Home View from Underground To combat fare evasion, MTA re-alarms some emergency exits

To combat fare evasion, MTA re-alarms some emergency exits

by Benjamin Kabak

New York City, they say, is a cyclical town. Neighborhoods wax and wane; popular restaurants open and close; the city rises and falls; and even the Mets may be good again one day. Not everything that comes back is welcome, and four years after finally silencing emergency alarms, the MTA has turned some back on, at the request of the NYPD, in an effort to fight fare evasion. That ear-splitting sound, the subject of much consternation a decade ago, is back.

I first wrote about the debate over emergency exits back in 2009 when the conversation focused around the the ethics of opening doors knowing an ear-splitting siren would follow. In 2010, the New City Transit Riders Council issued a damning report on the ineffectiveness of the alarms. With the alarms still armed, Riders Council observers witnessed thousands of riders streaming out of the doors (and a handful entering without paying through the doors). In 2014, The New York Times created an op-doc on the doors, and when 2015 dawned, the MTA silenced the alarms, seemingly for good.

“Our customers,” then-agency 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.”

Well, sounds that were annoying have been forgotten, and as the MTA and NYPD look to combat what they claim is a real increase in fare evasion, alarms at certain key stations have been turned back on. I first got wind of the unwelcome return of these alarms in mid-January when Twitter reports came in of alarms at Union Square, Columbus Circle, Jay St.-Metrotech and Times Square, among other stations. The alarms are not, as I can attest, back on at every station, and it seems that only a few fare evasion hotspots have been tagged for activation.

After some tense back-and-forth on Twitter over the need for the alarms, the MTA provided me a statement on the emergency exits. The NYPD, it seems, asked the agency re-arm some doors as part of a test. They noted to me:

NYPD is working to combat fare evasion and recently we complied with their request to re-activate alarms at several high traffic stations. This is a test for them to determine the alarms’ effectiveness in deterrence. At the same time, NYC Transit is working with NYPD to evaluate ways to reduce the inconvenience of the alarms for our paying customers and employees, looking into techniques such as enabling timed shutoffs. Nobody wants to hear an alarm going off, but revenue lost to fare evasion is revenue that can’t be used for running and maintaining the system, so we’re working with the NYPD to find the right balance.

Sarah Meyer, Transit’s Chief Customer Officer, also noted that the MTA should have an update on the effectiveness of the alarms “in a couple of weeks.”

The problems New Yorkers had with emergency exits haven’t gone away in the past decade, but the MTA’s priorities have shifted. Right now, the agency wants to fight fare evasion at certain key hot spots, and the gate sirens are one way to do so. The problem, of course, is one of action and reaction. As in the past, when the alarms go off, nothing happens other than lots and lots of noise. Cops or MTA employees (if any are even around) rarely, if ever, investigate, and the alarms serve as a clear signal to anyone nearby that a door that may be locked is now wide open. It’s almost an invite to potential fare evaders.

Outside of the noise pollution, the other problem with these alarms is how they stigmatize certain subway riders. Not everyone can get through NYC’s relatively narrow turnstiles (narrow to fight fare evasion in the first place, I should add). Parents or caretakers pushing strollers and people in wheelchairs who already confront a hostile system and those with large packages or suitcases simply can’t navigate the turnstiles. With stations including fewer and fewer employees, these folks are forced to enter through exits, and if the exits are now alarmed, the simple act of opening the day at the least inconveniences everyone and at the worst draws a crowd. I said this years ago, but the MTA could combat this problem by redesigning turnstiles to include wider, accessible entry gates that can fit wheelchairs and suitcases, as are standard in metro and subway systems throughout the world.

In fact, Meyer told me those gates are on the way as part of the MTA’s push toward more system accessibility, and I’m looking forward to them.

For now, though, we left once again with subway alarms and a familiar debate. Can the NYPD respond to alarms in high-volume stations fast enough for them to serve as a fare evasion deterrent while the MTA responds to requests to open them fast enough to ensure people who need and have properly paid for access get it without causing an ear-splitting ruckus? That’s under review, and we’ll find out soon what end of the emergency exit alarm cycle we’re living through. Will it be the continuation of a quiet one or the dawn of a new, louder, siren-filled era?

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BrooklynBus February 6, 2019 - 8:49 am

Remember the experiment to remove garbage cans at selected stations? How did that one work out? Everyone thought it was a dumb experiment.

What I can’t understand is why some turnstiles can’t be exit or entrance only (like the used to do) at stations like Herald Square where there are always conflicts. It’s easier to exit at a gate but with the alarms on it will just be more of an annoyance for passengers. I don’t think this is the answer to combat fare evasion.

Fare Jumper February 6, 2019 - 9:33 am

Now when the sirens go off I’ll know there is a gate open, so I don’t have to pay. Score!

Chaz February 23, 2019 - 9:03 pm

I’ve seen that happen much more often since the alarms were turned back on. What will the MTA do next? Chain the emergency exits closed?

Doctor Memory February 6, 2019 - 11:28 am

In addition to wheelchairs, the “emergency” exit doors are the only sane way to enter or exit a station when carrying a bicycle, and it’s literally impossible in most cases to get the station attendant’s attention to remotely open the door without tripping the alarm when exiting. So that’s nice.

But what’s really awesome here is the insane amount of money that the MTA has spent on this nonsense from beginning to end: well north of HALF A BILLION DOLLARS to install the alarms that the system had done quite well without for a hundred years, then to turn them off, then to turn them on again. Well done everyone.

Jack February 6, 2019 - 11:28 pm

Hehehehe. TA costs are high, but the emergency exit gates and alarms didn’t cost that much to install as evidenced by the fact it was done pretty quickly. Cost was probably more like $5-7M

Doctor Memory February 7, 2019 - 11:00 am

Never underestimate the ability of a contractor to bilk the MTA. I’ve never seen a specific line item for the doors themselves, but they were part of a “security enhancement” project that was farmed out to Lockheed. The original budget was $200M, and it had ballooned to $520M as recently as 2014.


sonicboy678 February 8, 2019 - 12:41 am

If I remember correctly, bikes aren’t supposed to be brought on the subway, but that’s neither here nor there.

I’m more concerned about the practicality of how the gates are designed. Boston has some gates that, with a few tweaks, would be great for both passenger flow (particularly for those with large items and wheelchairs) and reducing fare evasion.

Guest February 8, 2019 - 5:56 am

Bikes are allowed on the subway.

Larry Littlefield February 8, 2019 - 9:15 am

They are absolutely allowed on the subway, but discouraged during rush hour. I only use them during rush hour to take the bike to the bike store with I have a flat, because the center of Midtown is devoid of bike shops. (Downtown too).

Otherwise, combining a bike with the subway provides extensive mobility. Let’s say you want to travel from Brooklyn to Yonkers. Rent a car? Nope. Take the subway to the end of the line, and bike from there.

sonicboy678 February 9, 2019 - 2:47 am

I stand corrected. (To make things somewhat easier, I’d recommend using folding bikes so they don’t take up too much space.)

eo February 6, 2019 - 12:01 pm

Can someone explain to me why we have those “emergency exit” gates to begin with? Many other systems do not have them at all, for example, the MBTA in Boston. Is this one of those “we think we know better than everyone else” thing? While obviously, the MTA cannot just weld the existing gates shut now because the existing fare gates are not meant to handle emergencies, strollers, wheelchairs and so on due to width and other design issues, why does the MTA still insist on this outdated turn-stlye design even for the few new stations that they have built in recent years? If fare evation through these emergency gates is that bad, why itn’t it worth it to retrofit the hotspot stations with alternative designs especially in the light of the likely expensive new fare collection system upgrade? It has been my experience that the MBTA style gates work very well in Boston, and at NJT in Secaucus.

Doctor Memory February 6, 2019 - 1:29 pm

With more charity toward the MTA than I’m accustomed to giving: I think this is primarily an issue of timing.

Boston’s sliding-panel gates are much more recent: they were deployed starting in 2006 as part of the CharlieCard rollout.

The current MTA fare gates are an artifact of a different era: they were mostly installed starting in 1992 as part of the transition from tokens to Metrocards, and were designed to be mostly slde-in replacements for several earlier generations of turnstiles. And the MTA of course has many, many more turnstiles in use than the MBTA and NJT combined: once they’d committed to the design they were basically married to it for at least 20 years, just due to how much money and time it would take to replace them.

Jack February 6, 2019 - 11:23 pm

They were installed as a result of a NFPA fire code compliance review for emergency evacuation. When the current turnstiles were installed, the old exit “slam gates” were eliminated and nobody at the time considered the code implications.

eo February 7, 2019 - 10:10 am

I am not surprised that someone “forgot” to check NFPA. Let’s hope that the new fare collection system whatever it is comes with new gate design. I have no idea who thought that the tripod just by itself is enough to enforce fare collection. I see people go under and jump over it all the time. The “slide away” gates cannot be jumped over or under and can be made wider, but of course have the issue of multiple people passing through at the same time when the gate opens, so I am not sure if these complaints about fare evasion are going to go away with those either.

SEAN February 7, 2019 - 11:19 am

Well at least there would be less of a reason to sellswipes.

sonicboy678 February 8, 2019 - 12:36 am

If I remember correctly, I saw someone go through the gap in Boston. (Yes, I’m aware that the gates there have a different design, but I’m specifically referring to one of the flaws in the design.)

JJJ February 7, 2019 - 6:22 pm

When there is a power loss or emergency, all the Boston gates open and stay open. Additionally, when there is a large crowd, the gates never close because they sense the next person and remain open.

SEPTA just spent an ass ton of money on their new fare system…but stuck with turnstiles which are slow. So every station has 1 accessible gate. Also, at busier places, they have swing gates just like the MTA.


Walt Gekko February 8, 2019 - 2:28 am

I believe with SEPTA, the plan is to eventually make ALL stations ADA accessible. The bulk of stations on the Market-Frankford line already are and all but a handful on the Broad Street line are as well. The only one that likely can’t be made ADA accessible is Chinatown on the Broad-Ridge Spur.

Will February 18, 2019 - 10:06 am

I’m jumping those septa turnstiles

SEAN February 6, 2019 - 8:54 pm

I herd an alarm at Times Square today & I was like… when did they turn those alarms back on? Thanks for the write up – I thought I was going out of my mind.

Deucey February 6, 2019 - 10:24 pm

After finally leaving the US for the first time since one needed a passport to go to Mexico from San Diego (I was a Californian then), I went to Paris last week.

I rode the overcrowded trains, spilled a European Fanta on someone after I shook it thinking it was Orange Juice, and marveled at how their turnstiles have doors on them that open when the fare is paid, and how there’s exit-only doors for people leaving the system.

I’m sure there are Parisians that do manage to get over the doors or run in the edits, but I looked at these and really wonder why we don’t have such a solution here. Seems that instead of looking for best or smart practices, MTA embraced the “WE DA BEST” philosophy and are now punishing us for their arrogance and hubris.

But still, RATP has a solution that should be studied and emulated.

Jack February 6, 2019 - 11:19 pm

When the current AFC turnstiles were being planned in the early 90s, CUBIC had proposed an option for a door module as an add on to the existing turnstile units. The unit was known as an Anti Fare Avoidance Module (AFAM) which consisted of approx. 5′ high piston operated hinged saloon door panels that would pop open when you rotated the turnstile tripod. As I recall it was viewed as an added maintenance item and wasn’t pursued. The thought at the time was that a staffed booth was enough to deter fare evasion through regular turnstiles. Regular turnstiles were only open when the booth was open, at other times it was high-wheels only.

eo February 7, 2019 - 10:04 am

This is interesting history. Thank you.

SEAN February 7, 2019 - 11:28 am

I think MARTA use to have those piston swing gates at their turn styles, but they started acting up once the Breeze cards were introduced.

sonicboy678 February 8, 2019 - 12:32 am

Hindsight is 20/20…

JJJ February 7, 2019 - 6:23 pm

Fun fact: Parkour was invented as a way to get over the Paris gates

Sheldon Burke February 7, 2019 - 1:52 pm

Music in NYC subway stations is a terrible idea. Only people who seldom or never ride the subway, such as the MTA transit agency’s officials, could think it’s a good idea. Many riders dislike certain types of music. While a musician or a band may entertain some passengers, he is also bothering others and people shouldn’t have to listen to music that annoys them. Also, the music often disturbs people who want to read or talk to their companions as well as those who just want peace and quiet.

Bands in some stations play extremely loud amplified music that sounds like the noise in a factory and really annoys passengers. If someone wanted to discourage people from riding the subway, he couldn’t do a better job than some subway musicians.

Musicians not only annoy people, they also create two dangerous situations.
1. Many station platforms are dangerously overcrowded during peak hours as well as some non-peak hours. Musicians increase the danger simply by occupying platform space.
2. Even a low sound level hinders hearing loudspeaker station announcements. It’s essential riders hear these announcements, particularly emergency announcements. Subway musicians make it difficult or impossible to hear these announcements.

The MTA actually encourages musicians and this shows the agency is completely out of touch with subway riders. Playing music in subway stations should be prohibited.

sonicboy678 February 8, 2019 - 12:31 am

And what, pray tell, do your complaints have to do with fare evasion or gate design?

Doctor Memory February 8, 2019 - 11:38 am

ctrl-f -> music

Yup, you are literally the only person bringing this up. Please ride your hobby-horse to anywhere else.

Will February 18, 2019 - 10:09 am

Here you go again

Sheldon Burke February 7, 2019 - 1:53 pm

A NYC MTA policy designed to help passengers is extremely annoying and helps no one. Passenger standing on subway platforms and riding on subways and buses are usually subject to incessant loudspeaker announcements, literally one every two minutes. Almost all these announcements are insignificant and completely unnecessary; one example is: “Thank you for riding the MTA”.
These announcements disturb people who want to read, listen to music with headphones or talk to their companions, as well as those who just want peace and quiet during their trip. If someone wanted to discourage people from riding public transit, he couldn’t do a better job than the MTA does with its incessant announcements. Only absolutely essential announcements should be made.

AMH February 11, 2019 - 3:51 pm

YES. It’s nonstop noise, especially on weekends (compounded by the fact that you’re on the platform longer). The new trains are deafening compared with the old ones. Whenever I’m riding in another city, the overwhelming impression I have is the lack of noise pollution.

OLDER AND WISER February 11, 2019 - 5:22 pm

The most recent vintages of NYCT cars do a pretty good job of insulating riders from noise that emanates from outside the car – e.g. wheel & undercarriage noises, clickety clacks etc.

But while attenuating the external decibels, the designers somehow managed to super amp up noises originating inside the car. If two toddlers in your car start screaming at each other you can abandon all hope. It will flat out break your eardrums.

Al D February 7, 2019 - 4:13 pm

The alarms were dumb back then and they’re “more dumber” now because everyone knows how absolutely annoying they are. Ironically, given their mission, they probably annoy fare payers the most and fare beaters the least. Yet another, lazy enforcement effort.

BruceNY February 7, 2019 - 4:13 pm

There actually is a better solution to combating fare evasion than useless ear-piercing sirens. It’s putting more police officers in stations and having them arrest CRIMINALS who jump the turnstile. But under our current mayor’s administration, fare evasion is no problem, and the subway is to be used as a convenient way to house the drug addicted homeless.

As for those that believe that fare evasion shouldn’t appear on one’s criminal record, then couldn’t we have the police haul turnstile jumpers down to the police station if only to fill out forms and process their summonses? If nothing else, the sheer inconvenience would surely provide some deterrent effect.

JJJ February 7, 2019 - 6:25 pm

Agreed as long as we also arrest criminal drivers who double park, do not pay their meter (grand theft), or block the box (quasi-terrorism)

Guest February 8, 2019 - 5:54 am

It makes no sense to arrest people for fare evasion. It costs the city more money and removes officers from the scene who could otherwise be on the lookout for other crimes.

A fine is enough of a deterrent.

BruceNY February 8, 2019 - 12:22 pm

A fine may be enough of a deterrent, but if the police are discouraged from apprehending turnstile jumpers to begin with, then how do you impose a fine to begin with?

Pedro Valdez-Rivera February 9, 2019 - 4:43 pm

Great: Back to square one when the doors first built. Meanwhile, replacing the low turnstiles with high fare gates costs a lot of time and money.

JP February 10, 2019 - 11:33 am

Berlin, a pretty large city, the last time I checked, has no turnstiles at all. They just have very high fines if you are caught without a ticket/pass/proof of payment. Checks by uniformed and undercover officers are routine.

Before anyone says Germans are more polite and respectful, I suggest you spend some time there first. Its every bit as “urban” as NYC, and the transit system is huge.

AMH February 11, 2019 - 3:59 pm

I was there for a week recently and was checked only once. The ease of moving through a barrier-free system cannot be overstated. And you’re absolutely right, it has its fair share of subway characters and a lot of the gritty, “anything can happen” quality that NYC used to have. They’re also having a conversation about whether fare evasion should be a criminal offense, and their evasion rate is fairly high. It’s possible that increasing enforcement and installing barriers would cost more than it would save, of course.

Will February 18, 2019 - 10:12 am

Don’t work here in NYC. If they didn’t pay at the turnstiles then how they going to have a ticket walking through the system for free. Cleveland is having that issue to the point that the abandoned their bet and now it’s a regular bus


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