Archive for MTA Technology
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.
While the 2013 fare hikes may be the lasting memory New York City has of future mayoral candidate Joe Lhota, one of the outgoing MTA Chairman and CEO’s last acts came on Friday morning as he unveiled a beta release of the MTA’s new Subway Time app. I wrote about the app earlier this morning, and now that it’s available publicly, we can assess the good, the bad and the ugly of it.
“This is what generations of dreamers and futurists have waited for,” Lhota said. “The ability to get subway arrival time at street level is here. The days of rushing to a subway station only to find yourself waiting motionless in a state of uncertainty are coming to an end. Now, you can know from the comfort of your home or office whether to hasten to the station, or grab a cup of coffee as part of a leisurely walk.”
That all sounds good, but how does it work? First, a foray into the details: The app is currently available online for iOS devices via the iTunes App Store. The MTA has also released a desktop version as well as a live data feed. There is no Android version, but the MTA hopes developers will take the feed and build out their own apps.
And now the good: Subway riders along the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 lines and those using the 42nd St. shuttle can access the same info available on countdown clocks from anywhere with an Internet connection. The L train info will be added within the next 6-12 months, and the 7 will follow in a few years. We’ll now know when to get to the station and how long the wait will be ahead of time.
The technological infrastructure is robust as well. Subway Time can handle 5000 requests per second as the data is hosted on a cloud-based system managed by Acquia. Such a platform will allow the MTA to ensure its data feed can meet demand. Acquia kept the MTA’s website afloat during Superstorm Sandy.
The bad though is fairly obvious. With only seven subway lines represented in this app, that still leaves 15 without real-time tracking data, and that data isn’t coming any time soon. To install Automatic Train Supervision along the A Division took the MTA over 10 years, a few false starts, and $228 million. Doing the same for the B Division shouldn’t take as long but will be quite costly.
The MTA says it has “long-term plans in place to upgrade these lines to ATS signaling,” and Joe Lhota, according to Capital New York, said it may be as little as three years before the rest of the system is on Subway Time. But it’s a matter of money, and right now the dollars just aren’t there. GPS-based data for outdoor sections may be available in the future, but for the foreseeable future, we’re left with only the A Division.
As an added bonus, the app offers a glimpse into headways though. For instance, a few minutes ago, I could see that trains along the Eastern Parkway IRT local were bunching badly. There were long gaps with no trains, and then a 2 and 3 would follow each other in quick succession. It’s good for transparency but bad for operational efficiencies.
Finally, we arrive at the ugly. Design has never been the MTA’s forte, and this app is no different. The interface isn’t optimized for the longer iPhone 5. Thus, not all train arrival information fits onto the screen without requiring an unnecessary scroll. Additionally, the app doesn’t enjoy iOS’ native momentum scrolling. It feels a bit awkwardly-constructed.
So that’s my quick take. What’s yours?
An intriguing press advisory from the MTA came through my inbox on Thursday afternoon. Later this morning at 9 a.m., outgoing MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph Lhota will, the advisory said, make a “major announcement regarding improvements to service-related information the MTA provides to subway riders.” With just the right amount of intrigue, this release had me wondering about the info soon to be unveiled. I guessed that the information would involve a public release of the MTA’s real-time tracking of subways currently used only via the A Division countdown clocks.
Late on Thursday, I learned I was right. Via a Ted Mann scoop in The Wall Street Journal comes word that the MTA is set to release an app with real-time information on the location of seven subway lines. The early release will, as astute readers may have already guessed, include train arrival information for the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 trains and the 42nd St. shuttle. The L will follow within the next year and the 7 once the Flushing CBTC installation is complete. It is a game-changer in the way New Yorkers use and relate to these subway lines.
Mann had the details:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to release on Friday its Subway Time app for passengers with iPhones and iPod Touch devices. Android and Windows versions of the app are in development and the agency is currently considering how to integrate the real-time arrival information on its existing website. The breakthrough, long awaited by many of the city’s straphangers, will allow at least some riders to plan their commute by the minute for the first time in the system’s 108-year history…
For the subway system’s 5.5 million daily riders, however, the launch of the new app also lays bare the ways aging infrastructure and a slow pace of investment have left the transit network far behind contemporaries in other cities. The new app will cover only about a third of the subway system, and agency officials acknowledged that it will likely take years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment before conveniences increasingly common elsewhere are standard in the Big Apple.
The rest, encompassing two-thirds of its total stations and roughly 60% of its daily ridership, continues to rely on signal technology dating to the middle of the 20th century or earlier. It will be years before those lines have signal systems that can generate the digital information that drives countdown clocks on platforms and apps on cellphones with live updates. “The technology it uses has remained little changed since a time before computers, microprocessors, wireless telephones or hand-held electronic devices,” said Thomas Prendergast, president of the MTA’s transit division. “It is a time-tested, fail-safe system that continues to flawlessly perform its vital intended function: preventing collisions. But it cannot offer us a digital feed.”
According to Mann’s report, the data for the new app will be stored in the cloud and not on MTA’s servers. Thus, demand — which I would imagine to be steep — won’t swamp the MTA’s website. Eventually, the MTA will open the data feed to third-party app developers as well. Pushing a policy of open data, the MTA has long believed that third party developers have the ability and expertise often not found at the transit agency to push useful and slick-looking apps to the public using available transit data.
For now, though, this is a Big Deal. As Mann details, the MTA is once again hardly a technological leader in this field. Various transit agencies across the U.S. and throughout the world have made real-time train location data available to riders, and the MTA’s implementation, as the excerpt above notes, leaves much of the subway system without countdown clocks and an app feed. Still, straphangers for many popular subway lines will now have the ability to know when their next train is coming at any time of the day.
For decades, New Yorkers have been left to the whims of the subway system. We enter the system hoping for the best and often expecting the worst. Now, for seven subway lines, it’s going to change. As Lhota said, “The days of rushing to a subway station only to find yourself waiting motionless in a state of uncertainty are coming to an end.” For riders at many subway stations, the uncertain wait will now forever be a thing of the past.
As we know, New York City buses are slow and unreliable. Delayed by the vagaries of surface traffic, the city’s buses rarely stay on schedule and inch along surface streets. Buses are underutilized and often looked down upon by even their own riders. Few advances in the way we treat buses represent lost opportunities to move New Yorkers quickly and efficiently.
Over the past few years, as bus-tracking technology has swept the globe, New York has slowly embraced it. An expensive pilot program along 34th St. brought proprietary technology and countdown clocks to the heavily-trafficked corridor, but when the MTA searched for a system-wide solution, the agency instead went with a distance-based tracking system and no countdown clocks. BusTime is an open-source solution with flexibility for growth and real cost savings over closed systems.
BusTime, of course, isn’t perfect. It requires the user to possess a smart phone or texting capabilities and actually know that the technology is in place. It is a distance-based system, and for a bus to travel 1.3 miles depends upon the route, the time of day and the traffic in front of it. New Yorkers like to know time in minutes, not miles. (For a succinct summary of the MTA’s failed countdown clock efforts, check out this Daily News overview.)
Now, though, some politicians and advocates aren’t happy. Noting how countdown clocks make subway waits more tolerable and empower riders, they want countdown clocks, and they wait them now. Earlier this week, Council Member Brad Lander announced a new initiative aimed at convincing the MTA to install countdown clocks on bus shelters. Lander is leading the way with a piece of legislation that “calls upon the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Department of Transportation, and Cemusa to work together to install bus arrival time displays in bus shelters using data from the MTA’s Bus Time technology.”
Streetsblog had more from the press conference:
With countdown clocks already available in many subway stations, Lander and advocates say bus riders deserve the same convenience, and that not everyone has access to a cell phone or the Internet before catching a bus…Lander’s office estimates that the counters cost between $4,000 and $6,000 to purchase and between $1,000 and $1,600 to maintain each year, based on figures from other cities with bus countdown clocks, including Washington, DC, Boston, Albany and Syracuse.
The MTA has argued that countdown clocks at bus stops provide marginal benefit to riders at relatively high costs, and is focused on rolling out its BusTime program citywide by the end of next year. By that time, Lander would like a plan for bringing countdown clocks to the city’s 3,300 bus shelters. The route to achieving that goal is murky; Lander introduced the resolution to start the discussion.
Lander said that, ideally, revenue from advertising on countdown screens would fund the installation and maintenance of the clocks. If advertising could not cover all costs, he suggested they could be borne in part by Business Improvement Districts, council member discretionary funds or other local partners interested in bringing clocks to their areas. Lander added that bus countdown clocks were a popular idea during the last round of participatory budgeting in his district.
I have a simple challenge for Brad Lander: He feels it will cost up to $20 million to install countdown clocks that can use the BusTime API to pull data (although reliably converting distance to time is another issue). He believes it will cost around $5.28 million for maintenance each year. Instead of passing a symbolic resolution urging a solution, simply find a way to pay for the clocks. The $20 million outlay is hardly a huge expense, but it’s one the MTA doesn’t want to and cannot fund right now. Lander could.
It’s easy to talk about countdown clocks, but there’s been a concerted and logical effort to adopt a tracking system for a reasonable amount of money that doesn’t use clocks. Ideally, timers would be prevalent, but they are less reliable than GPS-based distance measurements. Now, though, a group of politicians want transit improvements at a concrete cost. Deliver the funding, and the clocks could become a reality.
Over the years, the MTA has struggled to keep its subway system water-free. When the Sandy storm surge inundated the system’s East River tunnels, the problem was laid bare for all to see. As most experts agree that the next storm is simply a matter of when and not if, the MTA will have to do something to address its vulnerable infrastructure, and that something might just be a giant plug.
The immediate history of the MTA’s water problems started a few years ago when a torrential summer storm led to massive flooding. This wasn’t the first time vulnerable areas suffered water damage, and the MTA decided to do something about it. Street-level grates were raised a few inches, and staircases were elevated as well. For normal storms, these measures alleviated the water problems, but for hurricane storm surges, the MTA’s temporary and permanent preventative initiatives were quickly overwhelmed.
We lose sight of what happened to the subways because the MTA was able to respond quickly to the problem. Some service was up and running within days, and nearly everything is back to normal. But the system suffered extensive exposure to salt water, and even outside of the fiscal costs of the clean-up, key equipment — signals, switches, track beds, wiring — will now have a short shelf lives. Protection remains key.
To that end, scientists with the Department of Homeland Security are working on developing a tunnel plug, and The Times went in depth into the project today. The key parts:
The idea is a simple one: rather than retrofitting tunnels with metal floodgates or other expensive structures, the project aims to use a relatively cheap inflatable plug to hold back floodwaters. In theory, it would be like blowing up a balloon inside a tube. But in practice, developing a plug that is strong, durable, quick to install and foolproof to deploy is a difficult engineering task, one made even more challenging because of the pliable, relatively lightweight materials required…
A subway tunnel is hardly a pristine environment; it is full of grease and grime — and, often, rats. “That’s something we’ve talked about,” Dr. Fortune said. “We’ve actually put Vectran samples in tunnels, to see if rats ate it. They didn’t.”
There are also obstructions like tracks, as well an electrified third rail, pipes and safety walkways, all of which could cause gaps between the plug and the tunnel walls. Most of the obstructions can be dealt with by modifying a short section of the tunnel to accommodate the plug, which is 32 feet long when inflated. Sharp corners can be curved, flush tracks of the type used at grade crossings can be installed, the third rail can be discontinued for a stretch, and pipes can be made to swing against the ceiling.
Those modifications will reduce potential gaps but not eliminate them. In the most recent test, when Dr. Barbero and a colleague, Eduardo M. Sosa, inspected the front of the plug, they discovered a two-inch gap in one corner. The procedure called for filling the plug with water to pressurize it further, and then introducing water behind it to simulate a flood. But a plumbing failure, unrelated to the plug, ended the test prematurely. It was repeated successfully several days later, Dr. Fortune said, and the plug held back all but a small amount of water.
Henry Fountain’s article explores the construction of the plug. It consists of three layers of durable yet flexible materials. It also explores placement: The plug is designed to fold into the sides of the tunnel and can be deployed remotely. The key questions though concern cost and effectiveness. One plug costs around $400,000, and the MTA, for instance, would need a considerable number of these plugs to adequately protect the porous tunnels.
Effectiveness though remains the biggest concern. The MTA’s tunnels are vulnerable at key access points, but plugging tunnels would simply displace water flow to other vulnerable areas. What success is accomplished if floodwaters destroy a train station but spare the tunnels? The MTA also, as The Times notes, must deal with water that enters through ventilation grates and various other entry points. The plugs can only do so much.
Short of sealing up the system, though, these plugs may be one of the more promising areas of progress. The clock is ticking, and the MTA doesn’t have time on its side. Can something like this be in place before the next flood arrives? If the money is there, a solution will be too.