Archive for MTA Technology
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.
For bus riders in Brooklyn and Queens, “soon” now has a set date. BusTime — the MTA’s real-time bus tracking service — will go live for the city’s most populous boroughs on Sunday, March 9. Bus riders in those two boroughs will now know, via text message, smart phone apps or the the web where their buses are and how far away that next bus is. It will be a huge boost for riders long accustomed to spotty service and maddeningly inconsistent waits.
“MTA Bus Time is yet another way we are trying to improve service for our customers,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said in a press release. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway, customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”
With the addition of Brooklyn and Queens bus routes, including express bus service, the entire city will have access to bus tracking information, and the MTA has met its self-imposed deadline for bringing the service online. This last installation adds 9000 bus stops to the system as well. What it doesn’t include yet are countdown clocks — or, more accurately, station countdowns — at each station, and transit advocates hope to change that.
At a rally hosted by the Riders Alliance (of which I am a board member), bus riders and other transit advocates called upon politicians to help fund a NYCDOT initiative that would see digital countdown timers installed at key bus stations throughout the city. The timers — similar to the one atop this post — would be a big help to those who aren’t aware of BusTime or are not otherwise comfortable with the technology that makes the bus location information readily available.
“Countdown clocks have been a huge hit on subway platforms,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “Now it’s time to bring them to bus stops. We have the technology and we have the interest from riders.”
What is missing from Raskin’s equation is, of course, money. A 2012 study by Brad Lander noted that countdown clocks at bus stops would cost around $4000-$6000 to install, but the solar-powered free-standing signs in place as part of the Staten Island pilot would cost up to $20,000 each. That’s a prohibitive cost and an insane one. Ridership doesn’t warrant installing one at every bus stop, but for key bus stations, these simple timers that countdown stops shouldn’t cost that much.
“The best way to get where I’m going is the bus. I try to time it using printed schedules but most of the time the bus doesn’t follow the schedule,” Thomasin Bentley, a Riders Alliance member, said. “I want to use the bus. It’s clean and affordable. Bus countdown clocks would allow me to make the most of an otherwise great system. The text messaging service is a good start but I find it difficult to understand, and I’m a real tech person. I can imagine that it’s hard for other people to figure out as well.”
Earlier this week, State Assemblyman Paul Goldfeder’s office sent out what I thought was an oddly-phrased press release along with a letter the Queens representative sent to MTA head Tom Prendergast. In the letter, Goldfeder called upon the MTA to include Queens in its plans for BusTime.
“Waiting for a bus in Queens should not be a guessing game,” he said. “I applaud the MTA for using technology to better their services for customers and I strongly urge them to include all New Yorkers in their latest advances and implement the real-time bus locator app for Queens residents as soon as possible.”
What struck me as odd was the fact that the MTA had always said BusTime would be a city-wide effort and that the rest of the city would receive real-time bus tracking info by the middle of this year. Everything I had heard from MTA sources indicated that the rollout was on time, and I asked Goldfeder’s office if they had heard otherwise. His press rep clarified that Goldfeder “sent a letter to the Chairman to make sure the app does come to Queens and there’s no second thoughts.” An app without one borough would be no app indeed.
In response to Goldfeder’s inquiry, the MTA has stressed its commitment to Brooklyn and Queens. If you look closely enough at the MTA’s bus fleet — and know what to look for — you’ll see that the equipment for BusTime is already in place, and the MTA has said that it should be live soon. “We have completed boroughwide installations in Queens and Brooklyn and are currently fine-tuning software,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in response to various inquiries. “We are on schedule to go online in the next several weeks.”
So there you have it: Ask for an update, and ye shall receive. A citywide implementation of BusTime should do wonders for bus ridership and the overall convenience of New York’s otherwise unreliable local buses. If only now we could do something about the clunky fare payment system.
I’ve been sitting on a bunch of open tabs for a little while and thought it would be a good idea to get around to sharing these. These are stories I found interesting or newsworthy but just haven’t had an opportunity to post here.
I’ve talked a bit about the MTA’s new green fee and the money realized from unused MetroCards, and a recent piece in The Times put those dollars into context. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the MTA collected half a billion dollars from unused fares. Since straphangers have to pre-pay for MetroCards, dollars that are left on the cards long after their expiration dates remain with the MTA, and on an annual basis, the money is a small, but important, part of the agency’s annual budget.
Unused fares isn’t something that’s come about because of the MetroCard era. Back in the day, New Yorkers would buy tokens and never use them. They would get lost, get forgotten, get overlooked, and the MTA could collect those fares. But today with uneven bonuses that make the math of a free fare more difficult, more dollars are left on cards that expire, and the $1 fee for new MetroCards means revenue as well.
As the MTA phases out the MetroCard — the topic of my March 19 Problem Solvers session — these unused fares may diminish a bit. The next system may well be a pay-as-you-go set-up that doesn’t focus around any proprietary fare collection system. While the MTA will lose the money from unused fares, it will also drastically reduce the amount it has to spend to collect fares. That’s a win for the customers, and a win for the transit agency as well.
As New York City subways go, the 3 train runs an odd route. It stretches deep into Brooklyn but then stops short of anything in Manhattan. It terminates at 148th St. near the Lenox Yard and goes no further north. In a piece at Welcome2TheBronx, Richard Garey argues for extending the train to the Bronx. With the need for some cross-Bronx subway service and the incoming soccer facility near Yankee Stadium, the time may be right to look at some subway extension options.
Garey’s post focuses on the 3 train as a way to serve neighborhoods that once enjoyed streetcar service and now don’t, but I think he has the routing wrong. The 3 shouldn’t end up as another north-south route in the Bronx but could instead cut across the borough, serving areas that don’t have good cross-Bronx transit options while boosting subway service. It is, after all, a fast ride downtown on the IRT express. Without a massive infusion of cash, we’re just dreaming, but it’s an intriguing proposition after all.
Unhappiness at 149th Street
For years, I’ve been using the 149th Street-Grand Concourse subway stop as a transfer point on the way to Yankee Stadium, and for years, it has been one disgusting station. The walls were marred by leaking pipes, and on the way home from a World Series game in 2001, my sister and I saw squirrel-sized rats on the uptown 2/5 platform. It was very, very unpleasant.
Recently, the station underwent a renovation, but a few area residents are unhappy. One transit buff took a video tour of the station post-renovation and discovered some subpar work. Meanwhile, another group of residents wants to restore elevator service that was shuttered 40 years ago. As best as I can tell, the elevator in question went from the 2/5 platform to street level. The MTA has no money, and protestors hope Mayor de Blasio can help out. I wouldn’t hold me breath.
Thanks to an infusion of funds from Council member Vincent Ignizio, four stations along the Staten Island Railway — Great Kills, Eltingville, Annadale and Huguenot — now have countdown clocks. The work is part of a $675,000 initiative funded by Ignizio’s office that will eventually include a Subway Time component that will add these SIR stations to the MTA’s tracking app. For now, the information is available on the St. George-bound side, but Tottenville-bound service will have its time in the sun as well. If you pay for it, it will come.
L train riders, rejoice: The MTA’s real-time subway tracking app and developer feeds have been updated today with location information for the BMT Canarsie line. The update was originally due by the end of 2013, but missing a deadline by two weeks seems minor in the grand scheme of things. With the latest update to the MTA’s own iOS app and the web-based interface as well as the open-data feeds for third-party developers, L train riders can find out how long — or short — their waits will be before heading underground.
For the MTA, this is the first upgrade to the Subway Time app, and while the design or scrolling experience haven’t improved, the data available now includes arrival time estimates for eight of the city’s subway routes. Unfortunately, it’s also likely to be the last update for a few years. The CBTC signal project currently underway on the 7 line is expected to wrap in 2016, and the Flushing line could be added thereafter. The MTA is still eying a three- to five-year rollout of some sort of digital tracking system on the remainder of the lettered lines, but it’s unclear if the agency can meet that deadline.
In any event, today’s upgrade is a welcome one, even if it underscores the time we’ll have to wait for information on the rest of the system’s trains at the same time.
The target date to wrap the MTA’s installation of communications-based train control along Flushing Line has been delayed six months until mid-2017, the agency said in documents released this weekend. As part of the update to the Capital Program Oversight Committee, the MTA noted that the $550 million project remains on budget, but due, in part, to complications from Sandy, the project’s substantial completion date has been pushed back from the fourth quarter of 2016 to the second quarter of 2017.
According to the documents, two issues could further impact this date. The first concerned the availability of test tracks for the CBTC-enabled R188s. These cars were due to be tested on the Rockaway Test Track, but this stretch of railbed was damaged during Sandy. The delay in repairing the test track has pushed back the date for final delivery of the R188s from February 2016 to August 2016.
Second, the MTA fingers “G.O. Availability” as a concern. As CBTC work means many weekends without 7 train service into and out of Queens, the agency has been working with community leaders along the Flushing Line to better plan outages. As the Board materials say, though, “if track outages for this project are delayed/denied, the project’s milestones will be delayed.” In other words, if the MTA can’t schedule G.O.’s, it can’t perform the work on time. I’ll continue to follow this story, but for now, the expected completion date is slipping.
Amidst much anticipation, Manhattan now has real-time bus tracking as the MTA unveiled BusTime for the County of New York. At around midnight this morning, BusTime — the MTA’s in-house-built, distance-based system — went live on nearly all Manhattan bus routes. The system is available on the web right here, and already, bus bunching is on display for all to see.
In announcing the new technology, a variety of MTA officials made their perfunctory statements. “MTA Bus Time is a game changer and a service that greatly enhances our customers’ experience with bus travel,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “MTA Bus Time has turned your phone into a tool that tells you when to start walking to the bus stop so you can get there right when the bus does. Meet your bus, don’t wait for it.”
Those riders who can now meet their buses — or opt to walk — instead of waiting include those who use the following routes: M1, M2, M3, M4, M5, M7, M8, M9, M10, M11, M14A, M14D, M15, M15 SBS, M20, M21, M22, M23, M31, M35, M42, M50, M57, M60, M66, M72, M79, M86, M101, M102, M103, M104, M106, and M116. The M34 and M34A were already a part of BusTime, and Brooklyn- and Queens-based routes that enter Manhattan will be added as BusTime comes to those boroughs and depots within in the next six months. The MTA estimates that 93 percent of all Manhattan bus riders can now track their routes.
To bring this borough’s iteration of BusTime online, the agency’s small in-house staff had to code in 1800 bus stops while adding GPS hardware to the buses that operate in the city. Since 2012, the MTA has installed this technology on 2852 buses. Conveniently, the MTA also provided a list of apps already accessing the BusTime API. Those include, for iOS All Aboard NYC; All Schedules Free; Bing Mobile; Bus New York City; Google Maps for Mobile; In Time Staten Island; Ride On Time NYC; Roadify; and Transit Times. For Android, Bus Tracker Pro – MTA NY and Sched NYC feature real-time bus information.
As with the previous boroughs, Manhattan’s BusTime is based on distance rather than time. Since travel times are variable and far more costly to get right, the MTA has gone with a distance-based approach that allows riders to estimate potential wait times. It’s not perfect, but any regular rider should pick up on the idiosyncrasies within a handful of uses.
Meanwhile, through the web interface, you can see bus bunching in action. Earlier today, a variety of north-south lines had two, three or even four buses all within 10 blocks of each other with big gaps in service. Jason Rabinowitz at NYC Aviation noted the problem with the M60 and service across 125th St., a particular sore spot after a vocal minority temporarily squashed bus improvements for the congested corridor.
With a wealth of location data now available, hopefully, the MTA can begin to attack the problem of bunching head on. For everyone else, now you know where your bus is and that hopeless stare down an avenue can become a thing of the past.
Citymapper, a iOS app that uses real-time transit information and up-to-date service advisories to provide its users with a wealth of travel information within the five boroughs, won a $20,000 prize in the MTA and AT&T’s 2013 App Quest contest, the agency announced today. The app comes with a web component and can even tell users how many calories they’ve burned on a trip throughout the city. It’s not quite transformational or quirky, but it works.
This year’s App Quest launched in May and featured 49 submissions. My personal favorite in terms of creativity was an Android app called MetroNap that uses motion sensors to wake up the user when he or she reaches a destination. It did not walk away with a prize though from the panel of nine members of the city’s burgeoning tech and V.C. industry.
In addition to Citymapper, five other apps walked away with cash prizes. Subculture.FM allows uses to get more information on the artists who participate in the Music Under New York program; Transit App, my current go-to for train arrival times and trip instructions, took home $5000. Accessway, an accessibility app for visually impaired riders, and Bus NYC, which taps into the BusTime API, garnered honorable mentions, and Moovit, yet another mapping app, was the winner of the popular vote.
“The app developers who competed in this challenge have shown that they have the know-how, the enthusiasm, and the energy to do great things with the open data we and others provide,” Thomas Prendergast, MTA Chairman and CEO, said. “And we are glad that so many in the tech community have put their efforts into helping the MTA, and, more importantly, our customers. That’s why we are going to continue to expand the amount of open data we provide.”
Once again, the MTA, with a fiscal assist from AT&T, decided to outsource app programming to the benefit of the riders, and we have a new series of apps to use, enjoy and, sometimes, delete. Check out all of the submissions right here.
Apologies for the short post tonight. I have an early morning meeting on Wednesday, but I’ll be back with a new edition of the podcast, among others, later on this morning.
When the MTA dismissed an arbitrator who has often sided with the TWU in resolving disputes, an old issue reared its head. In discussing Richard Adelman’s past rulings, I noted that he had stopped one-person train operation on the L train back in 2005. It was but one story in the MTA’s never-ending saga to see through some form of OPTO in the New York City subway system.
As is often the case when OPTO comes out, a debate over its future arose in the comments. I’ve long believed that OPTO is a necessity in some form or another if the MTA is to realize significant cost savings on the labor front. Although the initial capital costs at readying the system for OPTO may be challenging, the year over year savings would more than justify the initial outlay. The trick in implementing such a system would be in identifying the proper form. Does OPTO make sense on the Lexington Ave. trains at rush hour? Does it make sense on the Brighton Line during the weekend? The answer may not be the same to both questions.
The opponents of OPTO — union workers who stand to lose their jobs — are strong though, and they’ve run the table on this argument for years. On the one hand, OPTO is a tough sell from the MTA. They’re basically telling everyone that there will be fewer employees on train cars, and the psychology of such a stick without a corresponding carrot is a tough one to swallow. On the other, those who oppose OPTO have made their case and stick to it.
Essentially, the opposition breaks down as follows:
- New York City’s subway system is older than other systems that use OPTO, and its platforms are too curvy. It’s trains are longer; it wasn’t built for OPTO.
- It’s not safe for passengers and leads to delays. Imagine how long it would a T.O./conductor to walk from the first car to the last in the event of a problem.
- It’s not safe for the T.O./Conductor and puts too much stress on them.
The first argument is New York exceptionalism at its finest. If it wasn’t invented in New York, then we can’t have it, and clearly, we’ll never be able to have it. It’s also the weakest of the arguments. There are automated lines in the Paris Metro and OPTO in place in similar systems to ours. It’s simply a matter of will and ingenuity, and it wouldn’t even take much to see it through. New York is exceptional in some ways but not in this regard.
The other two are legitimate concerns that prevent the public from getting behind OPTO, and this is where implementation would have to be done delicately and properly. An in-car intercom system would have to be developed; better security responses would have to be created. Again, it’s a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. Meanwhile, moving conductors out of the train cars would allow the MTA to place some on platforms for crowd control purposes or others in stations as agents. Not all would have to be dismissed.
In this safety argument lies the delicate balancing act the MTA needs to execute to see through OPTO. It’s not right for every train line at every moment in time. It likely wouldn’t be a smart move for peak-hour trains along the most crowded of routes but certainly could be effective nearly everywhere on the weekends. It wouldn’t have to lead to more delays or more problems and could help the MTA free up operating money for other purposes.
Ultimately, this is hardly a scientific study on the costs and benefits for OPTO. I’m almost thinking off the cuff here, but it’s a conversation worth revisiting. Ultimately, the MTA should be working toward automation where possible, and OPTO is a good first step. If anything, it can cut down on unnecessary labor costs. But we’re stuck in this rut. It didn’t happen first in New York City so it can’t happen here.
We learned yesterday of new audio announcements concerning train arrival information for a handful of stations in Astoria, and today, I have more information concerning the tracking technology. While the project is mostly a one-off implemented at the request of Astoria’s Assembly representatives, it’s a bit more useful than I first thought.
Notably, the countdown is in minutes — not stations — with audio announcements beginning when the next two trains are within six minutes of the station. The announcements arrive every two minutes with the latest on moving trains and are also audible in the station vestibules. For cold weather days, this will come in handy. There are no plans to incorporate this type of information into a visible countdown clock, but the MTA says it is moving ahead with an effort to bring clocks to the B Division — all lettered subway lines — within three to five years.
So what’s the plan then? According to an MTA spokesman, the agency aims to “get to where we are in the A Division in terms of the same level and type of information,” but the Astoria treatment is independent of that effort. (In Astoria, the announcements are tied into prior signal upgrades.) For now, the MTA is focusing on capturing train arrival information through dispatch and schedule information, and eventually, this data will be made public. The second step involves developing a viable countdown clock implementation. With 132 more stations, nearly 80 more route miles and over 104 more peak trains in service (317 vs. 203), the B Division is much larger than the A Division. We’ve waited this long; what’s another five years?