Turnstiles for security

It’s natural to be concerned about violence in public spaces. Harvard University researchers concluded that, from 2011 to 2014, mass shootings occurred three times more often than in the previous 29 years. Their analysis showed a mass shooting — an attack in a public place where the victims were unknown to the shooter and four or more people were murdered — happened on average every 64 days. An FBI report from 2000 to 2013 also noted an increased frequency of active shooter cases, where someone was killing or trying to kill people in a public place. Since 2014, we have continued to see a string of violence from California to Florida in the U.S., and to England, France, and beyond.

There are multiple factors behind the increased frequency of attacks on innocent people. Mental illness and politics motivate some shooters. In other cases, the motive is not so clear. Solving these problems is outside the scope of what a facility manager can control. But managers do have options for increased security and screening of visitors. One simple yet effective way to improve surveillance is by using turnstiles.

How do turnstiles improve security?

Turnstiles provide a visible indicator that the person is entering or exiting a controlled space. When the customer or employee walks through the unit, they might have to physically move the arm of the turnstile to get to the other side. In more secure spaces with access control, some type of input such as a PIN or swipe card is required. In all instances, a turnstile forces people to move through the barrier area in a single-file line. This allows security personnel to more easily scan a crowd as it enters, and to watch for potential problems. Turnstiles also help to queue people for further security checks via pat-downs, bag searches, or metal detectors.


There are many options that can tailor the unit to the needs of the office building, mass transit system, or other facility where security is an issue. Each option affects the level of security.

Waist-high turnstiles

Mechanical, waist-high turnstiles require the person to push through a gate or rotate the arms of the device. Electric models respond to a signal to turn the device and allow the person through. A classic waist-high turnstile uses a tripod composed of three arms that rotate vertically. Waist-high turnstiles are the most common type of turnstile, and the least expensive. A downside of waist-high turnstiles is that, without security personnel present, people may be able to bypass the system by jumping over the device.

Full-height turnstiles

Less commonly used are full height turnstiles. You may see these at the exit to a transit system or an amusement park. They are also installed at prisons and secure government facilities. Because these turnstiles are taller than a person, it is not possible to jump this type of turnstile. These turnstiles are more rugged than most waist-high turnstiles and are suitable for both indoor and outdoor use.


Even the simplest turnstiles can have a counter. This is used to show how many people have attended an event. Libraries, museums, and other non-profits use counters to justify a need for funding based on the number of people using the facility. Counters also help in security, by  allowing for better emergency management planning and helping ensure fire codes are being followed.

Optical turnstiles

Optical turnstiles have been in use since the late 1990s. They are a visually more attractive alternative to the traditional waist-high turnstile. In an optical turnstile, typically an infrared beam is broken by a person going through the unit, indicating movement. What happens after the turnstile senses movement depends on the model of optical turnstile. Some optical turnstiles are barrier-free. Others have metal arms or acrylic wings that move to allow a person through.

Note that optical turnstiles can detect tailgating or piggybacking, where an unauthorized person closely follows an authorized person to get through the turnstile without authentication. This is an important feature for facilities using an access control system.

Access control

There are a variety of mechanisms that can be used to control not only how people move into an office building, plant, or theater, but also who is permitted in restricted areas. Tokens have been in use for many years as a way to gain access to a mass transit systems, such as subways. A stadium might have a ticket reader attached to the turnstile. More sophisticated access control devices may require the person to swipe or scan a security badge to enter an industrial plant or warehouse. The entrant may need a pin or a password. And more modern forms of access control may use biometric data. Biometric data can include fingerprint or hand scanning, facial recognition, iris recognition, and even odor.

When an access control option is in place, security is greatly increased. Unauthorized people are prevented from entering in most cases,by  commonly a physical barrier. Colored lights and alarms may also sound, even with barrier-free turnstile systems.

In an office building or industrial setting, access control using a security badge or biometric data can be used to see exactly who is in the building—useful  information in the event of an emergency—and when they entered or exited. Knowing when someone enters or exits can be used to determine anything from timecard fraud to where people were when an event occurred.

Direction control

Turnstiles can be bidirectional or unidirectional, depending on the needs of the facility. Bidirectional turnstiles work in situations where the entry and exit point are the same — a subway is a common application. Unidirectional turnstiles work where the entry and exit points are in different places. Think of an aquarium or zoo where people are supposed to go through exhibits in a particular direction. If someone tries to go the wrong way through this type of turnstile, they will find that it is locked in that direction. Some models can be changed to allow entry, exit, or both depending on the needs at the time.

Turnstiles enhancing security at amusement parks and stadiums

Basic turnstiles are a common feature at amusement parks and stadiums. Older models do little more than count people as they pass through. New innovations in technology now allow venue operators to integrate ticket scanning into their turnstile. Tickets may have a linear or matrix bar code. Visitors may be able to print out their own scannable tickets or present a smartphone image to the turnstile to gain access. This reduces the number of ticket takers needed and allows for better customer service.

Earlier this year, the American Public Health Association conducted a public opinion poll about carrying firearms into about nine types of public places. Less than a third of the 3,949 adults in the U.S. poll supported carrying guns in public spaces. The place that people were least likely to support gun possession was in sports stadiums, at only 17 percent. Clearly, people are willing to go through an integrated security system using personnel, turnstiles, metal detectors, and other equipment that will help them stay safe from gun violence.

Security at small- and medium-sized venues

Unless required by a contract, many small and medium size venues do not implement turnstiles as part of a security plan. Because they have smaller crowds, their perception is that it is unlikely that they will be targeted. Sadly, unfortunate events do occur at smaller venues. Movie theaters have been a growing target of violence. The savage massacre at the 1,500 seat Bataclan Theatre in France is an example of a place where turnstiles may have helped to deter terrorism.

A key factor for many establishments is price. Facilities that may want turnstiles find the cost for a unit is outside of their budget. But not everyone needs a full-height or optical turnstile. Smaller facilities that do buy turnstiles may be tempted to purchase a cheap model. One problem is that these turnstile require more maintenance. With the added cost of maintenance and potential for customer frustration, a quality turnstile is a better investment.

Benefits to purchasing a good quality turnstile include:

  • Professional installation
  • Faster lines
  • Minimal maintenance
  • Tamper resistance

Takeaway Points

Given increased public violence, anyone in charge of a facility should be concerned about sufficient security. Large venues have typically already implemented security measures, including turnstiles. Medium- and small-sized venues may be resistant to purchasing due to perceived lack of threat or budgetary constraints. A quality turnstile offers many options to improve safety. Even a basic model forces people to move through the barrier area in a single-file. Counters are a common feature. There are many options for access control systems to keep out unauthorized people and monitor who is (or is not) in the building at a particular time. Optical turnstiles are often more aesthetically pleasing and have added features that help prevent tailgating.

Places that may benefit from turnstiles

  • Convention Centers
  • Courts and Prisons
  • Casinos and Cruise Ships
  • Industrial Plants
  • Mass Transit Systems, including Subways, Airports, and Train Stations
  • Museums and Libraries
  • Office Buildings
  • Parking Garages
  • Parks and Recreational Facilities
  • Race tracks (cars, horses, dogs)
  • High Schools, Colleges and Universities
  • Ski Areas
  • Supermarkets and other Retail Locations
  • Warehouses and Distribution Centers
  • Zoos and Aquariums