor, after a little “ding”, and sound quite distinct from the usual recorded announcements. When the conductor makes manual announcements, I see people take out their earphones, etc. pretty regularly.

capt subway January 2, 2015 - 12:36 pm

Actually I rode the trains almost every day – as I have for about the last 45 years. Add to that the fact that I’ve worked for NYCTA for almost 37 years, 10 of which were as a motorman, at one time or another on every line in the system. So I’m familiar with subway noise. And those robo announcements are totally distracting and totally useless BS – in no way comparable to the rhythmic and, actually, rather soothing clickety-clack of the train.

The implication that I ride around in the car in the burbs is doubly insulting. I’ve lived here in NYC, within walking distance of a subway station, all my life, almost 65 years. WTF – I don’t even own a car!

adirondacker12800 January 2, 2015 - 4:10 pm

Then you are old enough when you couldn’t hear the announcements. They are annoying but not as annoying as how loud the trains used to be. Especially in the summer when the windows were open.

capt subway January 2, 2015 - 4:20 pm

Yes, as I said I worked almost 10 years as a motorman, 1973-1982, including on R1-9s, R10s, all the old cars. The noise was deafening. And maintenance was poor so half the cars had square wheels, or so it seemed, which just made matters worse. And, of course, the R1-9 had no PA system. And conductors where not forced to make lots of verbose announcements on the cars that were PA equipped, as the C/Rs are today.

And, as a passenger, I remember regularly riding on BMT ABs, D Types, IRT Low-Vs, etc, etc, none of which had PAs and all of which were quite noisy – except, strangely, the ABs. They were somewhat less than totally ear splitting.

But yeah, as a lifelong almost daily rider, as well as an employee of almost 37 years (now retired) I’m indeed intimately familiar with the sights, smells and sounds of the NYC subway.

capt subway January 2, 2015 - 4:27 pm

But what I would add: as you say the newer trains are a lot quieter. So now the moronic, patronizing and utterly useless and asinine announcements are even more intrusive and annoying – not in any way, shape, manner or form to be compared to the rhythmic, and soothing clickety-clack of the train. This is especially true if you’re actually trying to read a book, magazine, or some other written material demanding somewhat more concentration than the add cards.

Bolwerk January 2, 2015 - 6:09 pm

Yeah. Ambient noise in trains seems pretty good these days, but it’s still pretty terrible in stations.

In Europe, I’ve missed trains in subways because I didn’t hear the train coming when I was looking at a map or something.

sonicboy678 January 5, 2015 - 7:25 pm

The announcements in the subway are real recordings; PATH may be a different story.

sonicboy678 January 5, 2015 - 7:31 pm

When was Charlie Pellett ever a robot?

tacony January 2, 2015 - 9:26 am

I’d always wondered why the alarms weren’t simply on a delay. If you open the door and allow it to close within 10 seconds, it shouldn’t sound an alarm. But if it’s held open for longer than that, the alarm is activated. This would allow people to exit but cut down on people holding the door open and cut down on fare-beating. I think this is a sound (pun intended) compromise.

Now that there are no station agents at many (most?) exits, I’d wonder if we won’t see more fare-beating with no alarms. (Not that the alarms meant no one could enter through them, but conceivably somebody could just prop them open now until somebody notices.)

adirondacker12800 January 2, 2015 - 3:59 pm

Um people don’t go through them at 3AM unless they are assholes. They go through them because it’s rush hour and there aren’t enough turnstiles for everybody to swipe in and use the turnstiles as exits.

Tower18 January 3, 2015 - 1:13 pm

I go through one at my station all the time, because it is directly in front of the platform stairs, where the actual “legal” exit is 20 feet out of the way. And so do 95% of other passengers.

SEAN January 2, 2015 - 10:48 am

When you think about it, the doors should be for exiting & turnstyles should be used for entry since you don’t pay on exit unlike Metrorail in DC or BART. I realize many station designs don’t allow for such traffic flow or arrays, but where possible that would be the ideal arrangement.

BrooklynBus January 2, 2015 - 11:36 am

These exits should be in the open position during times when many are exiting at high volume stations. I remember when I was a kid and that was the practice. It makes no sense for people trying to exit having to fight with those who are entering which happens every time I am at Heald Square.

Calling exiting trough these gates illegal, is just plain dumb. It means that any time the MTA decides to enforce the rule it can fine or arrest people. That’s just not right.

adirondacker12800 January 2, 2015 - 3:52 pm

Which is why people do it… I seem to remember that it was marked “Emergency Exit Only” and “Use turnstiles to exit”. I also seem to remember it happened before Metrocards.
Don’t remember them being officially open but nobody said anything when it was busy. I vaguely remember they did it because little old ninnies were perpetually whining about how much revenue they lost because people were entering without paying a fare. How many people with an unlimited are going to risk a ticket to do that? I’m almost sure you can get a ticket if you enter without swiping, it’s probably the same as jumping the turnstile without a ticket. People know that they pay on the way in and don’t pay on the way out.

BrooklynBus January 3, 2015 - 12:45 pm

That’s how it used to be at Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway in the 50s, 60s and 70s during the PM rush. There was an exit gate which was in the open position in addition to the two exit gates. With all the people exiting, there were no conflicts with people entering. If they didn’t do that, if you wanted to enter after a train arrived, you would have to wait 5 minutes for everyone to exit before you could use the turnstile, which may be how it is today if people aren’t using the gates to exit.

Michael549 January 3, 2015 - 1:30 pm

From a previous message:

“That’s how it used to be at Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway in the 50s, 60s and 70s during the PM rush. There was an exit gate which was in the open position in addition to the two exit gates.”

I’m sorry but in the 1950’s, 60’s or 70’s – the subways simply did not have the electronic exit gates, where one had to be buzzed either into or out of. They simply did not.

Some stations often had iron gates that were open (or could be opened) for quick exits, while others had revolving exits, or a combination, addition to the yellow/orange doors near the token booths.

I distinctly remember using the subways in the late 1960’s and 1970’s and for exiting the subways there were a set of yellow or yellow/orange doors. One could not exit through the turnstyles because most of the turn-styles could not “reverse” their handles for exiting. I remember going to high school, showing our train pass to the token booth clerk, opening and walking the the yellow/orange doors to get to the platforms.

The streams of incoming riders and exiting riders did not meet at the turn-styles, but in the walking to/from the turnstyles, the exits and the passageways on both sides of the fence separating the fare zone and of the outside of the fare zone.

Yes, some stations may have had open often yellow/orange doors, but those doors were light weight and really not difficult to open for baby-strollers, packages, etc.

How ever, the black metal electronic gates with the electronic sound alarms, and the ability of the token booth clerk to buzz one in – simply did not exist in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.


BrooklynBus January 10, 2015 - 5:15 pm

I never said that the gates that were kept in the open position during the evening rush hours were electronic. The ones at Utica were unlocked, then manually slid open. This was in addition to the four exit doors; two on each side of the entrance. Only the very busiest stations like at Grand Central, herald and Times Square had turnstiles that you couldn’t use to exit from. It certainly was not the norm. Utica Avenue has two way turnstiles.

SEAN January 2, 2015 - 5:39 pm

These exits should be in the open position during times when many are exiting at high volume stations. I remember when

That is how it is at Sutphin/ Archer, but the booth is in full view of the open door.

Phantom January 4, 2015 - 4:16 pm

Back in the sixties, there was a Transit Authority employee watching over the large opened gate at the separate ” exit ” end of my station ( Bay Ridge Avenue ) , which was next to the full length exit turnstile ( or whatever it is called )

Most of the current so called ” emergency exits ” absolutely should be used by exiting passengers as a matter of course, especially during peak congestion as others have said. Thats how they were originally designed- the big gates at ” exit only ” points, and the exit doors near the token booths. Most of these never should have been ” emergency exits ” only- the name makes no sense.

Bob Sklar January 5, 2015 - 9:10 am

I have to agree with capt. subway that the greatest everyday nuisance in the subway is the announcements. But it certainly is high time the alarms were turned off on the “emergency” exits. At older stations such as 79th St (1) these exits are used by everyone when a large number of people get off. Close behind this nuisance is the so-called “sick passengers” who, according to articles I’ve seen, are often actually models fainting while attempting to lose weight for photo shoots. After that, bikes in rush hour.

Phantom January 5, 2015 - 7:10 pm

I hate the announcements more on buses for some reason.

I feel sorry for the poor bus drivers that have to listen to this goddamned bullshit multiple times every day.

” You’re not supposed to sexually molest your fellow passenger ” and all of that.


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