Home MTA Technology MTA releases beta version of Subway Time app

MTA releases beta version of Subway Time app

by Benjamin Kabak

Headways at Grand Army Plaza are on full display through the new Subway Time app.

While the 2013 fare hikes may be the lasting memory New York City has of future mayoral candidate Joe Lhota, one of the outgoing MTA Chairman and CEO’s last acts came on Friday morning as he unveiled a beta release of the MTA’s new Subway Time app. I wrote about the app earlier this morning, and now that it’s available publicly, we can assess the good, the bad and the ugly of it.

“This is what generations of dreamers and futurists have waited for,” Lhota said. “The ability to get subway arrival time at street level is here. The days of rushing to a subway station only to find yourself waiting motionless in a state of uncertainty are coming to an end. Now, you can know from the comfort of your home or office whether to hasten to the station, or grab a cup of coffee as part of a leisurely walk.”

That all sounds good, but how does it work? First, a foray into the details: The app is currently available online for iOS devices via the iTunes App Store. The MTA has also released a desktop version as well as a live data feed. There is no Android version, but the MTA hopes developers will take the feed and build out their own apps.

And now the good: Subway riders along the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 lines and those using the 42nd St. shuttle can access the same info available on countdown clocks from anywhere with an Internet connection. The L train info will be added within the next 6-12 months, and the 7 will follow in a few years. We’ll now know when to get to the station and how long the wait will be ahead of time.

The technological infrastructure is robust as well. Subway Time can handle 5000 requests per second as the data is hosted on a cloud-based system managed by Acquia. Such a platform will allow the MTA to ensure its data feed can meet demand. Acquia kept the MTA’s website afloat during Superstorm Sandy.

The bad though is fairly obvious. With only seven subway lines represented in this app, that still leaves 15 without real-time tracking data, and that data isn’t coming any time soon. To install Automatic Train Supervision along the A Division took the MTA over 10 years, a few false starts, and $228 million. Doing the same for the B Division shouldn’t take as long but will be quite costly.

The MTA says it has “long-term plans in place to upgrade these lines to ATS signaling,” and Joe Lhota, according to Capital New York, said it may be as little as three years before the rest of the system is on Subway Time. But it’s a matter of money, and right now the dollars just aren’t there. GPS-based data for outdoor sections may be available in the future, but for the foreseeable future, we’re left with only the A Division.

As an added bonus, the app offers a glimpse into headways though. For instance, a few minutes ago, I could see that trains along the Eastern Parkway IRT local were bunching badly. There were long gaps with no trains, and then a 2 and 3 would follow each other in quick succession. It’s good for transparency but bad for operational efficiencies.

Finally, we arrive at the ugly. Design has never been the MTA’s forte, and this app is no different. The interface isn’t optimized for the longer iPhone 5. Thus, not all train arrival information fits onto the screen without requiring an unnecessary scroll. Additionally, the app doesn’t enjoy iOS’ native momentum scrolling. It feels a bit awkwardly-constructed.

So that’s my quick take. What’s yours?

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42 comments

Sean December 28, 2012 - 12:48 pm

I believe you mean “not compatible with iPhone 5”; that’s the only phone with the taller screen. Forget design not being the MTA’s forte – they’ve built the Weekender, which was fairly well designed. This has the worst fit and finish of any official app of any major corporation or government entity I’ve ever seen. You speak of native momentum scrolling – you get this for free when using standard APIs. They clearly went out of their way to make their own everything from scratch and it shows. Just awful.

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Robert December 29, 2012 - 11:41 am

Not compatible and not optimized are two different things. “Not compatible” means the app will either fail to install, or, if it is installed successfully, it will fail to run. “Not optimized” means that it can be installed and run successfully, but is unable to take advantage of features found on a certain device or operating system.

I have the app installed on my iPhone 5. While it doesn’t appear to have Retina graphics, and does not take advantage of the iPhone 5’s taller screen, the app runs and presents its information just fine.

Therefore, the statement saying that the app is not optimized for the iPhone 5 is correct.

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Ken December 28, 2012 - 12:58 pm

My guess is that the app wasn’t done with the native Objective C, and more some wrapper for HTML5. Crap. But I’m glad the APIs are there. Looking forward to iTrans, my subway app of choice, to integrate this info. Of course I’m looking forward most of all to getting this info for the F line.

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Abba December 28, 2012 - 1:02 pm

I think very soon it will become available for iphone 5.

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Christopher December 28, 2012 - 1:08 pm

Since I use the routes with countdown clocks for probably 95% of my trips,, but I’ve never asked myself when the next train is going to come when sitting at home or work. I’m just not that well planned.

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Jerrold December 28, 2012 - 1:09 pm

Speaking of knowing when a train is coming, has everybody here seen THIS article?

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12.....f=nyregion

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Patrick December 28, 2012 - 1:41 pm

Wow, I have to go and see that for myself. I can’t believe everyday riders, especially at the edge of the Lower Manhattan Clusterfuck are helping each other

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Christopher Stephens December 28, 2012 - 1:48 pm

My biggest question – and I’m being sincere here – is that I can’t think of a way I could use this app to improve my travel, either my regular commute or the additional trips I take each day. As an east-sider I’m a prisoner of the 4/5/6, so if there are delays on those lines, I don’t have much choice but to wait. Knowing that the headways are 10 minutes rather than three won’t change my behavior or travel routes. I could imagine that if there were a serious delay (derailment? extended “police activity”?), it might be good to know, but there are rarely times when there are any time-saving alternatives in these scenarios. Can anyone suggest how they plan on using this app?
Plus, one gripe: IOS only? In 2012? When will developers clue into the fact that most smart-phone users don’t have iPhones? And haven’t for a while now. Grr.

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TP December 28, 2012 - 3:09 pm

During rush hours it doesn’t matter, but otherwise I’ll sit in the warmth of my apartment, office, or the bar, and wait until the train is coming to depart instead of standing in the station watching the clock. I know my apartment is a 2 minute walk from the 4/5/6.

I was at a party in Downtown Brooklyn until late and waited 20 minutes for the 4 train at 2am a couple weekends ago. I’d much rather have spent 20 more minutes indoors, or if I were in a hurry to go I might have walked to another train.

Us East-Siders are “prisoners” to the 4/5/6 for many trips but even the calculus of whether to take the bus or the train could change now that we know there are delays.

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R. Graham December 28, 2012 - 5:29 pm

You must live right down the street from the station.

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Vinny December 28, 2012 - 3:03 pm

“The technological infrastructure is robust as well. Subway Time can handle 5000 requests per second as the data is hosted on a cloud-based system managed by Acquia. Such a platform will allow the MTA to ensure its data feed can meet demand. Acquia kept the MTA’s website afloat during Superstorm Sandy.”

It’s down as I write this.

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Benjamin Kabak December 28, 2012 - 3:07 pm

Down only via the site, right? I just used the app and it’s working perfectly.

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Vinny December 28, 2012 - 4:16 pm

Yeah; the site is down. Just an empty frame where the data should be.

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Bushwicked December 28, 2012 - 3:14 pm

This cost $228 million and took 10 years?
That means the remaining 15 lines will cost $3.5 Billion and take another 20 years.
Wow, the MTA never ceases to amaze…

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TP December 28, 2012 - 3:15 pm

I’m disappointed that I can’t even browse to the “desktop” version of the app on my Android phone. It tells me “device not supported.” How hard would it be to write it in something that works in the Android browser? Ah well.

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Al December 28, 2012 - 6:46 pm

Exactly; why not release/develop the apps in tandem? In the U.S. as a whole (I’m not sure about statistics for NYC specifically) there are more Android users than iphone users. Surely the number of customers who could potentially benefit should dictate which platform gets the application first, or at least lead to both platforms receiving the application at the initial launch date.

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Bolwerk December 30, 2012 - 3:10 pm

At least amongst the vacuous-but-prosperous suburban transplant class, the iPhone is a status symbol. Even if they are more functional products, Android phones are the poor man’s iPhone and I would guess don’t appeal to the people who most need this kind of instant gratification.

That said, I might use the feed to develop an term-based app script for myself. Fcuk yeah. ‘Cause almost anything can handle an ssh client! Yeah? 😐

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Eric December 30, 2012 - 4:10 pm

Apparently there are different Android varieties of software/hardware, and if you develop for one it’s hard to make sure it works for the others. Where the iPhone has only one standard. So many find it easier to develop for the iPhone.

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Bolwerk December 30, 2012 - 5:48 pm

True, though the Galaxy S family alone may have greater market proliferation than the iPhone family. Well, nationally or internationally, anyway. For a number of reasons, I could see it not being so in NYC.

Someone December 31, 2012 - 7:04 am

True, a lot more New Yorkers prefer Apple over Android, even though the former is a status symbol.

With that in mind, I believe that’s why the MTA chose the former platform to test its new app.

Anonymous December 28, 2012 - 4:51 pm

The app seems to think Cortlandt St. Station on the 1 train is open. Wishful thinking, I guess.

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Someone December 31, 2012 - 7:06 am

Maybe it’s a placeholder until the MTA really opens it in 2014. Sometimes the trains stop there for no reason and then resume after a minute or two.

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Real-time arrivals for some NYC subway lines now accessible on iPhone | My Blog December 28, 2012 - 7:01 pm

[…] Second Avenue Sagas subway blog has a quick take on the app, pointing out the features and flaws of the MTA’s approach. On the plus side, the app and the […]

Reply
Technable | Making you Technically Able December 28, 2012 - 8:00 pm

[…] Second Avenue Sagas subway blog has a quick take on the app, pointing out the features and flaws of the MTA’s approach. On the plus side, the app and the […]

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» Real-time arrivals for some NYC subway lines now accessible on iPhone » webaligns December 28, 2012 - 8:04 pm

[…] Second Avenue Sagas subway blog has a quick take on the app, pointing out the features and flaws of the MTA’s approach. On the plus side, the app and the […]

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Real-time arrivals for some NYC subway lines now accessible on iPhone December 28, 2012 - 8:16 pm

[…] Second Avenue Sagas subway blog has a quick take on the app, pointing out the features and flaws of the MTA’s approach. On the plus side, the app and the […]

Reply
iWyre December 28, 2012 - 8:34 pm

[…] Second Avenue Sagas subway blog has a quick take on the app, pointing out the features and flaws of the MTA’s approach. On the plus side, the app and the […]

Reply
Real-time arrivals for some NYC subway lines now accessible on iPhone - The NYC Info News 24-hours in New York City, delivering breaking news and features about the five boroughs. - The Nyc Info December 29, 2012 - 8:21 am

[…] Second Avenue Sagas subway blog has a quick take on the app, pointing out the features and flaws of the MTA’s approach. On the plus side, the app and the […]

Reply
stan December 29, 2012 - 1:28 pm

whatever.

if the MTA wants to impress me, tell me when the next G is coming.

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JSalsa740 December 31, 2012 - 9:36 am

Agreed. I understand starting with the more heavily used numbered lines (and the fact the they are the only ones with the technology installed). However, these lines are so heavily used that trains run so frequently, if you miss one train the next is only two minutes away. This would be much more beneficial for lines like the G and R because if you miss one of those it can easily be a 10 minute wait for the next.

Reply
Real-time arrivals for some NYC subway lines now accessible on iPhone | iMicroid December 29, 2012 - 6:00 pm

[…] Second Avenue Sagas subway blog has a quick take on the app, pointing out the features and flaws of the MTA’s approach. On the plus side, the app and the […]

Reply
Someone December 31, 2012 - 6:54 am

I thought the MTA wired the entire A division with countdown clocks, so shouldn’t the 7 be listed too?

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Benjamin Kabak December 31, 2012 - 9:41 am

Have you ever seen countdown clocks on the 7 line?

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Bolwerk December 31, 2012 - 11:58 am

I think so. Maybe I’m wrong about clocks, but they do announce train arrival ETAs.

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Someone January 1, 2013 - 9:19 am

I was at 74 Street-Broadway not a very long time ago and I think I saw a countdown clock. I’m not sure but it does announce the arrival of the train.

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Bolwerk January 1, 2013 - 2:45 pm

I could have sworn I saw a working on at Times Square, but then they’re so frequent when I use the 7 that I don’t really pay much attention to such things.

Someone December 31, 2012 - 7:02 am

When will we be seeing countdown clocks for the Queens Boulevard Line? I mean the countdown clocks that show in how many minutes the next train for a specific line will arrive (like the clocks on the A division), not the “The Manhattan/Queens bound express/local train is two/one stops away/now arriving” announcements they currently use.

Reply
Patrick December 31, 2012 - 4:38 pm

Never, though it would be nice. but unfourtnately if installed its gonna be the latter

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Someone January 1, 2013 - 9:21 am

The latter is already installed. I was wondering if the former was going to be installed with the impending CBTC installation and all.

Reply
With open data, Subway Time for Android makes its debut :: Second Ave. Sagas December 31, 2012 - 3:03 pm

[…] the MTA unveiled Subway Time on Friday, the app faced criticism as it was made available only for Apple’s iOS platform. But along […]

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Via web, Subway Time available on all mobile platforms :: Second Ave. Sagas January 16, 2013 - 4:44 pm

[…] Time, the MTA’s subway tracking app that uses data from the system’s countdown clocks to provide real-time train location, is now […]

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Get subway information, on the go | Joshua O'Connell January 17, 2013 - 12:51 pm

[…] clocks on the 1-6 lines and the S shuttle between Grand Central Terminal and Times Square. As Ben Kabak of Second Ave. Sagas notes, since the technology is not in place to do countdown clocks on most other lines yet (and […]

Reply

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