I’d barely noticed the click-CLUNK sound of the old turnstiles until they were nearly gone. You would drop your token into the slot, and there would be that sure and satisfying sound of a latch snapping open inside the mechanism: click-CLUNK, you may proceed. It was 1997, and after a three-year transition, the MTA was about to replace the very last of the mechanical turnstiles with the new electronic model we use today.
I didn’t bemoan the loss of the old turnstiles; they were easy targets for vandals and fare-beaters who would jam them with slugs or stuff gum into the slot, hoping to grab your token after you’d stomped away in disgust. Nor did I miss standing in line to restock my pocket with tokens. I would buy them in bulk whenever I had the cash— 10 for the price of 10!
But as the click-CLUNK faded out, the sound that faded in to replace it was appalling: a long, shrill bleep, high-pitched yet tuneless, a sound with no obvious source, a sound so piercingly loud that it could be heard as far up as the street and as far down as the deepest platform, yet so indistinct as to be incapable of carrying any meaning. The turnstiles produce this sound each time a passenger swipes a fare card, something that happens nearly 5 million times a day in the systems’ 468 stations. And 21 years after its birth cry, this sound remains an invisible blight under the city, polluting the transit experience for millions of riders every day.
In 1998, I made a systematic analysis of the subway system’s dysfunctional sounds, and then proposed some general design guidelines, along with an a hypothetical redesign. I presented my research at the 1998 Conference of the International Community for Auditory Display in Glasgow, Scotland. Here’s a recap of what I learned:
Sound, signifying nothing.
It’s bad enough that the turnstile’s sound is clinical, soulless, and unpleasant; what’s worse is that the sound is bad at its job. This beep is supposed to answer a question: I’ve swiped my MetroCard, now what should I do? And yet every morning when my swipe is answered by the turnstile’s beep, I ignore it, because it tells me nothing. I keep walking forward at full speed, and most of the time I sail through the turnstile’s machinery unhindered. But every few days, the transaction ends with me crashing without warning — bang! — into the unyielding turnstile gate. This happens every time my MetroCard can’t be read, has expired, or has run out of funds.
Swipe, BEEP, bang! (ouch)
The beep should warn me when there is a problem, sparing me the indignity of crashing into the bar, and it should let me know what to do next: stay put and swipe again, or else go back and fix my card. And although the beep was put there to do exactly that, it clearly fails.
Depending upon what happens when you swipe your card, the turnstile will produce one of three possible signals: a long single beep, a sequence of two shorter beeps, or a sequence of three even shorter beeps. In practice however, the three signals are indistinguishable. Each one is approximately one second long, and all the beeps are the same pitch. If it’s extremely quiet, which is rarely the case, you can sometimes distinguish between the three. But most of the time, simultaneous beeps from multiple turnstiles, along with the general clatter of a typical station, blend together into an undifferentiated sonic sludge that overwhelms the subtle distinctions between the three signals. The individual signals are overmatched by their own collective noise, and no audible information survives the journey from turnstile to ear to mind. The resulting soundscape is an ear-splitting mess, a dreadful din that serves no purpose.
There are several independent reasons that this sound fails to deliver, and if you are interested in the psychoacoustics, you can follow this link for a detailed explanation of what’s going wrong.
But the biggest single problem is the sound’s one-second duration. A second might not seem like a long time, but for a beep, it’s an eternity. Most beeps and other alert sounds are closer to one tenth of a second in length. If the beep of a cardiac monitor on Grey’s Anatomy continues for one whole second, it means the patient has flatlined. In a typical subway station, where six or eight turnstiles are in nearly constant use, the long duration of the beeps means they end up overlapping with each other most of the time, effectively erasing the 50-millisecond silent gaps that differentiate the single beep from the double and tripple versions.
Fixing the Beep
Before discussing the beeps in terms of design, aesthetics, or the quality of the subway experience, one thing needs to be clear: Subway turnstiles are essential public infrastructure components, and as such, they should not subject riders, their captive audience, to any nonessential sound. The sounds need to be efficient above all else, and here I understand efficient sounds as those that maximize communication while minimizing the amount of sound released into the environment. If a sound were to do an extremely good job of communicating it’s message, I think it would gain a measure of beauty precisely because it is so effective, even in the absence of other aesthetic niceties.
My 1998 report included a set of guidelines for designing new turnstile sounds, and they follow directly from my analysis of the existing beeps’ shortcomings: the sounds should be brief, they should have a sharp attack and a distinctive timbre, and they should be part of an overall musical scheme that includes not only the turnstiles, but all the sounds that make up the subway’s acoustic ecosystem. Finally, volume levels should be calibrated so that in the actual environment, they are only just loud enough for the sounds to do their job, and no louder.
The last step of this research was to redesign the turnstile sounds according to these guidelines. To compose the overall soundscape, I modeled the frequency of various events over time. This allowed me to hear the patterns, rhythms, and density of card swipes, arriving trains, footsteps and voices, and other signals and alarms that happen from time to time. I tried to balance the level, tone, and timbre of the new sounds, as well as the harmonic consonance and dissonance, so that the overall result would have the clear, informative qualities embodied in the MTA’s subway maps and signage.
I initially understood the turnstiles beeps as a failure of design, but now, after 17 years creating artwork for public spaces, I see it instead as a failure of process. It’s not that the turnstile sounds were poorly designed, but that they were not really designed at all. They show no trace of aesthetic sensibility, and no one with even cursory expertise in acoustics, perception, or interface design would have proposed or signed off on a plan with so many obvious flaws.
It’s not that the turnstile sounds were poorly designed,
but that they were not really designed at all.
Whenever a city or municipal agency invests in new equipment that emits sound, such as siren-equipped emergency vehicle, crosswalk signals, or trucks with backup warning signals, the sounds should be subject to a design review by a public authority along the lines of New York City’s Public Design Commission. and sound designers, acousticians, and composers should be brought into the process where appropriate. A review should make certain that when a new sound gets introduced into a public situation, the sound adds real value, that its aesthetic qualities are well considered, that it fits well with the other sounds in its surroundings, and that it delivers critical information that can’t be communicated in any other way.
in 2014, the New York Times published Subway Alarm, an excellent OpDoc video by Ken Webb that focused on a much louder acoustic atrocity: the emergency exit sirens that were screeching almost constantly at many stations. The video illustrated how the exits were in nearly continuous use by passengers with strollers, suitcases, children, groceries, or what have you, with the siren whooping hysterically the whole time. And despite the alarm being loud enough to damage hearing, riders and MTA personnel had long since learned that it had no meaning, and they ignored it completely. Happily, the MTA listened to Ken Webb’s voice of reason, and by the end of the year, the agency had pulled the plug on those sirens.
The subway alarm story sets a hopeful precedent, but improving the turnstile beeps is a more complicated proposition. Responding to James Murphy’s Subway Symphony proposal in 2015, MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg told the Gothamist, “The tones are an ADA element for the visually impaired, and we won’t mess with them.” In light of all the problems with the beep, there’s actually a strong case to be made that the current sound implementation doesn’t benefit the visually impaired or anybody else. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that the turnstiles be accessible to visually impaired riders, the law might actually be helpful in guiding the Transit Authority toward more effective sound design in the future. An opportunity for change is now on the horizon: the MTA is planning to move to a new fare collection technology by 2019. I encourage them to make the most of this opening, and to invest in an improved soundscape for our transit system.
Ben Rubin is a media artist and sound designer in New York and director of the Center for Data Arts at The New School. He has created award-winning public artworks, including Movable Type for the New York Times Building, and Shakespeare Machine for the Public Theater. In addition to sound designs for plays, films, and exhibitions, Rubin created the audible interface for HP’s PhotoSmart printers, Ethicon’s Harmonic surgical instruments, and other devices.