Alden’s ITP Home

Subway Turnstile

Since moving to New York I’ve done it again and again: swiped my MetroCard through the reader only to slam at full walking speed into an unmoving turnstile. At first I thought the problem was just me, I was new to the subway and hadn’t gotten the hang of swiping smoothly enough to avoid “PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN”, but then I noticed that I was not alone in my turnstile mistakes. Not only were other people getting the “PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN” message, they were walking straight into the turnstile after doing it.  This led me to two conclusions:

a) Swiping is unreliable

b) There is no feedback for when the swipe is wrong, the turnstile makes the same ping for a successful and an unsuccessful swipe

The clear advantage of swiping is that it is a fluid forward motion that can be combined with walking to speed up the flow of foot traffic through the turnstyle. Obviously this fluidity is interrupted by the miss-swipes, completely reversing the advantage some small percentage of the time, and making subway riders more cautious, eroding a bit of the advantage overall. Other metro systems I’ve been on (notably BART and the London Tube) have used tapping a preloaded card as a gateway mechanism, which is a more reliable experience but less fluid, usually tapping requires a quick pause in forward movement as the card is hovered over the tap area. I’ve heard that the MTA plans to move to an all-tapping system in the next five years with the intention to include a ticket app and smartphone tapping (furthering the smartphone’s integration of all personal items into its being). The idea of smartphone tapping puts me off, there is something democratic and status-leveling about the MetroCard that becomes lost once tappable cards become used alongside smartphones. Beyond that, smartphone tapping for metro access contributes to the power creep of smartphones toward the sole tool of world navigation. I don’t want to live in a world in which having a smartphone is a necessity for mundane tasks like commuting.

As for the feedback, how hard could it be for the turnstile to make a different kind of beep when the swipe was unsuccessful? The mini LCD screen displays the “PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN” message but by the time it displays I am already half a stride beyond view of the screen.

Beyond improving the reliability and fluidity of the turnstile – improvements which mainly allow for travelers to notice its existence less – how can the experience of the turnstile be changed to bring delight and joy into our daily lives? Is this possible, or are our lives only made better by the turnstile’s cognitive evanescence. In researching a better turnstile experience I came across James Murphy’s Subway Symphony project which feels like a step in the right direction but misplaced in terms of effort. A difficulty is that any kind of variation between turnstiles can decrease usability by sowing confusion in riders who are not in the know. Something like the Masstransiscope or a spur of the moment melody driven by differing notes attached to turnstiles in a single station would be disorienting at first and wearisome over time. I can’t think of anything that really fits with the turnstile interaction, can you?