Dec
28

Real-time subway location data? There’s an app for that.

By

An app to be unveiled Friday by the MTA brings real-time subway location data to the smartphone-equipped masses.

An intriguing press advisory from the MTA came through my inbox on Thursday afternoon. Later this morning at 9 a.m., outgoing MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph Lhota will, the advisory said, make a “major announcement regarding improvements to service-related information the MTA provides to subway riders.” With just the right amount of intrigue, this release had me wondering about the info soon to be unveiled. I guessed that the information would involve a public release of the MTA’s real-time tracking of subways currently used only via the A Division countdown clocks.

Late on Thursday, I learned I was right. Via a Ted Mann scoop in The Wall Street Journal comes word that the MTA is set to release an app with real-time information on the location of seven subway lines. The early release will, as astute readers may have already guessed, include train arrival information for the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 trains and the 42nd St. shuttle. The L will follow within the next year and the 7 once the Flushing CBTC installation is complete. It is a game-changer in the way New Yorkers use and relate to these subway lines.

Mann had the details:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to release on Friday its Subway Time app for passengers with iPhones and iPod Touch devices. Android and Windows versions of the app are in development and the agency is currently considering how to integrate the real-time arrival information on its existing website. The breakthrough, long awaited by many of the city’s straphangers, will allow at least some riders to plan their commute by the minute for the first time in the system’s 108-year history…

For the subway system’s 5.5 million daily riders, however, the launch of the new app also lays bare the ways aging infrastructure and a slow pace of investment have left the transit network far behind contemporaries in other cities. The new app will cover only about a third of the subway system, and agency officials acknowledged that it will likely take years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment before conveniences increasingly common elsewhere are standard in the Big Apple.

The rest, encompassing two-thirds of its total stations and roughly 60% of its daily ridership, continues to rely on signal technology dating to the middle of the 20th century or earlier. It will be years before those lines have signal systems that can generate the digital information that drives countdown clocks on platforms and apps on cellphones with live updates. “The technology it uses has remained little changed since a time before computers, microprocessors, wireless telephones or hand-held electronic devices,” said Thomas Prendergast, president of the MTA’s transit division. “It is a time-tested, fail-safe system that continues to flawlessly perform its vital intended function: preventing collisions. But it cannot offer us a digital feed.”

According to Mann’s report, the data for the new app will be stored in the cloud and not on MTA’s servers. Thus, demand — which I would imagine to be steep — won’t swamp the MTA’s website. Eventually, the MTA will open the data feed to third-party app developers as well. Pushing a policy of open data, the MTA has long believed that third party developers have the ability and expertise often not found at the transit agency to push useful and slick-looking apps to the public using available transit data.

For now, though, this is a Big Deal. As Mann details, the MTA is once again hardly a technological leader in this field. Various transit agencies across the U.S. and throughout the world have made real-time train location data available to riders, and the MTA’s implementation, as the excerpt above notes, leaves much of the subway system without countdown clocks and an app feed. Still, straphangers for many popular subway lines will now have the ability to know when their next train is coming at any time of the day.

For decades, New Yorkers have been left to the whims of the subway system. We enter the system hoping for the best and often expecting the worst. Now, for seven subway lines, it’s going to change. As Lhota said, “The days of rushing to a subway station only to find yourself waiting motionless in a state of uncertainty are coming to an end.” For riders at many subway stations, the uncertain wait will now forever be a thing of the past.



Categories : MTA Technology

32 Responses to “Real-time subway location data? There’s an app for that.”

  1. John-2 says:

    It will be interesting to see if this makes a difference in the lines people choose to ride, as long as the Subway Time app is exclusive to the IRT trunk lines (i.e. — if you’re on the west side of Manhattan or it downtown Brooklyn with the app on your phone and going to a place also served by both the A and B divisions, do you opt for the IRT if you can take either that or the BMT/IND, because you know the pending arrival schedule of those trains via your smart phone, while the ones on the B division remain a mystery?)

  2. Nyland8 says:

    Wow! I can hardly wait … for the experience of suddenly seeing dozens of people trying to cram down the stairs and through the turnstiles at the same time, because they all now know that the train is just a minute away.

    I might soon relish the entertainment of sitting in a coffee shop somewhere on a Saturday morning, just outside an IRT station, and watching, like clockwork, the hordes of folks now trying to time their trip so they don’t have to wait an extra minute on the platform.

    The mind reels.

    • Joe says:

      Seems a little alarmist. Chicago has had this app for years on all subway and bus lines; DC has had it for their Metro lines; SF MUNI has had it as well. I’ve never seen anything like you’ve described in those cities. It does help you minimize your wait times in this station or choose the best route,

      • Nyland8 says:

        I’m just looking for the entertainment value.

        But perhaps the de facto effect, in those cities that already have it, is that it balances out – because there will also be less people rushing to get down to their platform. They know they have three minutes, so there’s no need to rush.

        Time will tell.

    • JebO says:

      If that happens we can demand that the MTA take the app away.

    • New Yorkers really do believe they have the only rapid transit system on the planet, don’t they?

      • Nyland8 says:

        Well … New Yorkers really do believe they have the only rapid transit system on the planet that matters … as far as getting New Yorkers to work. Because for us, it is true. Just as I suspect commuters elsewhere believe they have the only rapid transit system on the planet that matters … to them.

  3. Mark L says:

    It’s now available on the App Store. The design and UI leave much to be desired, but it appears to work as advertised. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the data, though, as I’m typing this from bed and not a subway platform.

  4. Chris G says:

    yet another company that thinks the world is full of only sheep.

  5. BoerumBum says:

    Will it include B division stations that have countdown clocks (e.g. the Canarsie line), or is that a different, incompatible technology?

  6. Jonathan R. says:

    I got a message in my 20th-century technology RSS feed this morning that IRT no. 1 train service between 137th and 168th was suspended, it lasted between 6:36 am and 7:53 am. Sounds like a great way to introduce a new service like Subway Time, which is only useful if the train is actually running.

    • TP says:

      Huh? The chief advantage of having realtime train arrival times (vs the scheduled times you get if you ask Google for transit directions) is that service disruptions such as the one you cite muck up the perfection of the schedule. What if Google transit directions used the realtime arrivals and automatically re-routed you to another route based on the 1 disruption? I’d assume that’s what we’ll see soon, which is huge.

  7. Someone says:

    Sounds like a great app (for Apple users, at least). When is the Android version coming out?

  8. Larry Littlefield says:

    One reason this is taking so long is the fiber optic network to carry the data had to be installed first.

    And because the customer information system was supposed to be just one small part of the ATS package, which was supposed to include automatic switch control and various other programs that would lead to management and administrative productivity gains.

    Perhaps SASagas might ask how the rest of it turned out?

  9. TransitUp says:

    Congrats to the MTA for the impending launch of real-time Division A real-time data!

    This naturally begs the question of when real-time data for Division B will arrive. Since the advanced track/signal circuitry on Division A is not in place on Division B, it is now time to move forward at low cost, rapidly deployable alternatives to capture and share real-time info for the A,B,C,D,E,F,G,J,M,N,Q,R,S, and Z trains that don’t rely on traditional infrastructure.

    Anyone interested should drop a line to outreach@transitup.com

  10. Jon says:

    The user interface is appallingly bad. And why different apps for real time data, the weekender, etc? Hopefully this data is available to third parties who can write a decent app.

  11. Kevin says:

    So jealous. Montreal has none of this – heck, you cannot even get cell service in the Montreal metro system.

  12. Spencer K says:

    I literally used this 35 mins ago. Seeing that the 1 train was 8 mins away, I decided to go for the confirmed option, and walked passed the F train which was obviously closer, but no guarantee of arriving in 5 mins.

    I don’t much problem with the app’s UI. It’s utilitarian, and frankly does what it needs to requiring few clicks, without being a hindrance on itself. Looks are subjective.

    Also, it lists all the service change information in the same app. Perhaps Weekender will roll into this one, or vice versa.

  13. Nyland8 says:

    I suspect that the app can be no better than the countdown clocks it is supposed to project – and I’ve stood on many a platform and had them “update” themselves into longer wait times. When a train is “4 minutes away”, and the dispatcher holds it at the station, or en route, then it can remain “4 minutes away” for 7 minutes – or 8 – or 9.

    Thursday night, I was waiting at Secaucus Junction for the 8:23 to NY Penn. Well … 8:23 came and went – 8:24 – 8:25 – 8:26 and still no train – and still no update on the monitor. Then about 8:35 the info was finally updated by NJTransit to an expected 8:37 – and stayed that way until the train arrived at 8:40.

    All of this to say that the information fed to the app can never be more accurate than the information given out by the MTA – or whatever governing body – and if they don’t even know, then we can’t know either.

    • I can’t speak for New Jersey Transit, but the MTA’s app data and the countdown clock information are based on a train’s physical location at a signal block. If the train isn’t moving for whatever reason, the clocks will either say “DELAY” or keep the time steady. It’s all automated.

      • Nyland8 says:

        Thanks for that.

        Earlier this year, I recall one weekend day that I descended into the Southbound 1 Line at 145th Street, and the info board fluctuated between “1 – 15 Min, 2 – 30 Min” and “1 – Delayed, 2 – Delayed” and didn’t change what it posted for about 20 minutes. Then suddenly it went blank, and a few moments later a train arrived. No explanation, but one must have assumed that something serious happened and had later been cleared up.

        I suspect that the new app, having the same source, would have exhibited the same information at the same time. Without the equivalent of GPS, flashing where a train is on a map, and if it’s moving, all of these well-intentioned apps will always have their limitations.

  14. Someone says:

    It looks like the next thread is a duplicate thread.

  15. Someone says:

    Strangely, on the app, it seems like trains are still stopping at Cortlandt St.

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