LOS ANGELES There is a startling new sight at the subway station at Hollywood and Vine these days, set amid the handsome trappings of vintage film projectors and movie paraphernalia: five subway turnstiles.
Their appearance amounts to an acknowledgment of the failure of the rider honor system that Los Angeles embraced when it began constructing its subway system nearly 20 years ago. This might not exactly come as a news flash to anyone who has traveled the subways of New York or the Washington Metro, but a gateless subway entrance is not the most effective way to motivate riders to pay their way.
Los Angeles transit officials say that millions of dollars in annual revenue has been lost because of riders who calculated, reasonably enough, that they could ride the subway free with minimal danger of detection, no matter the occasional deputy sheriff demanding to see a fare card and a $250 fine for violators.
"A lot of people if not the majority of people are not paying their fare," said Zev Yaroslavsky, a county supervisor and a member of the board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "There is no reason for them to pay. The odds of them getting a ticket are slim to none."
Xavier Nailing, 44, a hospital custodian, said he routinely rides without paying a fare and does not fear the consequence of detection.
"Nothing ever happens when someone writes me a ticket," he said. "The last time someone wrote me a ticket I looked at the cop and said, 'You know what? How long have you been on the force? You can write me that ticket but you're going to stand there and watch me tear it up because I know it's not going to be enforced.' "
The gates remain a work in progress. Some stations on the system have them; some do not. Some of the gates are locked; some slip open with a simple push. The whole process has been ensnared in years of delay, reflecting the complex web of underground trains, light-rail trains and buses that form the public transit system here. Its opponents continue to question whether the supposed recovery of lost revenue would cover the $46 million installation cost, plus $103,000 a month in maintenance.
Still, a locked-entry subway finally appears at hand, with officials saying that 192 turnstiles at 42 stations will be locked and ready for business by the summer. It is the latest milestone in Los Angeles' halting march toward imposing a mass transit system on a region that has traditionally been so loyal to the automobile.
"I think the honor system is great, but if people abuse it, then this is what we end up with," Peter Eaton, a film director, said as he entered a subway station. "I know it's just the nature of the times we're in. I would prefer the way L.A. has been doing it and not change it, but on the other hand I can see doing it the way other cities do it."
One reason the subways did not include turnstiles was that transit planners thought locked gates would make it that much harder to persuade Los Angeles residents to dip their toes into the mass transit water. That no longer seems to be a cause of concern: In March, the MTA logged an average of 360,000 rides a day on the subway system.
The system opened in 1993 with 4.5 miles of underground tracks and five stations. Now, the entire system including subways and light rail spans nearly 88 miles and contains 101 stations, stretching from Long Beach to Pasadena.
There is no way to know how many people had been jumping the turnstile, at least metaphorically, to avoid paying the $1.50-a-ride fare, and thus how much money the MTA has lost.
"That is the $25,000 question," said David Sutton, who is running the operation for the transportation authority. "Ask me in a couple of months."
The bottom line is, said Joel Epstein, a transit advocate: What sort of city does not lock turnstiles in its transit system?
"As a lifelong transit rider who remembers when N.Y.'s turnstiles were waist-high like L.A.'s are now and easy to jump, I can't imagine why it's taken the agency all these years to implement a system that is sure to help raise revenue for operations," he said.
It seems clear this is not going to be an easy adjustment, particularly for people who have enjoyed the free ride. At the Hollywood station the other day, evaders could be spotted knowingly pushing their way through the unlocked barriers, ignoring the red flashing light that went off at each violation. There was not a police officer in sight.
"It's not as onerous as the New York City system," said Dave Sotero, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "Our system is not that robust. But we're going to that point."
Yaroslavsky said lost revenue was not the only reason to do this.
"It's not fair to those people who pay to have a significant percentage of people who don't pay," he said. "The credibility of the enforcement system is undermined. It's human nature to say, 'If he's getting away with it, why should I pay?' "