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The Sweet Sound of Impatience

September 25th, 2010 by Daniel Prendergast

We’ve all experienced it. You’re exiting a crowded subway train after a hard day and you just want to retreat to the quiet sanctuary of your apartment. Then, as you’re slowly approaching the turnstile, some entitled jerk decides they are too good to wait on line like everybody else and bursts through the emergency exit door, sending a shrill sounding alarm echoing through the underground. Then a string of spineless cowards who wish they had the guts to do it follow suit. Since MTA employees are rare at subway stations these days, the alarm can ring on and on, making everyone miserable.

So what is the city doing about it? And more importantly, is it a solution worth paying for, or should we just deal with the annoyance?

Realizing the phenomenon of exiting through the emergency door has become a huge problem, the New York City Transit Riders Council conducted a study over the summer to observe the issue firsthand, and their findings have caused the MTA to take note. But their reasons for wanting to put an end to the problem have little to do with the annoyance it causes riders. Instead, the MTA fears that an open emergency exit door is an invitation to those on the other side of the door to slip through without paying. Whatever the motive may be, the MTA is weighing its options with regard to finding a solution to this very irritating problem.

“Since conducting the study, we have been considering a number of options that include everything from installing silent alarms to putting more cameras at the exits,” Bill Henderson, executive director of the NY Transit Riders Council, said. “People are much less likely to break the rules if they think they are being watched.”

People have become so inured to the alarms misuse, they really serve no purpose, and do little to alert riders of anything other than that a newer, quicker path of escape is open, so a silent alarm might be useful. But there is also a possibility that a silent alarm might encourage misuse because the abuser will not be drawing the attention of everyone within earshot as they surreptitiously exit. As for the other option, the new NYPD cameras that have recently been installed in Midtown are meant to combat terror, and it remains to be seen that the NYPD will use the cameras to deal with less harmful (but still annoying) crimes like inappropriate use of the emergency exit. And it is well known that the MTA is trying to save as much money as possible, so it is unlikely they will be paying to implement a separate set of conspicuous cameras just to deter emergency exit abuse and fare evasion.

Although police officers and booth operators often preclude the temptation of impatient subway riders from crashing through the emergency exit, there are simply not enough boots on the ground to make this a feasible solution; especially with the high number of layoffs the MTA has made this year.

“We are definitely fighting a losing battle on this issue,” Henderson said. “The less human presence we have in the subways, the harder it will be to discourage people from using the doors improperly.”

The study’s conclusion suggests that whatever option is adopted to stop this problem, the MTA will have to foot the bill, which means the expenses will eventually trickle down to passengers. This raises the question: “Are we willing to pay a little more to do away with the bothersome alarms, especially since there is no guarantee they will work?” If I know New York City straphangers, they’d rather put up with the alarms.