Comment of the Day: Doing the Math on Metro’s Turnstile Program

Streetsblog doesn’t usually do a “comment of the day” post, but Erik Griswold decided to put his excellent cost/benefit analysis of Metro’s turnstile program in a comment thread for a story published before Thanksgiving. We wanted to make sure everyone saw it.

Long time readers may remember that when Metro suggested adding turnstiles to stations in 2008, they originally said it would help prevent terrorist attacks. After that argument didn’t survive the laugh test, they changed tracks and argued that the agency was losing out on millions of dollars every year because of fare evaders. Thanks to an op/ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, we have a good idea of what that cost actually is. Take it away Erik:

According to this story LA Metro really only expects to go from 5% fare evasion to 2% fare evasion.


October 2012 Ridership on the Subway (Red/Purple Lines) was 4,353,213

Multiply by 12 gives us an estimated annual ridership of 52,238,556

Five percent of that ridership is 2,611,927
Two percent of that ridership is 1,044,770

So, with the turnstiles, 1,567,157 more fares will be collected each year.
(Because of course, none of the current fare-dodgers will  try to sneak onto a bus or just stop riding instead…)

Since we know that everyone who travels on LA Metro is required to pay the full fare…

The Grand TOTAL that will be collected each year after “latching” the turnstiles for (1,567,157 passengers at $1.50 each) is:


Now, that is a lot of money, except if you take notice of how much this turnstile fetish has cost to implement.

Wasn’t it $46 million for the turnstiles alone?  More?  How long does it take for this to pay itself off? 25 years?  That’s about when these turnstiles will be ending their service life.  How much is it going to cost to upgrade them to NFC (which is already being installed in many cities right now)?  Plus the cameras, plus the speaker-boxes, and the new TVMs for Metrolink, and on, and on, and on.  And for what?

Can’t be security because pretty much anyone, nefarious or not, has 12-bits in their wallet.

Wait they don’t even need that:…

There will still be over 1 million fare-dodgers on the Subway as admitted above.

31 thoughts on Comment of the Day: Doing the Math on Metro’s Turnstile Program


    Why is this being allowed to happen? Transit service is objectively shittier with these turnstiles in place. Using a TAP card is confusing even for close students of the bizarro world of Metro.Please – end TAP, fire the people who worked on it, and sell the equipment to a scarp yard. We don’t need any of this bull shit anymore.

    I swear, it isn’t a week after reports of a nation spike in transit ridership that Metro raises fares, installs gates, or decides to start locking gates for a fare system that DOES NOT WORK and does not save anyone money nor time.

  2.  Besides ensuring that you’ve used your TAP card, the other nice thing about turnstiles is they help keep loiterers out.

  3. Or Metro used a security grant to subsidize their future transition to distance-based pricing on rail vehicles.  Pretty smart move on their part.

  4. Something missing from the analysis is the increase in ridership and fares.  Metro ridership will increase as the unemployment rate goes down and expanded lines become alternatives to cars for rush hour commutes.  Also, fares are likely to go up, as LACMTA admits that it’s current business model is unsustainable.

    So, what is the expected ridership when the unemployment rate is 5%?  And what is 5% of that ridership times the new fare rate of $2.50?

    It is unlikely that the increases will cover the cost of locking turnstiles, let alone the other externalities you mentioned and didn’t mention so perhaps it’s a moot point.

  5. Wont someone please think of the multinational corporations that need to sell us their proprietary technology with software they control and maintenance they provide?

    In Boston, the MBTA apparently cant make any changes to the software because Cubic owns it, and theyre no longer on friendly terms. Want to bring back a feature, like “free friend sundays?” Cant be done, because the system is locked.

    So smart.

  6. It actually is proving Richard Stanger right. Does anyone remember the “Stanger Memo”? and Metro’s response:—Response-to-Richard-Stanger-letter-Metro-Rail

  7. A couple of points that might be useful to this analysis:

    1) Turnstiles may allow Metro to lower enforcement costs, so the savings may be higher than listed here.

    2) Turnstiles are common worldwide, and would bring more clarity to system usage. The TAP card is a weird hybrid that you buy like a paper ticket and debit using a virtual turnstile. I’ve talked to several people who were unwitting fare evaders because they didn’t understand it. Turnstiles would make it clear when riders have to pay.

    3) Turnstiles could enhance the ridership experience to the extent that fare evaders are “gateway lawbreakers.” To be sure, there aren’t widespread problems in the Metro system to my knowledge, but in the way that New York city was able to reduce overall crime by removing graffiti and repairing broken window, reducing fare evasion may have positive effects to the system in general. 

  8. I prefer fare inspection, just without the hostility and physical violence of the LASD. Turnstiles seem unnecessary, to me. Pay and if someone asks you for proof of payment, present it. There are cities where they reply solely on fare inspection and works just fine. I like Metro because most stations don’t have turnstiles and it just makes the station feel safer and movement is more fluid, especially during peak hours. 

  9. 1) This may be valid, but you also have to include the portion of the “security” budget that will now be a separate line item that used to be built in with fare enforcement.

    2) Proof of fare systems are also fairly widespread worldwide. You’re right the current system is kind of the worst of both worlds. But I don’t see that as a strong argument for turnstiles. (“We turned our fairly simple system into a really confusing one, so we must spend more millions to make it less confusing.”)

    3) This is just bizarro speculation. Is turnstyle jumping less of a “gateway lawbreaking” than not buying a ticket? This seems to be a rehash of the argument that someone planning to rob other passengers won’t be able to get on a train because they would never pay a fare or jump a turnstyle. Just doesn’t make sense.

  10. Fine, double the ridership (I can’t predict ridership based on the unemplyment rate) and raise the fare to $2.50:

    Ridership now is 104,477,112
    Five Percent is 5,223,855
    Two Percent is 2,089,542
    Difference is 3,134,313
    Multiply by $2.50 and the total that “gets collected now” is $7,835,782
     (and again, if I was not clear via my cynicism above, please remember not everyone is required to pay the full adult fare on Los Angeles Metro) 
    That still means almost 6 years to pay off, if we look at my $46 million turnstile cost, but 10 years if the Roadblock figure is correct.  Except if Metro Ridership doubles, we already see (as in the comments in the T.A.P. Lab thread, there are stations that need to have additional turnstiles installed today.

    We also cannot count on ridership growing or fares growing that much that fast.

    And we haven’t factored in maintenance or fianancing costs.

  11. Yup, and amongst the best lines from Stanger’s paper are:

    “But the average Metro fare is not$1.25, but 60¢ (from the 2005 National Transit Database) because most riders use monthly, weekly,day or other type of passes variously discounted from the full fare. The estimated revenue lossshould be $2.67 million, at most. But even using 60¢ may yield a high estimate of lost revenuebecause many fare evaders would not ride at all if they had to pay and therefore even less actual farerevenue has been lost. But certainly it is incorrect to assume all fare evaders would otherwisepurchase Metro’s highest fare, one-at-a-time, for all their trips.”average Metro fare is not$1.25, but 60¢ (from the 2005 National Transit Database) because most riders use monthly, weekly,day or other type of passes variously discounted from the full fare. The estimated revenue lossshould be $2.67 million, at most. But even using 60¢ may yield a high estimate of lost revenuebecause many fare evaders would not ride at all if they had to pay and therefore even less actual farerevenue has been lost. But certainly it is incorrect to assume all fare evaders would otherwisepurchase Metro’s highest fare, one-at-a-time, for all their trips.”

    (Of course the fare is now $1.50 and thus the average is now probably closer to 70 cents)

  12. I do want to be clear that this is about the turnstiles only. 

     The RFID card has many benefits such as but not limited to, the ability to issue a monthly pass by merely authorizing the card to continue versus having to distribute a printed pass to each individual each month or week or year or whatever the time period desired is.  They are also an excellent way to gather (scrubbed!) data on ridership paths and patterns. 

    The are also severe drawbacks such as the ability to clone or copy these cards as demonstrated in the Stanley Roberts video above.  (Mr. Roberts has also documented the faults of the Cubic faregates in San Francisco, a potential preview of the ADA fargates here).  While forgeries were made of the printed LA Metro passes in the past, they were detectable by visual inspection.  Once an RFID card is “hacked” there is little that the computer systems can do to detect this apart from reporting excessive use, if any.

  13. As I demonstrated above, there will still be 1.5 million people in the system each year who will not have paid.

  14. Fare inspection also allows persons to be checked for warrents, etc.  There have been more than a few highly sought after criminals caught by fare-chekers.

    Remember, fare checking does not go away so there is no cost-savings through this there.

  15. The actual numbers are far worse than Erik estimates.  Firstly, funds spent on turnstiles are funds that can’t be spent on other projects and, more importantly, are essentially borrowed money.  At a 4% annual interest rate, $46 million (assuming Roadblock is not closer to the true cost) would cost $1,840,000/yr.  If one tap card costs 10 cents and one must be created for every 50 rides that costs another $104,477.  If “fare enforcement” represents just 1% of the LASD annual contract of $80,622,796 that comes to another $806,228.  Lastly if approximately 33,000 scofflaws are caught annually and 90% actually pay the fine that comes to $7,560,000/yr. If the scofflaw percentage drops from 5% to 2% fines will decrease by at least as much or $4,536,000.  Even f we stick with the $1.50 average fare (way overstated) all these costs suggest that MTA would be losing almost $5 million/yr by employing this system and these turnstiles could never be paid for.
    With all the high-level corruption going on in our community (Coliseum, DWP, Assessor, etc.) the idea that we are spending this kind of money and effort on fare evaders is itself morally corrupt.  One can only wonder how many MTA officials were “taken to lunch” to bring this about.

  16.  I was actually just thinking about this since LAMTA usually has free ride for Christmas, New Years and other random occasions like Carmageddon, I wonder if these will go away with fare gate locking?

  17. On 2) I’m honestly not sure how much turnstiles help unify the public transportation experience nation or worldwide. I was just in the Bay Area and rode BART for the first time a few weeks ago. I’ve been riding Metro regularly in LA for 7+ years. Even with all my experience here in LA, there were still enough differences that I was happy I got a lot of info from others on how to deal with and Navigate the BART.
    -I didn’t have to BUY a stupid card as a 1 day rider
    -by default the ticket machine assumed I wanted $20 on the card and so I had to use little buttons to customize the amount I wanted
    -I had to know exactly where I was going so I could put the correct fare on the card
    -I kept walking into turnstiles the “wrong” direction (not accustom to looking down to see red/green signals indicating which turnstiles I could enter)
    -I kept walking into the turnstile walls (because I’m used to having to push and use my own body to walk through the ones in LA) vs. waiting for a walls to open

    And that’s just related to turnstiles/ticket purchasing!

  18. The simple presence of the turnstiles makes me feel less safe in some ways. In the case of an emergency, I can just imagine people walking into the arms of the turnstiles, stumbling, falling, getting caught on them (this sometimes happens to me on a normal day) and getting crushed to death, just because there are these giant hunks of metal in the middle of the walkway. Additionally, in some stations the angle of turnstile placement doesn’t flow with the natural flow of people through the stations (turnstiles direct the user forward or to the left and the rider would natural turn right), in some stations a large portion of the walkway is simply blocked by fences. I, as a rider who is putting my safety in the hands of others, would like to know detailed analysis on how the turnstiles affect my safety and ability to exit the station have been done and publicized.

    This article conveys some of the things I’m talking and thinking about:

  19. A few more downsides to the TAP cards:
    -It’s extremely easy for the drivers (on lines that are distance based, such as Commute Express) to accidently set the wrong fare value to charge you, thereby leaving the rider in a state where they can’t undo the operation and they were just charged double for something. Earlier this week I was riding and I’m not sure if the driver was joking or not, but the TAP machine wasn’t functioning and he said it was deducting all of the remaining balance from the TAP cards.
    -It’s not always convenient to add more value to the TAP card.
    -The user does NOT have easily visibility into how much value or what passes exist on their cards. I can open my wallet and know how much cash I have and glance at my pass to see that I have my daily, weekly or monthly pass and when it expires.

  20. If TAP cards only cost 10cents each and riders are charged $1 each, that’s 90cents extra Metro is making for every 50 rides, correct?

  21. M, That’s exactly why I am advocating the dumping of the turnstiles and focus on fixing the RFID card (note I did not specify T.A.P.) system.  In your situation with the “joking” driver, you were still dealing with a person who hopefully has some logic, more intelligence than a turnstile and can’t physically block you. 

    As for the visibility of value, I have in my posession a sleeve that can be used to read the value of a chip-equipped RFID card like the “Translink” cards in the Bay Area were before the relaunch to “Clipper”. These were issued by another RFID using agency.  There are apps available for smartphones that will allow the user to read the value/validity of their RFID cards:

  22. They will probably just open the emergency gates and keep them propped open with a sign and a saw-horse.  The practice of opening the emergency gates is common on systems that have turnstiles/faregates’ the differnce here is that with the unstaffed stations, the saw-horse is necessary.

    P.S. Is that gate at Wilshire/Vermont fixed yet or is the latch still broken?

  23. The LA Metro system also includes other lines that don’t have turnstiles. Now a single rail/BRT system has at least two different ways of paying for the rides (not counting Silver Line).

  24. May I ask why it is we accept Metro at face value when they claim current fare avoidance is 5%?  I ride the Red line every day, and that 5% figure strikes me as preposterously low, and this is on a line with turnstiles installed.  Just hang around in the Universal City station for a few minutes at rush hour, and you’ll see nearly as many red lights at the turnstiles (indicating a fare dodger) as you will hear beeps indicating the fare has been paid.

    I fully agree that the TAP card is an unmitigated fiasco, but I think some people are conflating TAP with the turnstiles while using somewhat simplistic assumptions around the costs of fare evasion.  Moreover, whatever ridiculous amount has been spent on the turnstiles thus far is a sunk cost.  WE can play Monday morning QB all we want, but these things are largely installed already, so the discussion and associated evaluation of the financial merits of the system should be based on expense and savings solely on a go forward basis.

  25. Mike,

    You realize there are still plenty of people who are riding LA Metro with valid fare media that is not a T.A.P. RFID card, right?

  26. Actually Erik at Universal City there is only ONE category, and that is Metrolink pass and ticket holders (as there are no interagency transfers at that station). Mike has a defeatist attitude, but unfortunately ripping out turnstiles now that they have been installed also has a large cost attached. Quite frankly, a BART style system with station agents would provide much more benefit to the occasional rider than the “virtual station agent” concept, and if BART can station someone full time at outposts like Castro Valley and North Concord, then Metro can too.

  27. Fine, but then let’s get the price for staffing too, becasue it adds to the amount of fares that have to be collected to justify it. 

  28. Which would almost surely be offset by reduced costs from fewer LASD having to stand there and check fares in the stations as I’ve seen time and again.  Moreover, increased staffing lowers the barriers to entry for potential passengers/tourists who are less familiar with transit, providing a positive tailwind for ridership.

  29. “… is a sunk cost”

    Actually the faregates are being leased from Cubic. Initially we were assured that isf in the end it didn’t pencil out they cpuld easily be pulled out. Now of course they make noises about problems pulling the gates. One frustration many of us have is what a moving target the facts of this initiative are. To this day I am unclear to what extent station agents will be necsssary and at what cost. At one point Matt Raymond estimated agent costs as $20 million a year

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