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July 22, 2004 12:01 AM

Broken: New York subway turnstiles

turnstileNote: Alex Yourke sent an abbreviated version of the post below to the New York Times - it was published as a letter to the editor yesterday. Nice work, Alex!

Alex Yourke writes:

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority made a huge mistake when they installed the MetroCard turnstiles a few years ago, a mistake that adds to congestion, confusion and annoyance in the subway and should have been obvious during testing (and could probably still be corrected without huge expenditures):

The "beep" sound when your MetroCard slides through properly, unlocking the turnstile, is EXACTLY THE SAME TONE as the "beep" sound when it does not.

This requires every user to peer at the lit "Entry" arrow to determine if the card reader was able to read the card. If the arrow is colored red, the user needs to squint at the dimly-lit LED display below to determine why - insufficient funds on the card, or more often, "swipe card again at same turnstile". Cards often have to be swiped several times before the arrow shows green and the turnstile unlocks. Either way, the beep sound is the same!

It doesn't take a usability expert to see how this adds to congestion during rush hour. New Yorkers are focused on getting to their train, but the system unnecessarily forces them to consult this turnstile panel every time. Impatient male riders (like myself) who assume the card was properly read are likely to experience the particular displeasure of colliding with a locked turnstile bar.

Wouldn't it make more sense if there was a DIFFERENT BEEP in different cases? One beep if the card reading was successful; a different beep if it failed. Either way, you could just sail right through the turnstile without backing up and looking at the panel to make sure the Entry arrow is green.


Not to mention it must be extra nice for the visually impaired. Talk about accessibility issues.

Posted by: Sarah at July 22, 2004 07:17 AM

Even better -- a different sound for each of several possible card swipes:

Good swipe, turnstile open = Beep

Bad swipe, try again = Buzz

Good swipe, insufficient funds = Ding, ding, ding

Good swipe, funds low (not enough for another ride?) = Beep, ding

Posted by: Dan at July 22, 2004 12:09 PM

This is a problem, but not as annoying as the turnstiles which are both entrances (with a card slot) *and* exits (mostly at outlying stations and such) The card slot is pretty far away from the actual gate. Several times I've had someone rush out of the gate after I've swiped my card, requiring me to swipe again. Eventually I learned to stand in the gate and awkwardly reach backward, swipe, occasionally engaging in a duel of looks with the person on the other side who wants to get out.

(I am just an occasional visitor to NYC, maybe if I lived there I'd natually be more aggressive about commanding the gate!)

Posted by: reed at July 22, 2004 01:22 PM

Perhaps I might not be as old an experienced as all of you but I find nothing broken here.

Perhaps a different beep would be in order eventually but the turnstiles where I got on the train every morning for school and shall be come september, there are different beeps. Two for something not working, one or three for working.

As well, the beeps, no matter how many numbers, at rush-hour they'd all get mixed up and then people would be thinking it didn't work when it indeed did or vice-versa for they'd overhear other beeps.

Atop that... to check, you can always just push the turnstile.

What's really broken is the entire idea of turnstiles - where I enter the subway there's no attendent, so you can just jump the turnstiles and not need worry about the beeping.


Posted by: Liz at July 23, 2004 11:31 PM

As a very regular rider of the subways, I wouldn't mind some sound differentiation.

A few years ago I was running late and as I was coming to the turnstile at the subway station, I just saw the train coming to a stop. In a frantic rush, I swiped my card and (incorrectly assuming my swipe was sucessful), slammed my hand into the (still locked) turnstile, hyperextending all my fingers back. Needless to say, I missed my train, and spent the next few days with a painfully swollen hand.

It's a minor thing, but aren't many usability improvements? Also, I second Sarah's post about accessibility.

Posted by: Heather F at July 29, 2004 04:20 PM

The turnstiles beep? There's usually so much noise going on at stations that I barely notice (same deal when I was in Chicago, and I think that they don't differentiate beeps either, although the card reader mechanism is different and you're not likely to get your card back from the appropriate slot if it didn't go through for some reason).

And, anyway, I've learned from experience I don't need the beep to tell me I didn't do the card swipe correctly. Trying to walk through an immobile turnstile usually does the trick. Very real and pertinent feedback.

Posted by: Steve at July 29, 2004 08:43 PM

The picture for this entry shows the waist-high turnstile, but i find the problem referred to is much worse for the full-height, rotating gate style. With these, instead of just bumping your leg into a locked bar, you throw your whole body into a mangle of steel only to be repelled. I guess the good part is that you get knocked so far back you can read the display to confirm why you were rejected - that is, if you weren't rendered unconscious by the blow!

Posted by: Kevin at August 2, 2004 12:34 PM

I've always liked the gates in the Metro in DC. Instead of turnstiles, the gates are formed of two big yellow pieces of plastic that retract into the card-reading devices. There's no ambiguity there--if the gate opens, you go through; if it doesn't, you don't.

Posted by: Matt at August 2, 2004 11:49 PM

You mean like the ones they use here in Australia?

They definitley make more sense than turnstiles if you ask me... You don't need to throw your body at any gate to open anything, because it's all automatic...

Posted by: Trent at January 25, 2005 11:41 AM

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