Archive for MTA Technology

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.

Categories : MTA Technology
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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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?

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Over the past few years, I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the MTA’s countdown clocks. Despite a seemingly interminable wait for technology that leading international subways have enjoyed for years, Transit finally figured out how to introduce a modern technology into its 100-year-old system, and now we never have to guess when the next 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or L train is coming. But what of the rest?

While the lettered lines are still years away from a countdown clock solution, one sliver of Queens is getting something resembling next train information today. As the Daily News first reported, five stations along the BMT Astoria Line — 39th Ave., 36th Ave., Broadway, 30th Ave. and Astoria Blvd. — will soon enjoy the MTA’s next-train announcements. These are audio messages broadcast into each station that proclaims a train one or two stations away. Decidedly low-tech, they allow passengers some measure of relief, but I’ve never been too convinced of their utility.

The system that will go live today in Astoria is the one in place at a few other stations. The BMT platform formerly known as Pacific St. has these announcements, and the IND level at Columbus Circle enjoys this system too. It’s not the most useful though. As Donohue notes, the audio announcements will not specify whether the next train is an N or Q, and it’s unclear how much advanced warning these systems give. As Queens riders note, it’s better than nothing.

My problem with this system is the lack of information. As opposed to offering something useful, the MTA here is providing a service that doesn’t deliver the key information. What train is arriving is equally as important, if not more so, than when that train is arriving. At Pacific St., the announcements simply talk of an arriving local or an express train one station away. That’s fine if you don’t care what train you’re taking, but except for Herald Square-bound passengers, everyone else wants to know if the next train is a D or an N. Columbus Circle suffers from the same problem. I want to know if a C or B is next because I need one and have no use for the other.

In Astoria, that problem is mitigated a bit. Most riders who board in Astoria don’t care if an N or a Q is next. Few of them are heading to the reaches of Brooklyn far from Queens where the N and Q diverge. It will be a relief for riders whose only way of trying to guess where the next train is involves peering down the elevated tracks. Still, these announcements can end up as noise pollution if they’re warning only of trains one or two (visible) stations away.

Meanwhile, according to the MTA, a countdown clock solution for the IND and BMT subway lines is still three to five years away. That’s a long time to wait, and I’m glad my nearest subway lines have countdown clocks. From the Subway Time API functionality to the in-system clocks, this technology has made waiting more tolerable and trip-planning easier. When these — and not just audio announcements — are available system-wide, the age-old New York complaint involving endlessly waiting for the subway may just go up in smoke. For now, though, the next Manhattan-bound train will be two stations away.

Categories : MTA Technology, Queens
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For those jonesing for transit directions on Apple’s iOS platform and not too keen on Google’s full-featured stand-alone Maps app, Samuel Vermette’s Transit app, now available for free, can help full the void. With the 2.0 release out this week, the app features real-time data, offline access and travel packs for those who venture outside the cozy confines of New York. It also comes with a context-aware feature that remembers recent travel routes.

Vermette approached me a few weeks ago after I ran my thoughts on the ideal transit app, and his latest release covers my initial request for real-time tracking better than any I’ve seen. It pulls countdown clock data from the MTA’s subway API and bus tracking from the BusTime API. He informs me that they plan to add above-ground entrance location data and real-time service changes in future releases.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the beta version of the app, and the 2.0.1 release is now far more stable. What I like about this app is that it works. It’s intuitive to use, very graphical and definitely worth a spin. An Android version is in the works as well.

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With underground wifi, demand will increase for more transit apps. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

A thought experiment, if you will, based on the following question: What elements would the ideal transit map contain?

Over the past few years, the MTA has embraced, with varying degrees of success, a mantra of open data. It began with Jay Walder and has continued since his tenure as the MTA has released a whole bunch of information to the public. Some of it, such as turnstile data, helps us visualize ridership patterns while others — BusTime and SubwayTime APIs — help riders track buses and trains in real time. Even as a report from the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA rightly criticized the agency for shuffling its feet on issues such as searchable board PDFs and the like, the MTA has improved in leaps and bounds since early 2009 on open data.

Still, transit apps are rather limited right now, and the MTA, not the best at designing things, has tried to encourage private developers to pick up the slack. This past weekend, the agency along with AT&T hosted a hack-a-thon. It’s part of a long-term effort to reward app makers using MTA data, and as this weekend’s winners walked away with a concept and few thousand bucks, the summer’s winners could earn as much as $40,000 when the dust settles. That’s not chump change for a transit app.

As a sponsor for Capital New York, AT&T filed a puff piece from the hackathon if you want a sanitized version of the experience. Meanwhile, a few developers took home smaller prizes this weekend. Earning $5000 were the creators of Subculture.FM, a web-based app that allows straphangers to identify their favorite subway musicians, find them in the system and buy songs via a QR code. A real-time tracking app called MTA Sheriff took home $3000. It allows riders to submit reports on subway conditions. The third place winners were Accessway, an app that assists visually- or mobility-impaired riders in navigating the subway.

Of that group, the third place winner likely has the most utility. It serves a legitimate, non-frivolous purpose and is seemingly missing from the marketplace right now. Disabled passengers have a tough time getting around the system as it is, and the MTA doesn’t go out of its way to aggregate its accessibility information in an easy-to-find and easy-to-digest format. Still, it’s potential reach is limited by the number of users who need the information.

To me, it seems as though app developers are spinning their wheels a bit. An app about Arts for Transit performers, while kitschy, is hardly going to improve or impact my commute, and that’s what I want from a transit-based app. I need something with information that helps me make decisions and streamlines my ride.

That said, I see the best transit app as offering up the following:

  1. Real-time train tracking. Admittedly, this is limited by the fact that the B division has no countdown clocks. Add the BusTime API, and this theoretical app is even better.
  2. Above-ground entrance locations. I can never remember where the nearest Wall St. and Fulton St. entrances are. Show me staircase location as the MTA’s neighborhood maps do, and add Exit Strategy’s staircase location as well.
  3. Point-to-point directions that incorporate up-to-date service changes.

As far as I’m concerned, anything more is just window dressing. But that’s just my personal preference, and it’s a bit utilitarian. So what do you think? What goes into your ideal transit app? Maybe I’m missing something, but maybe, in an age of ever more complicated devices and apps, we’re just overthinking it.

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Coming Soon: MTA App Quest 2013

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It is to the MTA’s credit that the agency has been very generous with their data while not releasing too many of their own apps. As the clunky Subway Time interface without momentum scrolling shows, in-house app design is hardly an agency specialty. But with the data and BusTime and Subway Time APIs out there for public consumption, plenty of other developers can pick up the slack, and for the second year in a row, the MTA is attaching a monetary reward to those who design the best apps.

The MTA’s second App Quest competition will kick off May 4 with a weekend-long hackathon. Sponsored by AT&T, the contest features two prizes: a $10,000 award for the best app to emerge from the weekend session and a $40,000 reward for the winner of the long-term challenge. As a prompt, the MTA is seeking apps with some of the following criteria:

  • Provide transit visualizations of timetables, service alerts, real-time feeds, and information about capital projects, operations and other vital MTA programs
  • Augment in-station way-finding, particularly for people with disabilities
  • Integrate MTA services into other application workflows (calendars, e-mail programs, etc.)
  • Illuminate, score and personalize the carbon-footprint reductions gained by using buses, subways, regional rail and combinations of those modes
  • Leverage the increasing availability of cellular phone service on the MTA network to create data-driven models of train and bus performance and customer flow
  • Are creative, functional, and engaging

Already, over 250 developers have signed up, and the event’s organizers are happy with the early turn-out. “The response we have seen from New York City’s tech community to create the next generation of transit apps has been overwhelming,” Marissa Shorenstein, the president of AT&T New York, said. “We can’t wait to see how participants envision riders using their mobile devices to improve their daily commute.”

At the least, New Yorkers are likely to gain access to a wide array of useful transit apps. This is how a transit agency in 2013 should use its open data feeds.

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With the MTA’s opening of their countdown clock API stream, Google announced today that it has added real-time subway departure information for seven New York City subway lines to its maps offerings. Those using Google Maps via desktop or mobile can now get live departure information based upon the MTA’s own countdown clocks for the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 42nd St. Shuttle. Eventually, as the MTA figures out how to bring such a system to other train lines, that information will wind up on Google Maps as well. For the Google-phobes among us, there’s always the clunky, yet functional, official Subway Time app.

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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.

Categories : Asides, Buses, MTA Technology
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A 2011 demonstration led by Paul Fleuranges introduced the On The Go kiosks to the subway system. Photo courtesy of New York City Transit.

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.

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