Image by nevermindtheend licensed under Creative Commons.

If you ride Metro with any regularity, I'm sure you've seen a person or two walk straight through the swinging metal gates next to the gates where you swipe your SmarTrip card. At Gallery Place and Fort Totten, there are now signs, cardboard barriers, and alarms in place to make people think twice before they do that.

Depending on the location, gates now have panic bars that you have to press to open them (similar to fire exits in buildings), signs on the floor, and cardboard boxes warning people not to use the gates. There will also be a greater police presence at stations.

“This is a pilot program at Fort Totten and Gallery Place stations to help reduce the amount of fare evasion on the rail system,” says WMATA spokesman Dan Stessel. “Last year, MTPD issued 5,046 citations for fare evasion, but that is only a subset of the total as not everyone is stopped. What we can say is that fare evasion costs Metro millions of dollars a year.”

According to Stessel, the cardboard boxes are only there to call people's attention to the fact that Metro is cracking down, and will be gone after a few weeks.

Not everyone who skips the Metro fare gates is doing something wrong

I've ridden my bike to work all week, so I didn't know about this until the matter surfaced on the PoPville blog. There, a post with the headline “Hey Metro Scofflaws – Try Getting Around This Cardboard Box!!!!” accompanied the above photo plus the one below, with John Locke and Hunter S. Thompson quotes about society collapsing without the rule of law sandwiched in between.

As mentioned above, it's true that fare evasion is a problem. But people also pass through these gates legally, and with good reason, all the time. Matt Johnson, one of the GGWash contributor base's experts on Metro, explains:

There are actually legitimate reasons for people to use those gates. For one, people who are MetroAccess subscribers are entitled to use Metro for free. This is A Good Thing for the taxpayer because the goal of this is to encourage them to take Metro when possible rather than calling a MetroAccess van, which costs Metro a lot more than a marginal trip on the subway.

Theoretically, these customers are supposed to show their pass to the station manager. However, the booth is not always occupied, and many of these users are probably regulars at certain stations, and may be known visually to the station manager. Not all disabilities are readily apparent, so some people may assume these are fare evaders.

It seems like there's a lot of consternation and general unawareness of these policies.

On top of Matt's point, Gray Kimbrough, another GGWash contributor, has another reason not to assume anyone walking through the swinging gates is a scofflaw:

For a while when I was commuting between Silver Spring and Tysons, I had a MARC TLC pass. It was issued as a paper pass that was almost guaranteed to be demagnetized before the end of the month. There was conflicting guidance from WMATA about what I was supposed to do, but in general I was told that I could just show it to the manager and use the gate to enter and exit.

Image by nevermindtheend licensed under Creative Commons.

Are the cardboard boxes a safety hazard?

Beyond those points, some of our contributors wondered if this initiative could mean a fire hazard or make it harder for people with disabilities to access stations.

Stessel says Metro told DC Fire about its plan prior to implementing it, and that there isn't any concern about the cardboard boxes blocking anyone's path. Beyond that, he stresses that the swing gates will automatically open during any emergency, and that station managers will “continue to accommodate MetroAccess customers who are unable to use the fare gates.”