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Tragedy of the Commons in NYC Subways

A very local-centric post here, but I’m so glad someone wrote about this issue: People using the ‘emergency exits’ when exiting subway stations (which is illegal), thus setting off a loud, unpleasant noise; once one person does it, the sheep fall in line and duly follow, thus prolonging the horrible sound (if there’s one thing New York does not need more of, it’s horrible sound). Once one person has does it, of course, you lose out, theoretically, by not joining along; meanwhile, all the law abiding people suffer (although often, really, it takes no longer to go through the turnstile). The excuses given remind us that selfish, short-sighted and contra-the-posted-signs behavior is not limited to drivers. “Quite frankly when I’m leaving the subway it’s always an emergency because I need to get home,” one vile sort told the reporter.

The kicker here is that many exits (like mine, the ‘F’ train at Carroll) are set up with revolving turnstiles that filter the throughput of people exiting. What the steady, uninterrupted stream of people coursing through the emergency exit does is merely shift the bottleneck to the stairwell (where people are delayed by slower people exiting, or the ‘friction’ of those coming down the stairs). So the total egress time may in fact be the same, despite the illusion of progress.

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This entry was posted on Friday, August 14th, 2009 at 3:13 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Tragedy of the Commons in NYC Subways”

  1. Josh R Says:

    I think that because the exits are there in case of fire or terrorist attack, there should be powerful sprayers above all of them that automatically douse anyone moving through the door with ice cold water at a rate of about 5 gallons a second. To you know, put out the fire…

  2. George Says:

    Josh,
    Just a cold shower. If it is a real emergency you would not mind getting soaked. Transit police could round up wet people and ask them “what is the emergency?”.

  3. Josh R Says:

    Exactly right George. If you’re willing to get soaked, then you must have really needed to exit quickly, but if your “emergency” is really “I’m too important to wait 30 seconds to get through a turnstile.” you’ll think twice.

    I’m not saying that it’s seriously practical though, it’s just a rather funny application of the idea that in order for a law or rule to be effective, there has to be some way of consistently penalizing the people who break the law, and the penalty has to negate any benefit they got from breaking the law.

  4. Steve Says:

    People use them all the time for “justifiable reasons”: exiting with a stroller or bike.

    The turnstiles at many subway stops do not accommodate these items and the lack of attendants at these exits leave you no other choice if exiting.

    That doesn’t excuse people who do it for expediency, it’s just that they often follow those with a genuine reason for using the exits.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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