Where’s the Fire?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The “panic bars” on emergency exits in subway stations are supposed to be used only in emergencies. But their use, and the alarms they set off, have become just another fact of daily life in New York City. Take our poll, and let us know what you think by adding your thoughts in the comments section below.


New York City Transit began installing emergency exits in all of the city’s subway stations four years ago. They allow people to leave quickly in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency. But they, and the ear-splitting alarm they set off, have become part of the daily routine for many straphangers.

There are three kinds of people in New York: “Trailblazers” like Kasia Reterska, who push through the emergency exits with a clear conscience.

"Quite frankly when I’m leaving the subway it’s always an emergency because I need to get home," says Reterska.

Others, like Max Clark, who might be called “Pragmatists”.

"I never open them myself, but if they are open, I will perpetuate them for a while," says Clark.

And “Moralists” like Nicki Garcia, who think going through violates their principles.

"You know I did it once. Just once," says Garcia.

And what happened?

"Nothing," says Garcia. "No, I didn’t push the gate myself. I followed the crowd through."

She followed the crowd through an already open gate—but she felt bad about it.

"Because it says emergency gate. Um, you know. It’s not an emergency to leave here."

The emergency exits, and the “panic bars” that riders push to open them, allow the subway system to conform to a new state building code. Politicians lobbied for them, especially after the London Subway bombings made it clear straphangers needed a faster way to get out.

"People are not using them for the purposes they were originally intended," says Andrew Albert.

Andrew Albert is the transit riders representative to the MTA board, which oversees New York City Transit. He’s standing near the exit on the 79th street platform on the Number 1 line.

"People are leaving and there’s a high wheel to leave and a lot of people don’t want to wait in line for using the high wheel. As you can hear, they are using the emergency exits. Was that an emergency? I don‘t think so."

Station agents can turn off the alarm on exits they can see from their booths. But not exits they can’t see. And the MTA’s eliminating more and more booths and replacing them with automated turnstiles and panic bars. Albert says New York City Transit should add more turnstiles so people won’t be tempted to push the bar, and also do a better job educating riders.

Does Albert notice anything about the type of person who does this?

"Cuts across all types," says Albert. "I can tell you one thing. They’re impatient."

A spokesman for New York City Transit, Paul Fleuranges, says the subway system has done ample outreach, warning riders through signs in stations and train cars that it’s against the law to use the exits in non-emergencies. Police have handed out 871 tickets so far this year, a slight increase from last year. The fine is $50.

One rider, Jose Ponce, thinks he should be able to use the exits with impunity.

"Sometimes it’s too packed and you’re in a rush and the alarms go off and it gets annoying," he says.

Why doesn’t he just wait in line?

"You gotta get somewhere, man, everybody gotta get somewhere."

The alarm lasts 30 seconds. Pablo Garcia doesn’t see the point.

"No one pays attention to it because they are desensitized to it," says Garcia.

The alarm doesn’t trigger a response by the police or sound inside the nearest token booth. But transit officials claim it does deter even more riders from using the exits and also prevents people from holding the doors open indefinitely and running scams. They add there are no plans to change the way the emergency exits operate.


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Comments [34]


I have only lived in NY ten years, but these alarms symbolize how NY has changed. All my friends from NY made me want to come here because they described a tough city of competent people. How it has changed from the city of their youth. Alarms on exit doors are just part of this nanny state. I never thought NY would be a city where people rode bikes for their health instead of smoking in jazz clubs.

Aug. 21 2009 12:18 AM

When riding the trains with a baby and stroller, exiting through the emergency exit is the only option. Often, the station agent is not reachable or not there, which leaves me with no other choice than to open the emergency exit.

Aug. 18 2009 01:42 PM

i was shocked to learn recently that mta's answer to the constant 'gating' at my local station (clinton-washington C) was to lock the gate. having a problem with my metrocard being read by the 2 turnstiles...i asked a friend who had went through to hit the gate for me but no-go as it was locked.

as a kid who grew up in a city (philly) who's board of ed had to deal with a law suit because a high school's response to cutting was to lock emergency exits....i understand the need for the alarmed gates but don't understand a response of locking it due to abuse. taxi's had nyc celebs (ie kermit the frog, deniro, et al) telling me to buckle about the same for the gates (guilt/moralize me into obeying the rules ... more)

Aug. 18 2009 10:45 AM




Anyone who wants to evade fare can do it anyway..

Aug. 17 2009 11:48 AM

one day those doors will open directly to a truck going to the soylent green factory

"they dont give a _ _ _ _ about you"

Aug. 16 2009 12:44 PM
Amy Stoller

And one more thing: The alarms are a health hazard. They endanger hearing. There is more than enough noise pollution in this city already, and far too much in the subways. I would like to see the MTA find ways to mute the squeal of wheels, as has been done in Paris. And subway musicians should be prohibited from using amplifiers, and drummers from playing in subway stations. The amplification of the tiled walls also makes this unbearable. (I like drumming. I love music. I don't like having my hearing threatened or actually damaged.).

Aug. 14 2009 06:00 PM
Amy Stoller

- Bring back booth attendants for every booth!
- Disable the alarms, and replace them with something that is only audible in the booths, which should be fully staffed at all times.
- Install more turnstiles.
- Enforce the emergency-only rules - scofflaws should be fined.
- Make the "doorbell" on the emergency exits more prominent.
- During rush hours, limit some turnstiles to exit only, and others to enter only.

Emergency exits should not be disabled, however - that's a safety issue. To the person who posted that it was not: I have been to too many stations where only one exit was unlocked. That is especially unsafe at night. This is one of the reasons I would like to see fully staffed booths at all times.

Aug. 14 2009 05:57 PM

I do feel guilty opening those doors, but I will use it if it's already open. The alarm doesn't bother me any more.

Putting more turnstiles won't matter, because those stiles are used for people going in as well as people going out. There will never be enough. I hate having to quick-turn and go to another stile because someone just swiped the card to come into the station. Unless then can make "going out only" turnstiles, doors will still be used during rush hours.

Aug. 14 2009 03:58 PM
Eva Schwartz

On principal alone, I do not ever open an emergency door or proceed through one even if someone else was the instigator. I hate those shrieking alarms that much. I can never figure out why people would subject other people to that piercing noise. That said, I can totally understand why we have those exit doors and I use them in plenty of stations in which the door is right in front of the ticket booth and therefore not alarm-activated (when I have a stroller with me or luggage). Considering that the alarms do not generate a police response or any response from MTA employees, I really, really cannot understand why they are in place at all.

Aug. 14 2009 11:17 AM

These bars do more harm than good.

1. Like with car alarms, the sound the alarm alone never makes ANYONE think something's actually going wrong. In fact, they increase danger because people assume they're a normal part of the subway soundscape.

2. Noises like that do actual physiological harm to those who hear them. So they're more than just annoying, which they also are, severely. Especially since at some stations they go off EVERY TIME a train lets out.

3. They were ill-conceived: they were part of an MTA effort to develope an emergency exit system like London's. Well, we didn't NEED such major changes because of a fundamental difference between our system and London's: there, before the emergency system is tripped, masses of people CAN'T simply push through the exits and get out; they have to send their ticket through the turnstile to exit. Here, AS ALWAYS, NOTHING prevents people from pushing through a turnstile to exit.

As I've been saying for years, DISABLE THESE DESTRUCTIVE DEVICES. They do more harm than good.

Aug. 14 2009 10:00 AM
James Hanks

I think hitting the bar has almost become a little way of protesting the way New York has become such a regulated place. To a born New Yorker the "panic bars" installed on the doors are an anathema to everything that New York is supposed to be.

Those alarms are about as useful and almost as offensive as those canned "This is an important message from the New York City Police Department...." messages that proceed to say nothing important.

Aug. 14 2009 12:44 AM

What is the problem? Why should MTA do something about these very efficient subway exits? This is NY. Maybe lower the volume of the alarm!

Aug. 13 2009 07:36 PM
Lynn Zelvin

When they put in all those high turnstyles (HEETs) I had a large guide dog with a long tail and it became impossible for me to enter or

exit without risking getting her tail caught in a turnstyle. Once in those things, there is no way to back up and no way to maneuver,

such as to reach back and tuck her tail in before it's too late and it would have been impossible to take action to release her if she had

gotten caught. I was informed that the solution was for me to enter stations going in the opposite direction ride to the nearest transfer

point and then ride back. Or to start using the more expensive (to the end users and the city) and totally dysfunctional paratransit

system in stead of the extensive subway system I've ridden to get anywhere in the city for over 30 years. . Or to limit myself to

wheelchair accessible stations which would theoretically not be closed off (not true either). In
some stations there were some exits and

entrances that are closed off with GEETS but which had alternate accessible entrance/exits. However, we have never had any

accessible signage or other information system which I can use on a regular basis to let me choose these, so my only option was to go

downstairs (or upstairs), find out I was blocked, go back, try the next stairway, etc. Essentially, the absence of any tangible efforts to

improve access for blind passengers has compounded this latest newly erected access barrier.
One stipulation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was that once a point of entry had been made accessible it could not be

returned to inaccessibility. The MTA used some kind of convoluted logic to insist that the subway entrances were not covered by this

since there is not a standard for an accessible turnstyle, therefore the system wasn't accessible t,o begin with. But it was accessible to

some of us and the intent was for disabled people to not have to lose access once we have it. That situation existed because the

regulations around architectural access were designed around wheelchair access. Guide dog users hadn't seen a need to define an

accessible entrance since there wasn't any reason to believe that regular entrances of any sort designed for non-disabled people would

someday stop working for us. Clearly the MTA has violated the intent of the law. I, and others, were attempting to take action related

to this problem but it was a big uphill battle and there are so many other barriers in the world and life is complicated enough, and we are

just a small minority and not one taken very seriously in most places.
So, I was relieved when these doors went in. I hated using them and setting off the alarm. As it is, when entering, I needed to wait for

another person to go in in order to push the door open for me and I sometimes spend long periods of time waiting for that. Not as lon,

however, as it would have taken to exit a station, dcross the street, locate an accessible entrance on the other side, figure out how far

I'd need to ride in order to head back in my intended direction, etc.
The list of barriers in my life is growing. The number of inaccessibl (and possibly illegal) self-service machines that block the way to

many things I need to do is exploding, Old problems are not getting solved and I'm getting more and more tired of all the creative extra

time and energy I'm supposed to have a way to generate to accomplish simple tasks. Nobody is paying attention to lack of access for

people like me or the implementation of new inaccessible crap. I heard a report about signs on bus stops that will let sighted people

know when the next bus is coming. I don't even have a sign telling me which buses are available at a given stop in the first place. And

blind people, more than anyone, would benefit from knowing when a bus is coming because we can't see it a block away and must

spend all our time at bus stops, if we are the only one there, standing in one place so bus drivers will see us. There seems to be no

effort to make sure comprehensive access for all of us is incorporated in the design of new measures our tax dollars are paying for. I

was informed by an employee in the mayor's office for People With Disabilities that the mayor isn't involved because he can't do

anything about the MTA, yet he's got a long platform of MTA changes in his campaign for reelection. None of them addressing the

very serious difficult barriers I face on a daily basis. Media has never covered our concerns in any significant manner. I had to retire my

last guide dog and am waiting a long time for a new dog. It would be much longer if I had to request a small dog with a short tail in

order to ride the subway. I'm personally very happy for these subway emergency doors. I'm glad that NYer's who have different but

similar barriers posed by the HEETs, such as baby strollers, are using the doors. The system is supposed to serve us, not impede us. I

look forward to teaching my next dog to find them. I'd love to see someone try to give me a ticket for using them. Maybe we can get

some press coverage and mayoral attention paid to the inequities in services in this city.

Aug. 13 2009 06:47 PM
Ken g

1. They should widen the steps. 2. People need to queue up properly. When you use the emergency exit you cut in front of all the people waiting properly to exit the stairs. It's sickening to routinely watch emergency exit goers cut in front of the elderly and people with strollers (though whether or not they should be using the steps for their strollers is another question).

Aug. 13 2009 06:00 PM
Nathan J Goldberg

Why are these exclusively emergency exits? They might as well be ordinary exits, since there's obviously a need for them. Ordinary exits can also be used for emergencies, can't they?

Aug. 13 2009 05:53 PM

Thanks for covering my pet peeve. Nothing worse at the end of a long day than that godawful noise.

As long as the alarms exist, it seems incredibly selfish to me that one person values the extra few seconds they gain to essentially cut the line and make those who are waiting suffer. It's analogous to people who cut around in the right-hand lane in a highway merge only to cut back in at the front, causing those who played by the rules to wait still longer.

That said, it's doubtful fines will stop the problem. As another commenter pointed out, this is a design problem, not a behavior problem. For all their cons, there would seem to be only one pro to the alarms: to make life (slightly) more difficult for fare evaders.

I'd love to know how much money the alarms practically save the MTA. Even if they do work to some degree, frankly I'd be happy to pay an extra couple bucks to subsidize whatever minimal evasion costs happen for peace and quiet when I'm about to leave home.

Aug. 13 2009 04:45 PM

if, in every station, there were some extra big turn styles so we could exit with a big suitcase or a stroller, we wouldn't need to go through the emergency exit.
Or: put a button which allows us to ask the token booth clerk to open the emergency gate (in some stations such a button exists, not in MINORITY NEIGHBORHOODS, though.
Alarms to which nobody responds are not only useless, they are DANGEROUS, because they let us believe that there is help in case of an emergency when there is not!!

Aug. 13 2009 12:35 PM

At least one guy spent a day in jail for this:

Aug. 13 2009 12:27 PM

The gates themselves are essential for those of us with strollers... we can't do without them. I really don't see the point of the alarms when there's no one watching. There are always impatient people, and I HATE the sound of the gate. I wish the MTA would think more about installing new elevators instead of discouraging people from using the gates as exits.

Aug. 13 2009 11:56 AM
Bobby G

The sound of exiting the subway now are these horrible alarms. The subway is stressful enough. Please get rid of the alarms. There is no enforcement responding to them anyway.

And while we are at it lets get of rid car alarms, too.

Aug. 13 2009 09:56 AM

Slam gates were part of the IRT subway in 1904, riders regularly were expected to use them for exiting. Their flaw was fare beaters used the gates to enter, so the NYCTA solution was to eliminate all gates. Where there were no token booths, only high wheels (Iron Maiden) gates were supplied for entry and exit. These all predate the MetroCard stainless steel gates.

The original plans for the MetroCard gates included remote TV cameras covering the unmanned station exits, with TV monitors and intercoms connected to the staffed booth. This was supposed to allow the "token" clerk to open gates and resolve MetroCard issues remotely. These cameras and intercoms were cut from the initial installation.

Even before the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, a lot of attention to emergency exits was focused on transit systems. The NY subways did not comply with the National Fire Protection Code particularly in respect to both high and low turnstiles creating unsafe exiting.

In parallel, the subway is required to be as handicapped accessible as feasible. Even where elevators are not available, the system should not unnecessarily block handicapped users. The gates provide necessary entry and exit to the system. And what is a baby stroller but a wheelchair for a person unable to walk on their own? There are some interesting ADA implications to not providing accommodation for infants.

Our subway is for more than just commuters carrying no more than a briefcase. The subway should function as a reasonable alternative to owning and driving a car for most New Yorker's transportation.

Within reason, one should expect to be carry a birthday cake your mother's party via the subway, and to be able to get off the platform at your destination. Before the new emergency gates were installed, my wife tried exiting from the Broadway - 231St northbound platform. There were only high wheel gates on this platform. Ultimately, the cake box exited by sitting up over my wife's head. This was unacceptable.

With the installation of the "emergency exit" gates, these safety and practical entry/exit problems have been corrected. Unfortunately, the implementation seems to be making criminals out of normal passengers.

The single reason to ban the use the "emergency exit" gate is fare beating. It is illegal to walk through the gate without paying the fare. That is clear.

The NYCTA rules require that to enter with luggage, a stroller, a bike or a wheelchair, the passenger swipes a fare in a turnstile and then opens the "emergency exit". The "emergency exit" is really a "service entry/exit" and is not just restricted to emergencies. The line between needing the gate because you can't fit through an Iron Maiden and passengers using the gates to avoid a long backup exiting the platform is very narrow. I fail to understand why the Transit Police are issuing any tickets for other than fare beaters.

A suggestion for dealing with the piercing alarm on the gates - change the sound to something less shrill, a gong simulation perhaps. There should be a sound if anyone is interested that the gate is opened, particularly to alert police to fare beater, but the noise does not have to be as painful as it currently is.

Further, the NYCTA should finally install the intercoms and cameras at each gate area so passengers can talk to station agents remotely and resolve access/exit issues and get transit assistance.

Let's remember, that the subway system first priority is to move people and their belongings safely and efficiently and quickly, and that fare collection and that locking people in or out NOT priority one.

Your survey should have had another choice: Keep the exits, soften the alarm, and change the rules so only fare beating is a violation of service gate use.

Aug. 13 2009 09:25 AM

These alarm bars were an enormous waste of MTA money. The alarm doesn't deter anyone and it just adds to the noise pollution and stress of city life. What pisses me off about them most though, is that no one took into consideration parents with strollers who need these exits. The alarms wake up sleeping children, scare the little ones, and stress out the older ones. When will the MTA finally start thinking about the thousands of parents riding the subways?

Aug. 13 2009 09:03 AM

These exits had no alarms for years. This fact was missed in the report. The gates were intended to allow passengers with grocery carts or large items that won't easily pass through the turnstile to exit the stations. Then a few years ago some dumbasses stuck alarms on the gates. What do these alarms accomplish? They warn authorities that law-abiding passengers are leaving the station? Is that a crime?

Aug. 13 2009 08:55 AM

I get it when there's a huge backlog. But I've seen many people (without baggage or strollers) ignore the turnstiles (open, unused) to push the panic bar (#6, downtown, 23rd street, south end of station). I started playing a game of trying to pick out which person was going to hit the bar. It's truly across the board, though I've gotten good--it's something in the eyes, a kind of blind self-centeredness.

I believe anyone who doesn't mind that horrid alarm is in a sad state of remove. I'm not, however, and think that noise is as thoughtless and dreadful as second-hand smoke (in sensurround).

Or maybe we're in such a disastrous era that when we see a panic bar, we just need to hit it...

Aug. 13 2009 08:30 AM

I say keep things exactly the way they are, with respect to social expectations, and the operation of the doors/alarms. I do believe, however, that there could be some reform in the legal sanctions of using the doors. Consider the following:

1. We need the exits in case of emergency. Therefore, removal of the exits should not be an option.

2. Non-emergency use of the exits to allow large crowds to exit improves service (defining "service" as the quickness with which one can get from point A to point B, which seems like a reasonable definition). Furthermore, they are convenient and/or necessary when exiting with bulky cargo (which I hope we are doing infrequently, and only during non-peak hours). Therefore, the unwritten social code should continue to allow non-emergency use of the exits.

3. The alarms are necessary. Otherwise, the doors could easily be used to allow unauthorized entry, and we don't want to aid fare evaders. Given that I have condoned non-emergency use of the exits, I understand this means that we will have to continue to listen to a thirty-second alarm every time a crowd leaves, or somebody leaves with a bike or a stroller. This is something we should just live with, the same way we live with the sound of trains entering and exiting stations, or the sound of car horns when we get up to the street.

4. Lastly, I believe that both the NYPD and the MTA police should adopt a somewhat official policy of tolerance regarding the legal sanctions, similar to how we handle jay-walking. If the exit is used in a socially acceptable manner (despite being technically against the law), then one should not have to fear incurring a fine for helping their fellow passengers exit quickly, or exiting with their bicycles. Of course, if somebody is simply too lazy to walk through a turnstyle off-hours, they could be fined for creating a nuisance with the door/alarm. Returning to the jay-walking analogy, persons should only be fined for jaywalking if they do so in such a way that risks physical harm to themselves or other street users. Also, considering that there does exist a legal, convenient process for exiting with bulky items at stations with an agent, fining those setting off the alarm would essentially amount to punishing us, the riders, for the MTA's decision to cut back on station agents.

So yes, I believe that we should continue to use the emergency exits the way we do (especially in the wake of station agent reductions), and I do not believe that we should have to fear a fine for helping people exit and/or exiting with a bicycle.

Aug. 13 2009 08:03 AM

Thank you for pointing out this inane condition, one of many in the NYC subway. The system should not be designed to make regular users feel like criminals, and I resent any moralizing over this topic. This is a design problem, not a rider behavior problem.

At my local station, there is NO means whatsoever to exit the station with a stroller or package unless one uses the emergency gate. At other stations, like the south end of the 1 platform at 59th St, there is a single "out" turnstile to handle hundreds of exiting riders, all but necessitating use of the gates to avoid dangerous crowd conditions.

I have no issue with the emergency gates being alarmed where there are adequate turnstiles and service gates but they should absolutely be muted where context warrants.

Turnstiles in general are a huge issue with the NYC subway and merit a proper commission to intelligently provide improvements. Besides the problem with gates, there are the following bottlenecks:

-- Metrocards are incredibly error prone compared to other kinds of transit cards. Average number of swipes needed for a correct pass probably averages above 2.

-- Turnstiles give the same "beep" for a correct or incorrect swipe, which is completely moronic. Riders either do not realize they misswiped or have to pause to squint at the little screen. Result is many lost seconds per rider, which adds up in crowded stations.

-- Turnstiles are simply inadequate in many situations. 59th St and 34th St are examples of too few hi-lows in a tourist area prone to crowds that cannot handle a crowd of, say, 40 confused tourists piled up trying to fight the above swipe issues while New Yorkers behind them scream at them to hurry up. Result is chaos and sometimes fights, all because a few more turnstiles were not added.

When the subway works fine but people cannot even enter or leave it due to turnstile and gate problems it truly indicates wasteful dysfunction at the MTA.

Aug. 13 2009 07:58 AM

Either enforce the fine vigorously or shut off the alarm. A warning siren going off every 30 seconds in every subway station is grating and desensitizes everyone to real emergencies. What's the point of an emergency alarm that doesn't trigger any response? It just introduces more unnecessary noise into city life.

Aug. 13 2009 07:50 AM

I just hate those gates being opened. The alarm is physically painful (to me) and contributes to the overall stress of the City, I believe. I understand if the turnstiles are otherwise unpassable for people with strollers or luggage, but frankly, that's not what I see. I see a lot of selfish, entitled people who just do whatever they want to regardless of the well-being of anyone else. It is one of the few moments in which I am disgusted with New Yorkers, whom I usually defend to the hilt.

Aug. 13 2009 07:49 AM
Robin Hardman

I see parents with strollers using the emergency exits all the time--it happens all the time at our local stop in Queens, as there is usually no one at the token booth. I've been wondering for some time how this affects the ears of the child in the stroller! To me, the noise is more than just a nuisance, it's a danger, especially to young children. And (re: "transit officials claim it does deter even more riders from using the exits") I'm not sure what the problem is with having doors to use instead of turnstiles??

Aug. 13 2009 07:47 AM

It's not feasible to make it through the turnstiles with a bike, large bags, strollers or children in tow.
No viable alternative has been presented, so usage of the emergency gates will continue.

Aug. 13 2009 07:46 AM
janet Paul

At busy Flatbush Av Junction there aren't enough turnstiles to accommodate people exiting and entering during rush hours, possibly leading to platform overcrowding or accidents on daily basis. Emergency exits assist rapid evacuation/exiting.

Aug. 13 2009 07:45 AM
James Hanks

The gates are not new! They have been there for all 28 years of my living in NYC and people always used them to exit. Only the ALARMs came after 9/11. Please don't confuse the people who have recently come to New York.

Aug. 13 2009 07:45 AM
thomas leslie

this is only an issue because of the backups at the attendant-less stations. at mine, #1 66th st, there can be 100 people trying to get out via the high-hats. it is new york, do they really think we're going to wait 5 minutes to leave a subway station?

Aug. 13 2009 07:44 AM

No option for re-open booths?

I use the gates when I can't get through the turnstile with whatever I've got in my arms. Luggage, usually.

I'll never forget standing outside the turnstile on Thanksgiving one year. It was pouring out and I'd just used my credit card to buy a metro card for a woman with a stroller who was stymied by three machines that refused her cash. She'd already carried her stroller down two flights of stairs and it was pouring out. We turn the bend and ... no way through the turnstile. A small crowd of adults was trying to figure out what to do about it when a group of teenagers pushed open the emergency exit from the inside to let her in.

All of this could have been avoided with the presence of a station agent.

Aug. 13 2009 07:11 AM

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