During one morning commute a couple years ago, a middle-aged man in a crumpled suit teetered up and down the subway car, giggling and pointing at us dour paper pushers. The rider, evidently having gotten a very early—or very late—start on cocktails, was bemused by the virtual silence. “Quiet as a graveyard in here.” he said gleefully, and pulled an imaginary zipper across his lips.
As a Brooklynite and native New Yorker, I’ve long been accustomed to the hushed atmosphere of subway transit at the start of my day. There’s always been a basic reverence for it among commuters, even those of whom are new to the five boroughs. Notwithstanding the kvetchy baby or periodic hot-head squabble due to lack of personal space, commuters historically have respected these muted moments heading in to work.
This gentleman’s agreement, as many riders know, was marred several years ago by what has come to be a pernicious feature put in place by the MTA. In 2005 and 2006, the MTA modified about 1,500 locked access gates within its system so that they can be opened from inside the paid area of a station. Thus modified, these “Emergency Exit Gates” are intended to help customers evacuate the stations in an emergency. Station personnel are also allowed to open them to assist customers with strollers or bulky packages.
Using these gates unauthorized is prohibited, according to the MTA, which rigged each of the doors with a now-infamous brain-shattering alarm. Unfortunately, the downsizing of personnel via massive shuttering of booths and a lack of agents at many stops has meant there is often no one available to monitor the gates.
Fare evasion is taking place in the smaller stations that are unmanned. More worrying, the alarm no longer remotely signifies an emergency to riders. Instead, passengers now simply endure it as a pointless nuisance, the cumulative effect of which is nevertheless a quality of life issue.
In effect, the exits do not work as intended because they are functioning on an honor system that routinely fails. Sadly, though only half a dozen years old, they could have been relics from a long-lost time when people cared a little more about collective spaces.
Beyond these logistics is a cultural concern: what kind of narcissist believes he or she has a right to activate this chaotic noise in a public place, jolting every fiber of passersby? In truth, there is no reflective common decency in such situations.
At the 49th Street stop on the N, R, and Q trains in Manhattan where I exit and walk to work, there are rarely more than 20 or so riders making their way out through the turnstiles. Despite the apparent ease with which it is to exit, there is invariably an over-eager office worker who opts to push open the gate instead of waiting half a second for a free turnstile.
This, of course, unleashes a piercing rebuke of its unauthorized use.
Like the walking dead, these gate crashers amble imperviously through the screeching din and up the station steps. Taggers-on keep the screech active by holding the gate and exiting behind them.
The MTA studied this phenomenon more than three years ago and issued an observational report, lyrically titled, “False Alarm: A Study of NYC Transit Emergency Exit Gates.”
“At many locations where large numbers of riders improperly exited the station through emergency exit gates, it appeared that riders generally refrained from using the gates until one rider ‘broke the ice,’” said the study.