To Ride the Subway of the Future, All You Need Is Your Face

Biometric markers could replace physical payment methods, speeding entry for passengers (and discouraging fare evaders). Is this awesome, or creepy? Or both?

Subway tokens are history. (Sorry, Bernie). Magnetic-strip cards are quickly becoming passé. Instead, Mastercards, Visas and smartphones are now being touted as the latest in swift and friction-less mobile ticketing systems for metro riders. But an emerging technology may soon bypass all of these: All you’ll need to ride this subway of the future is your face, your hand, or some other biometric marker that makes you you.

In the past two years, three-dimensional face-scanning has evolved to a point that the next generation iPhone is rumored to have the capability out of the box. The federal “biometric entry-exit tracking system” for all U.S. airline arrivals demanded by President Trump in his January immigration order could actually be cost efficient. And some of the world’s highest-tech transit systems are eying the technology as a solution to backed-up subway gates.

At the UITP Global Transport Summit in Montreal this week, the transit technology company Cubic Transportation Systems Limited demonstrated its “Gateless Gateline” system, which the company expects to start testing in two UK train networks this year. Through a grant from the UK Department of Transport’s Railway Standards and Safety Board, Cubic has devised a system that they say can double the “throughput” of an entrance—from 25 people crossing a gate’s threshold per minute, to about 50 or 60—in order to accommodate escalating transit demand in London and other areas. Cubic’s research has shown that the best way to do that is to eliminate gates entirely (though not, apparently, to make the whole system free, as some proud turnstile-jumpers in Sweden would advocate). “Once you open the system, how do you make sure that people still have validated their start or end of the journey?” says Steffen Reymann, a senior principal R&D specialist at Cubic.

His answer: a sci-fi mix of paddle-free subway gates, Bluetooth sensors, and 3D face-scanning cameras that can eventually learn to “read” your face.

The animation at top walks through the steps. First, you set up an account with the transit agency using a smartphone, and load money onto your account (just as passengers can already do in London and other cities piloting smartphone-enabled fare systems). Inside a station, you enter into an additional registration booth, which captures a 3D photograph of your face (or, perhaps, a scan of your palm, your eyes, or even your gait).

“Biometric face scanners do more than bolster a panoptical police state: The goal is to push subway boarding speeds faster.”

Then through the “Gateless Gateline” you go. Without having to tap or touch anything at all, a Bluetooth sensor mounted on the wall scans your smartphone (through your pocket or purse) and allows your passage, assuming you’ve put enough fare on your account. (Be sure to sneer at those suckers waiting in the “other tickets” line; the Gatelines are designed to serve as a complementary option to, rather than replacement for, existing payment systems.) Simultaneously, 3D scanning cameras mounted in front of the Gateline grabs your face (or some other physical feature) and matches it to your account. Lights flash green, and you’re good to board the train.

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Things get creepier. If you haven’t loaded enough money onto your account, but slide through the Gateline anyways, lights flash red. Ticketing agents or security officers can immediately see that you’ve evaded a fare, because your on-camera face would flash on their monitors. If you’re a repeat offender, well, they’d know that too. They could intercept you, and if you’ve already registered your information with the agency, they just could slap you with a fine, sans physical intervention. Of course, those policies would be for a transit agency and its law enforcement to determine.

The face scanners do more than bolster a panoptical police state, though. Remember, the goal is to push boarding speeds faster. To do that, it’s all about decreasing that friction between the passenger and gate infrastructure. “Eventually we think we can negate the need for a mobile device entirely,” says Reymann. “We’d just need a biometric token.” Translation: Once you’ve triggered his cameras and sensors enough times—let’s say you’ve passed through every weekday for 100 days—the system could predict your arrival. With dozens of facial photographs stored up, the technology would be able to recognize you without your phone. You’d walk onto the subway free of a physical payment device, trusting Big Brother and his sparkly lights to do the hard work.

So far, Cubic has proven the system in contained lab environments; now it’s a matter of testing it in the real world. Reymann says he expects at least one London tube station to deploy the technology within the coming year, and another station along one of the UK’s regional train systems.

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How much would this next-gen turnstile technology cost cash-strapped agencies? “Our aim is to make the solution more cost effective than the current generation” of mobile ticketing systems, says Dave Roat, strategy manager at Cubic Transportation Systems. Plus, it adds the benefit of being able to track and fine repeat fare evaders; most agencies have a very hard time doing this (case in point: the sad alarm bells now mounted on the Washington, D.C. Metro’s evader-friendly swinging emergency exits). Like speed cameras and red-light cameras that automatically ticket offenders, the system could wind up as being a revenue-raiser.

What about riders who might not appreciate having their mugs tagged and monitored by The Man? Well, sorry. It’s the year 2017 and Donald Trump is President of the United States; things are different now. Reymann thinks with the right messaging, passengers will be OK with having cameras trained on them, as long as it makes subway boarding an easier process. (In ultra-surveilled London, they may be accustomed to the feeling.) Refusenik passengers can also opt out and use their Ye Olde subways cards if they’re camera-averse or lack a smartphone. But you might have to queue up longer, like the sad crowd waiting next to the speedy Gateliners at the end of the video.

Unfortunately, that’s an on-the-nose picture of the equity issues raised by so many “smart city” technologies. Many of these would-be world-changing innovations, from autonomous vehicles to smart energy grids, might end up making the distance between the haves and have-nots gape even further. If you’re uncomfortable by the notion of being constantly monitored in public, or lack the smartphones and digital fluency required to sign up for such services, do you still get to participate in the city of the future? Gateless Gatelines may mean smoother fare payments, but the road ahead for equitable urban transit may only get rockier.


This feature originally appeared in Citylab.


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