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Regular version of the site

The Turnstile Tango

How the ‘turnstile era’ influenced the physicality of Muscovites

Videography of turnstiles / © Konstantin Glazkov

The turnstiles and entrance gates used in municipal transport not only ensure that passengers pay, but also structure their behavior according to age, body size, ability and speed. Many people must maneuver themselves to pass easily through the rotating arms or swinging gates of an Automated Passage Control System (APCS): passengers cannot be too large or too small and must not walk too quickly or too slowly. Sociologists studied how turnstiles impose uniformity on passengers’ physicality and behaviour.

Uncoordinated Corps de Ballet

City planners refer to the ‘choreography’, or the rhythm and movement of passengers moving through public transport — and to the broader pattern of their daily movements around the metropolis.

Ideally, this ‘dance’ is as smooth and predictable as a minuet, and is performed almost automatically as the result of countless repetitions. We see such ‘choreography’ among organized groups of tourists who move in unison, like a corps de ballet, from one museum exhibit hall to the next, or pedestrians who saunter past shop windows, studying their contents as they go.

The ‘dance’ at the entrance to a subway terminal or bus also resembles a well-rehearsed minuet, replete with half steps and syncopated rhythms. The ticket validation terminal causes a minor hitch in the onward rush, someone takes a step backward to let a fellow traveler pass, and another quickens her pace to occupy a seat suddenly left vacant.

Turnstiles, like stones in a stream, often disrupt this flowing motion because they pose difficulties for non-standard passengers

These ‘special cases’ include the elderly, children, passengers with bulky luggage, and overweight people. They find it most difficult to navigate the barrier because they do not fit the standard dimensions of the APCS. After all, not everyone can be like the slim, nimble, adults who experience the least difficulty passing through the turnstiles and gates.

As a result, the APCS slows the flow of passengers, prolonging boarding and overall travel time.

In September 2018, the turnstiles were removed from all forms of ground transport. According to the Moscow authorities, they had fulfilled one of their main functions — that of training passengers to pay for their rides: the number of passengers paying the required fare had risen by almost 25% as of November 2017.

However, those who study the anthropology of transport and micro-urbanism — or ‘municipal microcosms’ — take a particular interest in this tango of humans and turnstiles. They made videos of people passing through turnstiles under a range of conditions. These recordings were made from late 2017 until the turnstiles were removed from many routes in the spring of 2018.


Turnstiles are not new: they have been in use in the Moscow subway for decades and were installed on above-ground transport in the 2000s. They served two functions — eliminating ‘free-riders’ and ‘monitoring’ passengers with discounted fares. Municipal authorities thought that transport operators were exaggerating the number of passengers traveling on government-subsidized fares and, therefore, requesting excessive compensation. As a result, after a 3-year experiment in Zelenograd, they installed turnstiles on buses, trolleys, and trams in Moscow in 2004. Almost 15 years later, they removed the turnstiles and used plainclothes ticket-checkers to monitor compliance.

Researchers found that, when the turnstiles were still in use, people twisted their bodies in such a way as to press their cards against the validation terminal and pass through the rotating arms without a hitch. In this sense, people adapted to machines or became ‘technologically habitualized.’ The APCS imposed both order and hindrances on passengers.

Their function in establishing order seems obvious: turnstiles divide the entrance space of the bus or trolley into zones and regulate the flow of passengers. And, in some sense, they promote justice by helping those who previously stood in line to get better seats.

But how effective are they in ordering passenger flows? Any minor deviation from the algorithm for getting past the validation terminal or simply having a non-standard body size or shape turns the system into a formidable doorman blocking the entrance.

Researchers emphasize that one function of a turnstile is to impose uniformity on people who pose different physical challenges — due either to age, physical abilities, body size, hand luggage, or dependent children — turning ‘living, unique passengers into a quantifiable units of passenger flow.’

This is convenient for those who manage the transport system but inconvenient for passengers. ‘Non-standard’ passengers become nervous, in part because they can become an obstacle to the people in line behind them. When that happens, an Automated Passage Control System can become the cause of a bottleneck instead.

The researchers identified conditions when this happens.

Too Fast or Extremely Slow

Speed of locomotion is critical. In one case that researchers observed, a young woman boarding a bus tries to move quickly through the APCS. She presses her card against the validation device but pushes the arm of the turnstile before it is activated, briefly blocking entry. She glances at the validation display, clearly concerned that people behind her might start complaining. At that moment, however, the turnstile ‘wakes up’ and the young woman passes, trying to clear the way as quickly as possible.

A young woman tries to pass through a turnstile as quickly as possible. / Provided by Konstantin Glazkov

Most passengers have their transport cards ready in advance. It’s a simple algorithm: press the card against the terminal and pass through the entry gates. But not everyone can do this automatically. For example, some people are preoccupied with communication. In one case, a young man approached the metro gates while staring intently at his smartphone. He then shifted his trajectory and stepped aside unexpectedly, apparently knocked out of the usual rut by an incoming message of some sort. Finally, he took out his transport card, put the phone away, and proceeded through the gate. He was lucky that it was not rush hour and there was no line of people behind him moving toward the gates.

A man pauses before entering the subway entry gate. / Provided by Konstantin Glazkov

Overall, young people pass through the subway gates more easily than others do, often without even interrupting their phone conversations. They are the most adept category of passengers.

‘Difficult Ages’

The oldest as well as the youngest, most inexperienced passengers have the most difficulty with turnstiles and gates.

People of retirement age take longer to pass through turnstiles. They often stop in front of them, take longer finding and putting away their fare cards, and are slower in reacting to the signal to proceed. They often experience discomfort when passing through the turnstile and their age can prevent them from maneuvering and moving with the required speed.

Children also encounter difficulties in moving through an APCS. Researchers found that children often make no effort to adapt to the demands of the turnstiles and attempt to use them according to their own understanding. In one case, a woman gets on the bus with a boy who is apparently in the first grade (children up to 7 years of age ride for free). The boy did not take out his fare card in advance and searches for it in his pocket. The mother indicates that he should crouch under the turnstile arm, but the boy refuses. He pulls out his card but, in the confusion, presses it against the wrong surface. The woman guides his hand to the validation terminal, and they finally enter the cabin of the bus.

A woman helps a child get through the turnstile. / Provided by Konstantin Glazkov

The behaviour of the passenger with the child is very typical: she positions him in front of her and instructs him on how to proceed. Often, such passengers deliberately speak loudly with children as they approach the APCS, signaling to others that there might be a slight delay and indicating that they hope for their understanding.

Wide Loads and Planned Approaches

People with oversized physiques represent another non-standard category of passenger. Because turnstiles are usually not designed with such people in mind, large passengers must maneuver through the APCS by turning sideways, holding the turnstile arms and raising their arms.

Such passengers try not to draw attention to their predicament and adjust to the situation in silence.

People with large bags, handcarts or backpacks — or ‘marsupials,’ as the researchers call them — behave similarly. Their baggage often makes it more difficult for others to proceed and provokes noticeable irritation. People with bags try to pass through the APCS in one smooth motion and plan their movements in advance.

The experience with non-standard passengers indicates that turnstiles cannot impose a uniform movement on everyone, and the attempt to do so only annoys and irritates people.

Sidestep — Breakdown

Turnstiles often fail to ‘normalize’ passenger movement simply because they can easily malfunction. Non-standard situations can cause this. For example, a passenger presses her fare card to the turnstile’s validation terminal on the platform for a commuter train, but for some reason, the machine will not let her proceed. She tries over and over — on the very same turnstile! — with the result that the turnstile locks up. A train station employee saves the situation by directing her to a different turnstile.

People would not grow so agitated or lose as much time if the method for using the APCS were always clear. However, ‘turnstiles and validation devices provide insufficient information on their use,’ the researchers write.

Traces of Civilization

The researchers believe that turnstiles have taught passengers to be more civilized in their use public transport — that is, by paying their fare and entering the vehicle in an orderly and calm way.

In this sense, passengers might have developed a certain degree of self-discipline.

It is early, however, to say whether that will last because too little time has passed since turnstiles were removed. ‘Now that the turnstiles have been removed from the above-ground transport in Moscow,’ the researchers write, ‘it will be seen whether they have left behind any traces in passengers’ behaviour.’ But that will have to be the subject of another study.



Study authors:
Konstantin Glazkov, Lecturer, Department of Methods for the Collection and Analysis of Sociological Information, School of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, HSE University
Mikhail Deev, student, Cultural Studies, HSE University
Fyodor Shaulin, student, Cultural Studies, HSE University
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, December 18, 2019