A total of about 60 riders were invited to various sessions to test nine different machines in the basement of Metro’s headquarters as the transit agency prepares to replace the current fare gates and revamp the way passengers pay.
The machines had been shrouded in white tarps for weeks. On Wednesday night, about a dozen members of the transit agency’s riders advisory group got to try out the gates.
“This is about looking at the design, the ease of use and the experience of using it,” Alison Simon, Metro’s director of customer research, told a group of riders before taking them through the new fare gates.
Metro is expected to pick a vendor in July to lead the costly and complicated job of modernizing its fare-collection system. Riders will no longer have to convert their money into Metro’s main currency — the $5 electronic SmarTrip card — to ride trains and buses. Instead, they will be able to wave a smart phone, key fob or credit card in front of a scanner as they board a bus or walk through a subway station fare gate. It will be the first time that Metro has revamped its fare payment system since Metrorail service began 37 years ago.
Riders now use Metro’s brown and orange fare gates and tap their electronic SmarTrip cards or stick in paper Farecards to enter rail stations. But many riders complain that the gates don’t open quickly enough. Other riders say they close too fast for those in wheelchairs or with strollers.
The nine stainless steel fare gates displayed Wednesday night are prototypes from vendors who have bid for the contract (though none of the fare gates showed the companies’ names).
Metro plans to begin a pilot program later this year, with the full system in place within four years. It hopes the new fare gates will be more convenient for riders.
In the dim light of Metro’s basement, the nine new gates gleamed. Some riders — who jokingly called themselves “transit geeks” — said it felt as if they were test-driving the latest car models at a dealership.
Many of the new fare gates have more sensors than the existing Metro fare gates and can better detect strollers, guide dogs and wheelchairs, and stay open longer as needed. Some beeped. One had tempered glass at eye height — a move meant to deter fare evasion. Others lighted up red, blue or green.
Some featured turnstiles, like those used in New York’s subway system.
“This is weird,” said Barbara Hermanson of Alexandria, a member of the Riders’ Advisory Council, as she made her way through one of the turnstile gates.
Some riders with disabilities who tried out the new fare gates raised concerns.
“Why are we looking at [ones] with turnstiles when people with wheelchairs can’t use those?” asked Marilyn Lutter, a member of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee.
A few of the machines had hiccups as riders tested them. Not to worry, Simon assured the riders as one beeped and had to be reset. “These are only prototypes,” she said. “They’ll be faster.”
Etta-Cheri Washington, who is also on the Riders’ Advisory Council, wasn’t convinced.
“I didn’t like it,” she said of a turnstile gate. “It hit me in the pelvic area.”
In fact, Washington — who rides the Red Line daily from her Northeast home throughout the District and Maryland — wasn’t in favor of changing the fare gates at all.
“I’d prefer keeping something similar to the style we have now,” she said. “What I’d really prefer is escalators that work.”