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