Archive for MTA Technology
For those jonesing for transit directions on Apple’s iOS platform and not too keen on Google’s full-featured stand-alone Maps app, Samuel Vermette’s Transit app, now available for free, can help full the void. With the 2.0 release out this week, the app features real-time data, offline access and travel packs for those who venture outside the cozy confines of New York. It also comes with a context-aware feature that remembers recent travel routes.
Vermette approached me a few weeks ago after I ran my thoughts on the ideal transit app, and his latest release covers my initial request for real-time tracking better than any I’ve seen. It pulls countdown clock data from the MTA’s subway API and bus tracking from the BusTime API. He informs me that they plan to add above-ground entrance location data and real-time service changes in future releases.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the beta version of the app, and the 2.0.1 release is now far more stable. What I like about this app is that it works. It’s intuitive to use, very graphical and definitely worth a spin. An Android version is in the works as well.
A thought experiment, if you will, based on the following question: What elements would the ideal transit map contain?
Over the past few years, the MTA has embraced, with varying degrees of success, a mantra of open data. It began with Jay Walder and has continued since his tenure as the MTA has released a whole bunch of information to the public. Some of it, such as turnstile data, helps us visualize ridership patterns while others — BusTime and SubwayTime APIs — help riders track buses and trains in real time. Even as a report from the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA rightly criticized the agency for shuffling its feet on issues such as searchable board PDFs and the like, the MTA has improved in leaps and bounds since early 2009 on open data.
Still, transit apps are rather limited right now, and the MTA, not the best at designing things, has tried to encourage private developers to pick up the slack. This past weekend, the agency along with AT&T hosted a hack-a-thon. It’s part of a long-term effort to reward app makers using MTA data, and as this weekend’s winners walked away with a concept and few thousand bucks, the summer’s winners could earn as much as $40,000 when the dust settles. That’s not chump change for a transit app.
As a sponsor for Capital New York, AT&T filed a puff piece from the hackathon if you want a sanitized version of the experience. Meanwhile, a few developers took home smaller prizes this weekend. Earning $5000 were the creators of Subculture.FM, a web-based app that allows straphangers to identify their favorite subway musicians, find them in the system and buy songs via a QR code. A real-time tracking app called MTA Sheriff took home $3000. It allows riders to submit reports on subway conditions. The third place winners were Accessway, an app that assists visually- or mobility-impaired riders in navigating the subway.
Of that group, the third place winner likely has the most utility. It serves a legitimate, non-frivolous purpose and is seemingly missing from the marketplace right now. Disabled passengers have a tough time getting around the system as it is, and the MTA doesn’t go out of its way to aggregate its accessibility information in an easy-to-find and easy-to-digest format. Still, it’s potential reach is limited by the number of users who need the information.
To me, it seems as though app developers are spinning their wheels a bit. An app about Arts for Transit performers, while kitschy, is hardly going to improve or impact my commute, and that’s what I want from a transit-based app. I need something with information that helps me make decisions and streamlines my ride.
That said, I see the best transit app as offering up the following:
- Real-time train tracking. Admittedly, this is limited by the fact that the B division has no countdown clocks. Add the BusTime API, and this theoretical app is even better.
- Above-ground entrance locations. I can never remember where the nearest Wall St. and Fulton St. entrances are. Show me staircase location as the MTA’s neighborhood maps do, and add Exit Strategy’s staircase location as well.
- Point-to-point directions that incorporate up-to-date service changes.
As far as I’m concerned, anything more is just window dressing. But that’s just my personal preference, and it’s a bit utilitarian. So what do you think? What goes into your ideal transit app? Maybe I’m missing something, but maybe, in an age of ever more complicated devices and apps, we’re just overthinking it.
It is to the MTA’s credit that the agency has been very generous with their data while not releasing too many of their own apps. As the clunky Subway Time interface without momentum scrolling shows, in-house app design is hardly an agency specialty. But with the data and BusTime and Subway Time APIs out there for public consumption, plenty of other developers can pick up the slack, and for the second year in a row, the MTA is attaching a monetary reward to those who design the best apps.
The MTA’s second App Quest competition will kick off May 4 with a weekend-long hackathon. Sponsored by AT&T, the contest features two prizes: a $10,000 award for the best app to emerge from the weekend session and a $40,000 reward for the winner of the long-term challenge. As a prompt, the MTA is seeking apps with some of the following criteria:
- Provide transit visualizations of timetables, service alerts, real-time feeds, and information about capital projects, operations and other vital MTA programs
- Augment in-station way-finding, particularly for people with disabilities
- Integrate MTA services into other application workflows (calendars, e-mail programs, etc.)
- Illuminate, score and personalize the carbon-footprint reductions gained by using buses, subways, regional rail and combinations of those modes
- Leverage the increasing availability of cellular phone service on the MTA network to create data-driven models of train and bus performance and customer flow
- Are creative, functional, and engaging
Already, over 250 developers have signed up, and the event’s organizers are happy with the early turn-out. “The response we have seen from New York City’s tech community to create the next generation of transit apps has been overwhelming,” Marissa Shorenstein, the president of AT&T New York, said. “We can’t wait to see how participants envision riders using their mobile devices to improve their daily commute.”
At the least, New Yorkers are likely to gain access to a wide array of useful transit apps. This is how a transit agency in 2013 should use its open data feeds.
With the MTA’s opening of their countdown clock API stream, Google announced today that it has added real-time subway departure information for seven New York City subway lines to its maps offerings. Those using Google Maps via desktop or mobile can now get live departure information based upon the MTA’s own countdown clocks for the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 42nd St. Shuttle. Eventually, as the MTA figures out how to bring such a system to other train lines, that information will wind up on Google Maps as well. For the Google-phobes among us, there’s always the clunky, yet functional, official Subway Time app.
The MTA’s goal of rolling out BusTime to all five boroughs by April of 2013 is a bit off schedule, the agency announced today. With all of the Bronx and Staten Island bus routes already equipped with the real-time bus location service and some Brooklyn routes enjoying it as well, Manhattan buses will soon follow suit. After Manhattan will come Brooklyn, followed by Queens before the end of next April. In other words, within 13 months, the city’s bus riders will be able to track every single bus then in service.
“Bus Time has proven extremely popular among bus riders on Staten Island and the Bronx – and I can tell you that because customers have come to me on buses in the Bronx and said we did a really great job on Bus Time,” Fernando Ferrer, MTA Acting Chairman, said in a statement. “They find it useful and easy to access, and I think that’s a tremendous endorsement of what we have been doing. Bus Time is so helpful to our customers that we have scheduled an extremely aggressive timetable to introduce it to three other boroughs.”
That extremely aggressive timetable is actually less aggressive than it was 17 months ago, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that BusTime will aid bus travelers. No longer will we stand frustratedly at bus shelters with no vehicle in sight, and the decision to grab a snack, walk or wait will be a much easier one to make. Absent real bus network improvements — dedicated rights of way, faster fare payment methods — the ubiquitous nature of BusTime should continue to stem the decline in bus ridership we’ve seen over the last few years. The debate, however, between BusTime’s location-based tracking and countdown clocks remains a hot topic.
This story has been making its way through the procurements approval process this week, and with an MTA Board vote in favor of the deal, Transit announced today that its ‘On The Go’ informational kiosk pilot program will soon spread throughout the subway system. In conjunction with two vendors — CBS Outdoor and Control Group Inc. — as part of the pilot’s second phase, Transit will install at least 77 more kiosks over the next few years. Best of all is the cost. The MTA will pay out no money for this arrangement but has the opportunity to draw in some dollars.
The “On The Go” kiosk program launched in September 2011 at five stations in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. These touchscreen devices over travelers information about trips and trip-planning, real-time subway status, escalator and elevator and neighborhood maps. Third-party developers have loaded on apps with related information, and the devices provide news and weather as well.
“Taken together, this is an unprecedented amount of information made available to subway and commuter rail customers. These state-of-the-art customer communications kiosks provide instant information that makes using the transit system more efficient,” MTA Interim Executive Director Thomas F. Prendergast said today in a statement. “The positive feedback we have received via our website or Twitter account has confirmed that our customers have embraced this new technology improving their riding experience.”
To expand the current pilot, the MTA is licensing with CBS Outdoor and Control Group Inc. The two licensees will purchase the kiosks and deliver them to Transit for installation. The MTA estimates that the kiosks will cost around $15,000 each, but as part of this public-private partnership, the licensees will pay these costs. The two companies will then retain 90 percent of the gross advertising receipts until the capital investment in the kiosks is recouped. Once costs are recovered, Transit’s percentage of the receipts will increase from 10 percent to 65 percent. It is unclear how long it will take for advertising to cover the costs of the kiosks, but this program expansion comes at no real cost to the MTA.
With this expansion, CBS and Control Group Inc. will have more freedom to design the touch-screen interfaces and to customize the applications available in the devices. Transit plans to evaluate customer perceptions and the technology while plotting out potential future expansion efforts. For now, the 77 kiosks will be installed in at least 16 new stations, but the order has an option for 43 additional kiosks should the MTA approve.
A missive from New York City Transit on some much-relied-upon technology: “MTA New York City Transit announces that Countdown Clocks and the mobile app, Subway Time, will not be available to the public for a number of hours later tonight in order to test a software upgrade and back-up system. During this time, we will be bringing the servers down and back up several times beginning this evening, January 24, after the p.m. rush hour (about 9 p.m.) and continuing until shortly before the morning rush hour, tomorrow, Friday, January 25. We apologize for the inconvenience to our customers.”
Once upon a time, we didn’t have subway countdown clocks, and waiting for trains overnight was often as painful as a root canal. Now, we know when we have to wait for 15 minutes for a 2 train as I did at Chambers St. at 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday night. Tonight, though, New Yorkers are out of luck. The problem with technology, after all, is that someone, sometimes, has to upgrade the whole thing. The clocks should be back on before rush hour tomorrow.
Subway Time, the MTA’s subway tracking app that uses data from the system’s countdown clocks to provide real-time train location, is now available on all mobile platforms via the agency’s On The Go website. Prior to today, the app had been available only on the iOS and Android platforms, but the web-based tool — which features a better scroll than the iPhone app — can now be accessed by anyone with a smartphone and a data connection.
“It all comes down to our mantra – Know Before You Go,” Paul J. Fleuranges, the MTA’s Senior Director of Corporate and Internal Communications, said of Subway Time’s latest implementation. “When you have access to real-time information on the go, it makes your trip that much easier, and it gives you the power to work around any problems that might arise.”
To access the interface, mosey on over to http://onthego.mta.info/ and scroll down to the fifth link. The rest is self-explanatory.
When the MTA unveiled Subway Time on Friday, the app faced criticism as it was made available only for Apple’s iOS platform. But along with Subway Time came a public release of the data stream, and less a day after the MTA’s own unveiling, a private developer had released Subway Time for Android. The app, a little buggy but definitely usable, is available here at Google’s Play store.
The Journal caught up with app designer Elad Katz who spoke about the quick creation of an Android version. “By the time we were at the cab,” Katz, who was on the way back from vacation, said, “we had decided that we’re going to do some reverse engineering and replicate the app on Android.” As the MTA’s app is, in Katz’s words, “basically a website that’s being displayed on the phone,” he said it was “easy to port over” to Android. And thus, the second real-time tracking app is born with many more to come.
For the second time this month, a gruesome death in the subway occurred when one rider pushed another into the tracks and into the path of an oncoming train. The latest incident happened at 40th St. along the 7 line, and the suspect, with a history of mental problems, said she was targeting Hindus and Muslims as revenge for the 9/11 attacks. After an early December incident was caught on camera, this weekend’s attack was no less disturbing.
After the horror of the incident fades away, the reaction to these deaths focuses around platform doors. In various other cities across the world (but not all of them), platform doors are a common sight. They keep people and debris off the tracks while providing the option to air condition underground platforms. With the MTA focusing on the number of people who were hit by trains — usually around 150 per year — the agency has seemingly brought this response on itself.
But should we be so focused on platform doors? Can we? Those are the two questions that require a rigorous answer before anyone moves forward with the idea. Already, though, forces are building. While some at the MTA have called the doors a non-starter and two capital projects — Second Ave. and the 7 line — have seen them axed from initial plans, a new faction within Transit will at least entertain the idea. “We’ll have to revisit it,” Transit President Tom Prendergast said to The Daily News this weekend. Pete Donohue had a bit more:
The MTA has had on-and-off discussions about placing protective barriers along at least some platform edges, as other cities like London and Paris have done. In 2010, the MTA released a Request for Information for a pilot program, but nothing ever came of it. A New York-based company called Crown Infrastructure submitted a response to install the doors for free, as long as it could collect revenue from LED video advertising on the barriers.
“We haven’t made a conscious decision to table it and not do it at all, but we haven’t made a decision to keep it going either,” Prendergast said. “It’s suspended animation.”
MTA officials also said in 2007 platform doors would be installed on the 7 train extension, and that they were considering doing the same for the new Second Ave. subway. While both projects are under construction, platform doors will not be installed, said an MTA spokesman Friday, calling them “cost-prohibitive.” It would cost an estimated $1.5 million to install sliding doors along two platform edges in a new station, and more to retrofit an existing station. The MTA has 468 station, although many are too narrow for doors.
In an official statement released to Ravi Somaiya of The Times, the MTA said: “Based on the MTA’s preliminary analysis, the challenge of installing platform edge barriers in the New York City subway system would be both expensive and extremely challenging given the varied station designs and differences in door positions among some subway car classes. But in light of recent tragic events, we will consider the options for testing such equipment on a limited basis. Of course, we remind customers of the overall safety of the subway system but urge them to stand well back from the platform edge and remain watchful of their surroundings.”
I’ve written on the aspect of costs before, and the equation remains similar. These accidents happen about once every 12.5 million passengers. Very few are caused by another’s push while many happen due to the carelessness of someone on the platform and others simply as accidents. The cost of the doors vs. the cost of saving a life is a delicate balancing act.
That’s the answer to “should we,” and the answer to “can we” is far more difficult. Outside of the factors mentioned in the MTA’s statement — station design, variable door placement on rolling stock models — there is one overarching problem. Platform edge doors generally benefit from automatic train operations systems to ensure the doors lineup properly. Not every platform door system needs ATO, but those with ATO work better and faster. The MTA is countless years, dollars and union fights away from an ATO solution.
So with politicians and the architect of the JFK AirTrain all angling for platform edge doors, Transit will take a look at the technology. I doubt we’ll see much movement over the next few years though as the organizational and financial challenges are too great to overcome for a systemwide implementation.