Turnstiles have become the defacto method of entry control in modern life. You can see them installed in office buildings, recreation spaces, and the focus of this writeup, in the MTA subway.
The operation of the turnstile is based on the simple idea that they allow only one person to pass through at a time. They are designed to allow no more than one person through at a time. In a busy city, were everyone wants to get through as soon as they can, with minimal impediment, the turnstile design is ever evolving to suit the location as well as the technology that supports it.
Here are some behavioral observations I made of people using turnstiles at MTA entry points. For purposes of description, I have tried to categorize people into different groups based on how they behave.
1) Seasoned warrior : The seasoned warrior is a veteran to the turnstile entry. No action is wasted, ever move is spent to optimize the transition from one side of the turnstile to another. The walk up to the turnstile is spent with quick glances across all entry points, judging which path would be the quickest way through. It’s not enough to see who wants to enter the station, but he also makes note of the flow of people trying to get out through the same turnstiles. With the MTA metro card ready in hand, sometimes in the same one thats holding the morning paper, he walks through with purpose and confidence in his actions. The swiping of the card in the slot, with the correct speed, and pushing through the turnstile, is all done in one smooth motion. He knows how to walk through so that the turnstile is pushed ahead by the motion of his legs alone, and he gets through without tripping. With one hand holding his briefcase, and the other holding his paper, you cant blame him for not pushing the turnstile with his hands like less seasoned commuters. He does not even glance at the confirmation display on the turnstile. Countless times repeating this motion have made him a master.
2) Tourist : Tourists are usually first time or infrequent users of the MTA subway system. They approach the turnstiles after first assessing them from a distance. When they step up to the entry, they double check their cards to make sure it is going in the right way. After a swipe, they look at the display to confirm that their card swipe has indeed been registered. Once this is done, they often try to hurry through the turn stile. Pushing it with their hands, and shuffling through quickly, lest the system lock them out for taking too long to swipe through. Almost all first timers smile once they are through. I know did.
3) Grandma and Grandpa : The elderly users of turnstiles might be using them for ages, but as with all things they do, they usually spend their time going through the motions, perhaps double checking against a list in their head about what they are doing, or perhaps, the grocery shopping that needs to be done later in the day. Whatever their reasons, they spend at least thrice as much time going through a turnstile as compared to the seasoned warrior. For a city that likes to waste no time, this undoubtedly causes much impatience with the commuters behind the Grandma and Grandpa. A line starts forming behind them. People start tapping their feet. Some people check watches. Some people rise up on tip toe or peek by the side of the line to see what’s holding them up. A failed swipe makes the people in the line grimace or clench their fists. Until the grandma or grandpa moves through.
4) Victims of “Just used” : This happens more often that I thought it would. Some people do not have a knack of swiping their metro cards. This results in a series of events that can be best summed up as:
*swipe* “Please swipe again at this turnstile.”
*swipe* “Please swipe again at this turnstile.”
*swipe* “Just used.”
At this point, the person will swear, kick the turnstile, just stand there looking at the turnstile in disbelief, or any combination of these. An MTA agent in the booth might let them through, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
5) The Jumper : We’ve all seen it. A turnstile jumper. Perhaps they want to save a few dollars. Perhaps they’re late for school. Perhaps they were victims of “just used”. He is unpretentious. Ignores the card reader, places both hands firmly on either side of the turnstile, and jumps clean over and continues walking like it’s an every day thing. For him, it probably is. A jumper I did talk to said that he’s saved about 700$ jumping turnstiles in 2012. That’s quite a bit of money. He hasn’t been caught yet. And considering that the fine for jumping turnstiles is $175 or so, I can see why he still does it.
The MTA turnstiles offer a very unique opportunity to observe people performing one of the most mundane tasks of everyday life. It’s amazing to see the way different people handle it so differently. Amazing, and entertaining.