Archive for MTA Technology
Among the transit cognoscenti, the promise of countdown clocks on the B Division has always seemed frustratingly out of reach. While the A division — the numbered lines — received countdown clocks as part of a signal upgrade a few years ago, the upgrades for the lettered lines are still decades away. Meanwhile, every few months, the MTA would promise some sort of interim solution in “three to five years.” Well, three to five years may finally have arrived as the MTA and Governor Cuomo announced a Bluetooth-based, eight-station 90-day pilot program for B Division countdown clocks.
The pilot — along the BMT Broadway line (N, Q, and R trains in Manhattan) — will feature to-the-minute countdown clocks with similar information as the ones on the A Division share but a different design. The information will be delivered from data transmitted by Bluetooth receivers on the trains to those on the platform and then fed into the digital displays. The countdown timers won’t be based off of data received while trains are in between stations so precise train location will still be an unknown, but the data should be reliable enough that passengers won’t know the difference.
Here’s how the press release described the technology:
The new clocks rely on technology that is straightforward, cost effective to deploy, and does not require large infrastructure. The system uses the existing wireless network in the stations and cloud computing, and involves four Bluetooth receivers placed in each station, two at each end of the platform. These receivers communicate with four Bluetooth devices that have been installed in the first and last cars of each train set running on the line. As the train enters and leaves a station, the system uses its arrival and departure time to estimate the time at which the train will reach the next stop in the line, and display the arrival times on the two LCD display screens that have been installed at each station.
The new displays, as you can see from the photo above, will feature the countdown timers but can also show PSAs and other contents (such as ads) concurrently, solving a major design flaw inherent in the current two-line displays. Now, when the MTA wants to issue a not-so-important message from the NYPD, it can do so on the portion of the screen that doesn’t include the countdown information.
“These actions,” Cuomo said in his press release today, “are the latest steps toward rebuilding and transforming the MTA into a unified, state-of-the-art transportation network that will meet the needs of current and future generations of New Yorkers. With this new and updated technology, we’ll help ensure riders have the information they need to get where they need to go.”
As part of the 90-day test, the system will be in use at the N/Q/R stations at 23rd Street; 28th Street; 34th Street; 42nd Street; 49th Street; 57th Street; 5th Avenue/59th Street; and Lexington Avenue/59th Street. During the evaluation period, the MTA says it will “identify and correct any issues with the new system. The goal is to evaluate the accuracy of location data, performance of Transit Wireless infrastructure, performance of the LCD displays, physical and network security of Bluetooth devices, security of data being transmitted, and internal access and use of data being generated.”
The governor says these clocks will ultimately be installed at all 269 stops along the lettered lines, but it’s not clear on what timeline these could be rolled out or at what cost. It is markedly cheaper than the CBTC upgrades, but unlike the CBTC upgrades, Bluetooth-based countdown clocks don’t increase service. They are a customer satisfaction measure through and through, one that both is welcomed and shouldn’t have taken so long to realize. But with Cuomo’s push to roll out Transit Wireless at all underground stations by the end of the year, this style of countdown clock became feasible. It is not yet clear how these could be deployed in stations that are above ground.
Still, the MTA appears committed to this way forward, and although I don’t always agree with the Governor’s transit priorities, he deserves praise for finally getting the MTA to move forward with technology projects that had been stalled for years. “Governor Cuomo challenged the MTA to develop an aggressive approach to putting countdown clocks on the lettered lines, and our technology team’s response has been phenomenal,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement. “In very short order they developed an easy to deploy, cost-effective system that we think will play a central role in bringing this essential service to more and more of our customers. We look forward to learning from this test, as well as to developing a roll out plan based on our findings.”
By many accounts Gov. Andrew Cuomo, like many politicians, thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. No matter the field, whether its in his wheelhouse of expertise (whatever that may be) or not, if he gets an idea in his head, the people who report to him have to execute. It’s not a dialogue between career public servants who know what they’re doing and the state’s chief executive; it’s a command from a boss to those who report in to him.
With that background, it’s easy to see how Cuomo’s recent transit steps, while earning him headlines and being a major part of his public relations push around the state, have been missteps in the eyes of the transit community. It’s why MTA staffers groan when they hear the governor is coming and just wish he would stay out of the agency’s hair. It’s why buses have USB ports, and it’s why these USB ports are trumpeted as some sort of savior at a time when New York City’s transit system is bursting at its seams with no relief in sight.
Earlier this week, Cuomo again seemed to think that a basic technological upgrade that’s standard operating procedure for most commuter rail systems the world over is a sign of strong leadership when he held a circus of a press conference to announce the long-delayed rollout of a mobile ticketing app for Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road. The app is powered by Masabi’s JustRide platform, and the details are rather mundane. The app will support a variety of time- or ride-based tickets and will require riders to “activate” tickets before use, as New Jersey Transit’s app does. It is Apple Pay-compatible and can support purchasing a ticket, according to promotional materials, in under ten seconds. It’s available now on the LIRR Port Washington Branch and the Metro-North Hudson Line, and it will be rolled out throughout the system by the end of August.
Cuomo’s words in a statement underscore his beliefs that technology is a transit savior. “Our administration remains committed to building a transit network that is responsive to the needs of travelers who rely on mass transportation, and the launch of the MTA eTix app is a major step forward in our efforts,” the governor said. “This new app puts riders first by eliminating the ticket line and helping New Yorkers and visitors get where they need to go with more freedom and convenience than ever before. We will continue to create a 21st century transit system that embraces innovation to ensure that we are building a stronger, more competitive New York.”
The most interesting part of the announcement came as part of the kicker paragraph in the press release which noted that “next year, the MTA expects to make the MTA eTix app even more user-friendly by allowing LIRR and Metro-North customers who transfer to or from the New York City Subway or New York City Buses to pay their fares using a single app and a single transit account.” As the Metrocard replacement project is still in the RFP stage, it’s not quite clear how this functionality will be available by mid-2017, and I’ll follow up on this aspect of the story.
Now, don’t get me wrong; mobile ticketing is a big step. But is it worth the brouhaha of a press release and official back-patting? The MTA is years late to game on mobile ticketing thanks to a combination of recalcitrant LIRR unions and an institutional aversion to major technological change. This announcement, and the fact that the governor had to prod the MTA to release this app, should have been slipped into a press release on a summer Friday, not trumpeted on the day back to work after the July 4th holiday.
But that’s not the weird part. The weird part was Cuomo’s rant at the press conference which you can find in this 20 minute video of the presser.
At around the eight-minute mark, Cuomo starts going off the rails on the current state of the transit system. “You can’t make a system that was designed and constructed for that [early 1900s] scale work for the current-day scale, and government’s tried in fits and starts to use bailing wire and duct tape and bubble gum and all sorts of ways to make it work. It’s not going to work. You have to build a new system,” he said. He also claimed that “our society is more litigious than ever” and thus government cannot make the changes to create a new system. In a concurrent tweet, Cuomo confused daily subway and bus ridership with monthly LIRR ridership and seemed to over-simplify when the subway system as we currently know it opened.
It’s hard to parse Cuomo’s words here. He seems to think that basic technological upgrades are a sign of a “new system.” He seems to think mandating buses that are “Ferrari-like” and faster rollouts of mobile ticketing apps will help with the crowds on Lexington Ave. or the lack of capacity in Queens. He doesn’t want to hear about it or take on the root causes of the MTA’s problems: high costs, an inability to deliver projects on time and on budget, and a lack of institutional support from the governor.
I don’t know where anyone involved goes from here. It’s not an intractable situation for transit advocates or the MTA or the governor, but it’s a situation careening from one band aid to another when real leadership is required. It’s not the collective fault of the millions of riders that the MTA can’t handle the crowds, and a magic app for Metro-North and LIRR riders won’t fix that problem. Unfortunately, Cuomo, the one man who thinks he can solve these problems, is blind to this reality, and we’ll have to live through it instead.
Can the MTA get a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul its fare payment technology right? This is a question more important than many realize right now as the MTA finally gears up to usher in a replacement for the Metrocard and move its fare payment system into the 21st century. This is a question that plays more to buses rather than to subways, as subway riders will keep flocking to the system no matter how the fare payment technology works, and it’s a question that could solve the problem of declining bus ridership. It’s also a question one rider advocate group fears the wrong answer will emerge.
The story is simple: The MTA wants to replace the Metrocard with something leaner and meaner. The technology will likely rely on open payment standards popular in the payment card industry and will allow the MTA to shed the costs associated with running and maintaining a proprietary fare technology. It will be flexible enough to support pay-per-ride fares and bulk discounts (such as unlimited ride cards keyed to a time period). But will it support electronic proof of payment, a feature that could drastically improve bus service? The Riders Alliance is worried it won’t, and they’ve called upon the MTA to address this deficiency.
In a report released on Friday, the Riders Alliance laid out its case for electronic proof of payment. I’ll excerpt:
Right now the MTA’s RPF, with bids due July 13th, does not require “electronic proof of payment” technology, whereby users would have their payment validated electronically, rather that with a paper receipt…Why does it matter? Because one way to make buses faster and more reliable is to replace the current system, where everyone boards one by one at the front, with all-door boarding, where people could get on the bus through any available door. An all-door boarding system usually relies on inspectors who can board the bus and make sure riders have purchased tickets—today on Select Bus Service, by checking to see if the rider purchased a paper receipt at the bus stop. In the future, if the MTA is to consider rolling out all-door boarding to all bus lines citywide, a paper ticket system would likely be too onerous and expensive, making a digital system necessary. And if the MTA doesn’t require that the new fare payment system accommodate a digital inspection, bus riders could be stuck with a whole new generation of boarding slowly, one-by-one, at the front of the bus.
All-door boarding, facilitated by an electronic proof of payment system that allows for easy verification of payment, can significantly reduce bus travel times and save money—without increasing rates of fare evasion. A primary driver of delays at bus stops is the length of time required for all passengers to board…
The only buses in New York that allow all-door boarding are Select Bus Service routes, which require riders to pay at a machine before boarding the bus. SBS routes have seen speed increases from 16 to 22 percent and ridership gains between 10 and 20 percent in the first year after implementation. At the same time, enforcement from the NYPD’s Eagle Team have led to significant drops in fare evasion: in 2012, fare evasion on the Bx41 in the Bronx dropped by 74 percent and on the Bx12 by 80 percent after the deployment of SBS on those routes…The MTA estimates that off-board fare collection, combined with all-door boarding, is responsible for a 10 to 15 percent total improvement in travel time [for Select Bus Service routes].
We don’t currently have all-door boarding on buses because the MTA claims it would be far too expensive to install MetroCard readers throughout the city. The prices quoted often run into the low billions. Meanwhile, around North America, transit agencies in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Montreal have introduced all-door boarding, and travel time reductions generally attributable to this improved boarding process run to around 15 percent across the board. It’s a no-brainer really.
For its part, the MTA has raised concerns over fare evasion. “We must balance convenience against the very real threat of fare evasion if ‘electronic proof of payment’ technology is ever to be viable,” agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz said to the Daily News. This, however, seems to be a symptom of Not-Invented-Here-itis, a frequent illness in NYC transit planning. As Streetsblog detailed on Tuesday, some targeted fare enforcement efforts on POP routes drive down fare evasion, and the economics dictate that faster bus service — which should drive up ridership — would pay for the cost of fare evasion. Creating a fare structure that incentivizes purchases of time-based fare cards could also help combat any concerns over fare evasion.
Ultimately, the MTA gets once chance to do this project right. Once they’ve locked in on a potential replacement for the Metrocard, making whole-sale changes will grow more difficult and costly. For the sake of a 21st century fare payment technology and, more importantly, for the sake of the city’s bus riders, electronic proof of payment should be a mandatory part of this next-gen solution.
Since the R142s debuted on the 2 and 5 lines in 2000, one of the quirks of the strip map system has been its inflexibility. The maps in the cars were assigned a certain line, and if a set of cars with a 2 line map runs as a 5 train instead, the map simply says “not in service.” Unlike the FIND displays in the newer cars that can be changed based on train route, these maps were a relic of an inflexible system.
A few months ago, a new map showed up in one 10-car set which had both the 2 and 5 lines on the same map and could be personalized for whichever line the train is running on. In other words, if the train in question is running on the 2, the map will show the 2, and if the train is running on the 5, the map will show 5 line stops. No more “not in service” signs.
Now, as Transit announced on Friday, the agency will outfit all R142s that run on the 2 and 5 with these new maps. The agency says “the map redesign is consistent with Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s initiative to improve the customer experience with modern amenities.” Transit President Ronnie Hakim explained further, ““We are taking this opportunity to replace strip maps that are more than a decade old and going a step further to improve customer communication by creating this new strip map that shows both the 2 and 5 routes from end to end. The combined strip map lets us reassign trains more fluidly and shows our customers where they’re going, regardless of the train they’ve boarded. The redesign will alleviate customer confusion when trains are reassigned or rerouted from one line to another.”
Unfortunately, this new map, while more useful, is a bit of a mess from an ease-of-use perspective and isn’t as flexible as the FIND system. But it’s a step up from the old system. I’m rather skeptical though that passengers are itching at the bit for a strip map slightly easier to use rather than more frequent service or an expanded system. Cuomo may be able to take credit for this upgrade, but it’s a hollow victory for him.
After the jump, this weekend’s service advisories. Due to the Presidents’ Day holiday on Monday, some of these changes run into Tuesday morning. Enjoy the long weekend. I’ll be back on Monday night. Read More→
Installing wifi at all underground subway stations by the end of the year; bringing mobile ticketing to the LIRR and Metro-North within six months and a form of contactless payment to the subways by 2018; completing B Division countdown clocks by 2018; speeding up station rehabilitation work and overhauling the look and feel of our subway stations — all are noble goals and all were part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda for improving the MTA and attracting more New Yorkers to mass transit. But following a press event high on lofty rhetoric about increasing transit use, the proposal seemed to indicate that the governor doesn’t understand exactly what the city’s pressing transit needs are.
After spending a week criss-crossing the state, announcing a spate of infrastructure projects that will affect New York for the next decade, if not longer, Cuomo found himself Friday morning out of his element. The last stop on his whirlwind tour was the Transit Museum, a perfect monument to best laid plans that often go awry. During Friday’s announcement, Gov. Cuomo played headliner to MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast’s undercard. In a later press gaggle, Cuomo admitted he doesn’t take the subway as often as he used to and explained that he’s “not an expert an international expert on the best transit systems.” He has consultants who are, he noted.
He unequivocally said that mass transit growth is the way forward for downstate New York growth, but he made these statements amidst a monument both to New York City past and to a future that never was. After all, the Transit Museum lives in a 1930s-era subway station that was supposed to be the Brooklyn portal for a Second Ave. Subway still not completed. What better place to try to hold back a flood by sticking a proverbial finger into a dike?
The MTA investments Cuomo and Prendergast announced are badly needed for purposes of modernity and will improve MTA operations. If Cuomo can prod the MTA to complete a series of seemingly stalled technological improvements the MTA has been trying to launch for a decade or more, his program will be judged a success. But as with the Penn Station plans, without an ongoing and far-reaching commitment to expand transit capacity, these subway projects too will look like political lipstick for our proverbial pig.
So what, you may be wondering, of the plans themselves? In addition to state support for the MTA’s five-year, $28 billion capital plan, Cuomo ushered in a series of other improvements. Here they are:
Wi-Fi At All Underground Stations By The End of the Year
The MTA and Transit Wireless have installed service at around half of all underground stations, and the rollout for the other half was supposed to wrap in 2017. Now, that timeline will be accelerated so full underground connectivity will be achieved by the end of this year. Tunnels will not be wired, but riders waiting for their trains will be able to takes calls and connect to the Internet at every underground station.
Mobile Payment and Ticketing Initiatives
We’ve heard about the MTA’s Metrocard replacement efforts for years, and while the wheels are spinning, the ball isn’t moving forward. Now, Cuomo and Prendergast say the subways will begin accepting contactless payment system in 2018. Renderings show a QR code-based reader that isn’t exactly a cutting edge technology, and Prendergast later noted to reporters that this reader system may be an interim solution on the way to a full overhaul of the fare payment technology. Until we know more about this plan, I’m not convinced it’s the right approach, let alone a cure-all, to an ongoing problem. Metro-North and the LIRR will offer mobile ticketing by the end of the year — so I assume Cuomo is confident he can solve the labor problems that have been a barrier to implementation on the LIRR.
Countdown Clocks on the B Division
Countdown clocks — and the lack thereof in many stations — took center stage, and Prendergast said the MTA would wrap installation of B Division (that is, the lettered subway lines) countdown clocks by the end of 2018. Cuomo’s subsequent press release hedged on the date and simply said the MTA will “accelerate” installation but didn’t include a timeline. This is a promise from the MTA to continue to do what it has long said it would do but perhaps on a faster timeline maybe.
Other Technological Improvements
Cuomo and Prendergast also announced a laundry list of other proposals focused around “improving the customer experience.” These include USB charging ports on subway cars and new buses, wifi-enabled buses, and additional digital information screens including more On The Go kiosks and Help Point intercoms.
A New Focus on Station Rehabilitation Efforts
Finally, in a move that generated a lot of questions, the MTA announced a new approach to station rehabilitation efforts. Instead of stop-and-start weekend work and only partial closures, the MTA, at the request of its contractors, will close stations for concentrated periods of time to speed up the timing and efficiency of station work. Inspired by the Montague Tube work and in conjunction with its contractors, the MTA feels it can be more efficient in this system repair work by closing stations for weeks (or months) at a time rather than suffering through years of weekend diversions. In fact, the agency does this now, but usually only at stations around the edges.
Tom Prendergast discussed this focused effort. “In many cases the customers say its better that for 6-8 weeks, I need to do something different rather than for 42 weeks on weekends and nights our lives are totally disrupted,” he said.
As part of this effort, the MTA will tackle 30 stations over the next three-to-five years. Most will be finished by 2018 with a few trickling into 2020. It’s not clear whether these are in addition to the 20 stations identified in the five-year capital plan or encompass those 20 stations that were due for rehab work. In conjunction with this work, the MTA will “revamp the design guidelines for subway stations to improve their look and feel” and implement this new plan at these 30 stations. The plans will include “cleaner, brighter stations [that will] be easier to navigate, with better and more intuitive wayfinding, as well as a modernized look and feel.” Considering these stations are all single- or side-track platforms that aren’t hard to modernize, this philosophy sounds better tailored to overhauling transfer points or big hubs, but a fresh look is a welcome development.
Already, New Yorkers in Astoria and Clinton Hill, to name a few neighborhoods, are worried that station closures will negatively affect their rides, and in part, there is no way around this work. But this should limit disruptions to concentrated time periods, and Prendergast said the MTA is “not just shutting elements of system without worrying about impacts.” Thus, adjacent stations won’t be closed at the same time, and riders may have to use a station a few blocks away than they’d like.
Why I’m Disappointed
Despite these announcements and continued investment in the capital plan, though, I found Friday’s announcements lacking, and if we dive into Cuomo’s words, we find a disconnect between what he’s saying and what he’s doing and investing in. Here are some of Cuomo’s words from his prepared remarks:
“Number one: reliability. Number one: when the trains says it’s coming at 12:07. You know what that means? It means the train has to come at 12:07. Not 12:08, not 12:10, not 12 – 12:07! Its reliability, first. Accessibility, second. Third: the comforts that we expect. I don’t wasn’t to get in a train and feel like a sardine for an hour and a half on the way to work. I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to sit in the seat, I want to be able to listen to my music, I want to be able to make the telephone call, connected to Wi-Fi….
And that is what we are going to do with the MTA, 30 stations put them out all at once, design build whole new station, let people walk in there and say, “Wow, this is the MTA.” This is the train station – amazing. Yes, we can. We do what we need to do at the MTA, it will drive a different New York, it will allow a growth and an expansion that far exceeds anyone’s expectations, because it is the future. The transportation system determines the economic growth of the future. When they designed this system originally, they had 1 million riders, they designed it for 10 million riders. Look at the foresight, we now have to expand on that vision, and it all comes back to the MTA. We are going to do it.”
In the press gaggle after the event, Cuomo expanded on this vision. “The MTA system has to be better than it is today. It has to be more reliable, more comfortable. We want people getting out of cars and into mass transit, and we have to make that as easy as possible,” he said. “We’re not going to grow downstate with people getting into cars and commuting. We’re not going to build more roads and we shouldn’t build more roads” in the New York City area.
These are all noble goals that should be at the forefront of New York City transit and transportation planning, but none of what Cuomo announced on Friday accomplishes these goals. Riders want wifi but riders also want space on the subway and more frequent trains that go to more places. When the MTA wraps work on the Second Ave. Subway this year, its only remaining big-ticket capital project will be East Side Access, a project that does nothing to expand the reach of the subway system. If Cuomo is intent on delivering a reliable system that “allow[s] a growth and an expansion that far exceeds anyone’s expectations,” USB charging stations and countdown clocks won’t bridge that gap. Knowing that my train is 12 minutes away doesn’t make it emptier or faster.
So, yes, the MTA deserves some praise for trying to get out of its own way on technology upgrades, and reenvisioning the station environment is long overdue. (London’s new Design Idiom could be a constructive starting point.) Streamlining station rehabilitations too is praise-worthy, but the lofty rhetoric of improving public transit and increasing modeshare doesn’t align with USB chargers and wifi as the headliners. What we would need is a firm commitment to lowering construction costs to better align with international standards, a firm commitment to future phases of the Second Ave. Subway and a firm commitment to improving outer borough connectivity (such as Triboro RX, a Utica Ave. Subway, a connection to Staten Island or countless other projects that have been suggested and studied over the years).
Additionally, paying for all of these initiatives remains up in the air. Cuomo indicated that the MTA’s capital plan will be funded, in part, via debt, and the agency is sinking further into a debt black hole that will drive up costs borne by riders. It too is an untenable situation that will eventually undermine Cuomo’s rhetoric of increasing ridership and reach.
A few times this week during his New York tour, Cuomo referenced Robert Moses as part of his inspiration. He wants to build and get something done. He wants to be known as a governor who could accomplish things. But his words should give us pause. His philosophy, he said, is based getting things done, with less regard for long-term goals and more for ribbon-cutting. “Did you build a new station? Did you build a new bridge? Did you build a new tunnel?, he said” “That’s how they’re going to judge you.” Turning on wifi a few months earlier than planned is a pleasant surprise, but it sure isn’t a new subway line, more frequent service or all that transformative no matter what the governor says.
A few weeks ago, I first linked to The Atlantic’s lengthy piece on New York City Transit’s technological woes. At the time, I examined the trial and tribulations of bringing communications-based train control online and highlighted how the MTA’s current approach is both impossible to sustain and inefficient in its execution. It is the classic story of a large and conservative bureaucracy unable to adapt to technological change, let alone a fast pace of adaption.
Let’s dive back into the piece and explore the countdown clock conundrum. As you may recall, James Somers initially set out to write about why only the A Division subway lines — the numbered routes — have countdown clocks while the B Division trains — the lettered lines — do not and will not for the foreseeable future. He also wants to understand why the A Division countdown clocks arrived years late. It is, he writes, “the story of a large organization’s first encounter with a large software project.” As you can imagine, it hasn’t gone particularly well for the MTA.
First, Somers notes that Automatic Train Supervision, the project that allowed the MTA to introduce countdown clocks on the A Division, is a subset of CBTC, and had the agency better coordinated and understood technology, they wouldn’t have spent 14 years installing an interim solution. The story goes south from there:
A post-mortem by the Federal Highway Administration details how from the start, an agency which had had little experience with large “systems” projects tried to wing it. For instance, the consulting firm tasked with developing the project plan never made a list of requirements, didn’t talk to the workers who would be maintaining the system until after it was designed, and left vague instructions for large chunks of work—specifying, for instance, “similar functionality to what is currently available”—that later became the focus of drawn-out contract disputes.
The MTA thought that they could buy a software solution more or less off the shelf, when in fact the city’s vast signaling system demanded careful dissection and reams of custom code. But the two sides didn’t work together. The MTA thought the contractor should have the technical expertise to figure it out on their own. They didn’t. The contractor’s signal engineer gave their software developers a one-size-fits-all description of New York’s interlockings, and the software they wrote on the basis of that description—lacking, as it did, essential details about each interlocking—didn’t work.
Gaffes like this weren’t caught early in part because the MTA “remained unconvinced of the usefulness of what seemed to them an endless review process in the early requirements and design stages. They had the perception that this activity was holding up their job.” They avoided visiting the contractor’s office, which, to make things worse, was overseas. In all, they made one trip. “MTA did not feel it was necessary to closely monitor and audit the contractor’s software-development progress.”
The list goes on: Software prototypes were reviewed exclusively in PowerPoint, leading to interfaces that were hard to use. Instead of bringing on outside experts to oversee construction, the MTA tried to use its own people, who didn’t know how to work with the new equipment. Testing schedules kept falling apart, causing delays. The training documentation provided by the contractor was so vague as to be unusable.
The MTA’s attempts at bringing the ATS system to the larger B Division faltered three times during the first decade of the 21st Century, and instead of trying to speed up the pace of installation of the CBTC system which would, as an ancillary benefit, introduce countdown clocks systemwide, Transit is again looking at a piecemeal solution. Again, it’s not working.
As we now know, the MTA doesn’t anticipate completed the installation of the Integrated Service Information and Management system on the B Division before 2020. An original deadline of 2017 was deemed unrealistic, and the delay in capital funding pushed this project back to the next five-year plan. And here’s the rub:
The problem is that the project has slowly taken on a bigger and bigger scope. The minutes of a 2012 Capital Program Oversight Committee meeting reveal that initially, the project’s focus “was to provide Train Arrival Information in stations.” Several service incidents, including a winter storm, drove the MTA to “re-focus project priority to provide centralized service-monitoring and information… followed closely by customer information.”
It is growing to look more and more like ATS. A request for proposal as recent as six months ago—back when funding looked more secure—called for a 77-month software contract to build out a sophisticated Rail Traffic Management System as part of ISIM-B. That piece of the project is envisioned as a complex centralized “expert system” that would allow operators to quickly diagnose service problems and would intelligently suggest ways to work around the disruption. It is, in a word, ambitious. And ambition is the death knell for big software projects. It’s what made ATS such a quagmire in the first place. It is, one suspects, why funding for countdown clocks has been cut from the latest capital plan: The rest of ISIM-B costs too much. It costs too much because it is trying to do too much. The consequence being that for five or six years, customers will hardly see anything get done at all.
At this point, Somers comes up short on a solution. He properly cites to BusTime, the MTA’s greatest software success story, as an example that the agency has had a few people at various times with the ability and trust to do something in-house. But those involved in the original creation and implementation of BusTime have long left the MTA, and Jay Walder, the CEO who was willing to give BusTime a shot, was forced out over his apparent lack of political savviness in dealing with both Albany and the TWU.
So what comes next? Certainly not countdown clocks on the B Division trains any time soon, and certainly not much faith that the MTA can execute complex technology upgrades in a timely or efficient manner. The MetroCard replace is on tap and could suffer from the same fate. Meanwhile, everything is years late and millions of budget. When it’s going to take the better part of a century to bring CBTC to the entire subway line, in the end, do we have any real hope that, without a top-to-bottom organizational overhaul, the MTA can execute on projects that are standard throughout the world? I’m not sure anyone really likes the answer to that question.
Despite journalistic claims of objectivity, some of the best reporting happens when a writer pursues something personal. In this instance, James Somers wanted to know why his F train stop at Carroll St. didn’t have countdown clocks, and what he undercovered made for a massive piece in The Altantic on the dreadful state of the MTA’s technology and its efforts at modernizing. As you may imagine, what Somers found is an agency beset by institutional paralysis, on the one hand, and a fear of taking any risks, on the other.
What Somers uncovered is an open secret amongst the transit literati. The MTA admits it to those who ask, but it’s rarely publicized. The truth is that the F train — and all B division trains — do not have countdown clocks because the MTA doesn’t know where the trains are. The fixed-block signal system doesn’t allow for MTA operators or individual towers to identify which trains are where, and those non-stop signal problems we hear about can, the MTA says, be caused by something as innocuous as debris on the tracks.
I’d like to spend more time discussing some of the issues Somers’ piece raised, but for today, let’s delve into one section — the tale of bringing CBTC to the L train:
[The RPA’s Richard Barone] explained that the Canarsie pilot suffered from problems that weren’t unusual for big transit projects in New York. The first was outmoded work rules. CBTC is designed so that trains can run themselves. But the L still has two-person crews on board every train. They’re not very busy: An April 2007 article titled “Look, Ma—no hands!” in the trade magazine Railway Age featured a delighted train supervisor named Lance Parrish riding in a CBTC-equipped train on the Canarsie Line. “All Parrish has to do is scan the onboard displays and acknowledge a flashing/beeping alerter every 20 seconds.”
…The second was a fear of change. It costs $168,000 per track-mile per year to maintain trackside signals, 90 percent of which is spent on labor—much of it done overnight and on weekends, qualifying the workers for overtime. If those signals were eliminated, millions of dollars could be saved each year. But New York decided to run CBTC on top of a reduced form of the old fixed-block signaling system, requiring that both be expensively maintained, despite evidence from other cities that no backup was necessary. (In Vancouver, the SkyTrain has had no CBTC-related accidents in more than 26 years.) And the fact that the two systems had to work together—requiring the supplier to study the old signals in depth—became a major source of delays.
Barone says New York just wasn’t willing to rip the band-aid off. Cities like London deal with major transit upgrades by packing maintenance and line closures into as short a window as possible, however painful that might seem at the time. New York, by contrast, draws out its track maintenance. When I spoke to the president of Thales Transport & Security, one of two major CBTC suppliers to New York, he said that “getting time on the track is by far the biggest schedule driver.” Crucial test-runs get queued behind miscellaneous track maintenance, so that it takes months to validate even small changes. “In the New York mindset,” he said, “there just isn’t the concept of the trains ever stopping.”
All that waiting isn’t free. These are huge projects for a company like Thales; they’ll spin up a whole office, a whole mini workforce, just to work on it. And when they’re waiting for track time, that workforce doesn’t just spin down—it continues to get paid. Anticipating delays, contractors inflate their bids.
So what we see here in this one little excerpt from a much longer story is an insight into why the MTA can’t seem to bring technology innovation to our system in a timely fashion and, in part, why everything costs so much. If we are to reform MTA practices and get more (or perhaps any) bang for the massive amounts of capital bucks to which the agency now has access, we’re starting to understand the best places to start.
More coming later when we look at how Somers explains the countdown clock conundrum. In the meantime, be sure to check out the full article. It’s well worth the read.
Let’s play catch-up with a few shorter stories:
Upper East Side votes for bus countdown clocks
It’s no secret that the MTA doesn’t plan to spend money bringing countdown clocks to bus stops. Although BusTime is now available on smartphones and via text message on all bus routes throughout the city, the MTA hasn’t shown a willingness to spend money for countdown clocks or identify which stations deserve such clocks. They have, instead, left these clocks up to everyone else. Businesses could supply them in their windows or politicians could pay for them through discretionary funding.
On the Upper East Side, residents want these clocks, and in a recent round of participatory budgeting sponsored by Council member Ben Kallos, his constituents voted for them. While westbound countdown clocks came in second in the voting, they’ve earned $300,000 for installation, and fifteen signs along the M96, M86, M79 and M66 routes will be installed on the East Side. Additionally, Kallos will spend another $340,000 in discretionary funding to install countdown clocks at downtown M31 stops.
This is how countdown clocks will arrive at bus stations and shelters throughout the city, but it’s a very piecemeal approach. These timers will be available at downtown- or west-bound stops only, and anyone headin east or north won’t enjoy easy access to the information. Maybe, eventually, as participatory budgeting and discretionary funds are doled out throughout the years, we’ll see this technology emerge everywhere, but for now, as other entities take over this project, it will be imperfect at best.
MTA Board votes to explore mobile ticketing
Kicking and screaming, the MTA will soon begin to adopt 21st Century ticketing technology. The MTA Board this week voted to approve the LIRR’s and Metro-North’s first foray into mobile ticketing. The contract is with Masabi, LLC, and it will allow the rail road customers to purchase train tickets on their phones, tablets or mobile devices. Conductors can visually verify digital tickets or use handheld devices to scan and validate tickets much as Amtrak conductors do today. (For background on Masabi, check out this Wall Street Journal article. They already provide mobile ticketing for transit services in London, Boston and San Diego.)
“More convenient ticketing options means a better experience using the train,” said Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti. “We want to make riding the train as easy and convenient as we can. We now offer real-time train status via app, and this next step – tickets via app – promises to be another big step toward increased convenience.”
There is, of course, a catch: It’s likely to be a year before mobile ticketing is available for widespread use. Even though this isn’t a new technology, the MTA seems to be suffering from a case of not-invented-here-itis and must test this thing thoroughly. That year, though, is sooner than the Metrocard’s replacement will be ready. At least it has that going for it.
Bustitution, LIRR strike looms
A few weeks ago, the LIRR’s largest union voted to authorize a strike if it cannot reach an agreement on a new contract with MTA management by the end of July. As rank-and-file TWU members are already speaking out against their 8 percent raises, it’s likely that the LIRR union will push hard for a more generous deal. Thus, the likelihood of a strike — with Nowakowski in charge — looms large, and the MTA must plan for it.
After a contentious discussion in which it seemed as though the MTA Board wouldn’t authorize the move, the Board finally approved issuing an RFP for bus service in the event there is no LIRR service come late July. For a few minutes this week, it appeared as though the MTA Board was content to bury its head in the sand and pretend a strike wasn’t a distinct possibility. Ultimately, though, saner minds prevailed, and the RFP is out there. A strike would be very disruptive to Long Island, but at least the MTA has recognized that substitute bus service can’t materialize overnight. I’ll follow this story as the spring unfolds.
I’m a few days late posting this to the site (thought if you follow me on Twitter, you would have seen the news on Saturday, but BusTime is officially live in Brooklyn and Queens. With the weekend debut in the city’s two most populous boroughs, the MTA’s in-house real-time bus tracking system is now available on all MTA buses throughout the five boroughs.
While the service isn’t perfect as designed, knowing where every bus is certainly has its benefits and makes travel on an unreliable mode of transit far easier. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said, “customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”
BusTime is available on the MTA’s website right here, and the information is accessible via mobile apps and a code-based text message service as well. Unfortunately, the limits of the in-house system mean that waiting times are displayed in distance rather than time. Allan Rosen at Sheepshead Bites seems to view this flaw as something close to a fatal one, but I’m a bit more forgiving.
It’s not ideal, and the concept of distance as time takes some trial and error. But two weeks ago, we had no idea where any buses in Brooklyn were, and today, I can pull up every route in the city from the comfort of my computer. Advocates, meanwhile, are continuing to press for countdown timers at major bus stops. It is, as with everything, a matter of funding.
Approximately a year ago, the MTA announced an expansion of their On The Go kiosks. As part of a creative advertising arrangement in which the MTA would shell out no dollars and draw in money after a certain threshold, two licensees — CBS Outdoor and Control Group Inc. — will foot the bill for installation and earn back the costs off of the ads they can sell. In exchange, the MTA gets touch-screen kiosks installed throughout the subway system and a cut of they money once the two companies recoup their initial investments.
Recently, the first batch of screens have popped up in Grand Central, and Gizmodo profiled the work behind building a computer sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the subway. As with many things MTA, this is a story about false starts and delayed promises. Mario Aguilar writes:
The initial plan for the kiosks was to populate the city’s busiest stations, to help make the dynamic and often confusing system a little easier to work with. By the end of 2013, however, Control Group had only managed to install a single testing unit at Bowling Green station, near the company’s headquarters across from City Hall. After a 30-day trial period, it was apparent that everything from the hardware to the user interface had to be improved before the units would be ready to meet the needs of millions of commuters. “We wanted a better experience,” says Control Group partner Colin O’Donnell, “and we were willing to wait for it.”
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a minor course adjustment when it comes a massive agency like MTA. “It’s a behemoth,” says O’Donnell. Moving millions of passengers every day necessitates a certain amount of bureaucracy, and when every last person in that bureaucracy needs to sign off on a decision, approving something as simple as a hardware change can take, well, six months.
O’Donnell says that the initial run’s core problem was the touchscreen it had chosen. The prototype we tried last year used a surface outfitted with 3M’s dispersive signal technology (DST), which calculates the position of a touch on a screen by sensing the vibrations the touch creates. It’s rugged and cost-effective, but also a bit clumsy…User testing proved that people found the firm pokes unintuitive, but more importantly it turned out that subway stations are full of vibration-causing ambient noise and rumbling trains—no kidding!—which confused the touchscreen’s contact microphones and drastically undermined performance. As one staffer put it, the tech worked well in Control Group’s lab on the 21st floor of a skyscraper, but simply didn’t cut it underground with the trains rumbling by.
It’s worth reading Aguilar’s entire piece as it provides a rare glimpse into why technology takes forever to spread throughout the MTA’s vast system. We often scoff at the notion that the world underneath the city is a challenging one and question why simple tasks such as escalator repair can take so long. But as Control Group’s experiences show, it isn’t easy building something that can stand up to 24-hour use, and the dirt, dust, debris and vibrations of the transit network under our feet.
As the video shows, these things aren’t perfect. I haven’t used them yet, but the navigation looks clunky and the touch aspect sensitive. Furthermore, MTA’s own Trip Planner, the underlying software for the navigation system, for instance, isn’t perfect. The system routes people standing on the IRT platform at Grand Central to the 7 and Q for a ride out to Coney Island when the intuitive trip would involve an express ride to Atlantic Ave. and a transfer. Still, it’s a start, and hopefully, with the promises of revenue based on user engagement, these will only get better with time.