For the last few months, the MTA and Chris Schoenfeld, a Second Ave. Sagas advertiser and the programmer behind the Station Stops blog and Metro-North scheduling iPhone application, have been engaged in a legal battle over data. The MTA has at times erroneously claimed copyright in its scheduling data and has generally made life tough for Schoenfeld. While you can read all about this conflict in my extensive post on the MTA’s struggles in an age of open information, the transit agency is not certain how it wants to proceed in a digital era.

The MTA is, of course, not alone in this sense. Public authority and governmental agencies are among the last to adopt technological innovation. While data in our wired world of 2009 wants to be freely available for people with the time and knowledge to create useful applications with it, government entities are hesitant to cede control of its information to those without ready access to it. Although programmers attach their names to these applications and draw revenue, when scheduling data is incorrect, the MTA would bear the brunt of the criticism. Or so the argument goes.

After this legal fight, though, the MTA claims it is turning a corner with its information. The agency has dropped its claims against Schoenfeld and a similar Long Island Rail Road application, and although Station Stops is still not available on the iPhone App Store, the MTA is changing its approach to data and developers, according to an article in today’s Times. Michael Grynbaum reports on this sea change at MTA headquarters:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that it needed to ensure that information provided to the public was accurate, and that it was concerned about protecting its copyrighted logos, maps and other trademarks. A spokesman said that a licensing program offered an additional layer of scrutiny and protected the public’s interest in information that is produced with taxpayer dollars.

Christopher P. Boylan, the director of corporate and community affairs for the authority, said the agency was moving toward a more open stance with its data. Right now, for instance, many agencies offer their raw data on a shared Web site; New York’s agency makes it available only on a compact disc. Mr. Boylan said that and other policies may change soon.

“All of a sudden the word ‘apps’ has become part of the lingo,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation six months ago, exactly like this.”

Authority officials readily admit that their Web operations could use sprucing up. “We don’t have a staff that sits around thinking about apps,” Mr. Boylan said.

Based on the way the MTA’s website looks and navigates, I don’t think they have a staff sitting around thinking about something as basic as a transit web portal, let alone mobile phone applications. The MTA should not be afraid admit this institutional shortcoming and by opening up its data, outsource a potential solution to its digital problem.

It’s hard to tell based on Grynbaum’s article just what approach the MTA will be trying. The agency will still fiercely protect its trademarks and will ask for royalty fees for the use of copyrighted symbols — subway bullets and maps. As I explored a few weeks ago, the agency has no legal grounds for a copyright claim to its schedule data though.

Politicians throughout the country have pressured government agencies to open its scheduling data to a hungry public, and the MTA is no exception. Schoenfeld called upon some politicians to side with him in his David-vs.-Goliath fight, and the MTA may be ready to respond. For now, this is a provisional victory for transit advocates and riders. I won’t celebrate until we actually see the data out there for the world’s enjoyment. Progress, it seems, will be incremental.

Categories : MTA Technology
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When they MTA Board approved the 2010-2014 capital plan last week, they killed the MetroCard. With little fan fare or much attention beyond a short article in the Daily News, the MTA Board has sentenced the MetroCard to death. If all goes according to plan, Jay Walder will oversee the debut of a contact-less fare system sans the MetroCard by 2014.

The story of the MetroCard begins in June 1993 when the MTA handed out 3000 sample MetroCards for use in the system. At the time, the agency had plans to introduce the technology in 1994 and roll it out system-wide by 1997. Transit officials had hoped to integrate the card to enable users to pay for “telephone calls, snacks or other purchases at subway kiosks” with their MetroCards. That plan has clearly not come to fruition.

BlueMetroCard By 1997, when the MetroCards turned from blue to gold, the technology was already obsolete. That year, Hong Kong launched the Octopus Card and became the first municipality to use a contactless smart card for its public transit fare payment system. While the MTA’s MetroCard has become ubiquitous in New York, cities around the globe from London to Washington, DC, have all embraced a smart card-type payment program.

Now, though, the smart card movement is on the way out, and as the MetroCard nears its two-decade mark — antiquity in technological years — the MTA will spend nearly a total of $220 million over the next five years to assess potential replacements. The end product will, according to MTA documents, allow for unified fare payments across New York City Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North. “This system will speed payment, improve access to the system and provide opportunities for more seamless fare policy throughout the MTA region,” an MTA memo on the capital plan said.

Right now, the agency does not know exactly what its next fare payment plan will resemble. For the last few years, Transit had been testing a MasterCard-based trial along Lexington Ave. called “Tap & Go.” Riders with credit cards equipped with an RFID chip could just tap into the system and speed through the turnstile. That system will soon be expanded to buses and could provide a model for the future.

While I have long assumed that smart cards similar to the WMATA’s SmartCard or London’s Oyster Card would be our future, the MTA documents and a few recent studies now have me convinced otherwise. Late last week, Michael Frumin passed along a 2008 article portending the end of the Oyster Card by 2010. The MTA itself says it will explore “standard bank and credit cards, pre-paid transit payment cards, key-tags and smart phones” as next-generation payment modes. If the MTA develops and integrates this technology properly, it will not resemble either the MetroCard or familiar smart card currently in use across the globe.

In the end, the smart chip technology and next-gen fare modalities will allow the MTA more flexibility and will improve access to the system. Bus boarding speeds will stand to benefit greatly from a touch-and-go system while a credit- or debit-card based system would reduce the need for in-system cash handling. The new system will be designed to allow for what the MTA terms “inter-model fare payment options,” and the agency hopes to offer simplified and expanded fare payment options.

The MTA is not known for its technological innovation. It lags behind in website development and cannot get a train-arrival board program off the ground. But by devoting serious attention to its fare payment system and bringing a technologically-minded expert to head up the system, the agency could be turning a corner. If the MetroCard is the price we pay for it, I will mourn but not miss that gold and blue piece of plastic.

Categories : MetroCard
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I’ve been running Second Ave. Sagas for nearly three years now, and I’ve built up a steady and devoted readership. At first, I was lucky to get my family and friends reading, but now people interested in transit issues check out this site just about everyday. It takes a lot of hard work and determination (and maybe some stubbornness) to build a site, and those of us who do rarely thank the readers who make it possible.

So this weekend, I want to thank everyone who reads everyday for stopping by. I want to thank those who contribute for commenting and those who e-mail me for getting in touch. I should also thank the three sites that have sent me the most traffic recently: Lockhart Steele and Joey Arak over at Curbed, the entire Times Metro desk at City Room and everyone at Streetsblog. To them, I tip my cap.

* * *

Below are the weekend service advisories. These come to me via the MTA and are subject to change without notice. Remember to check for signs at your local station and listen to on-board announcements for up-to-the-minute changes.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, September 25 to 9 a.m. Saturday, September 26, and from 11:30 p.m. Saturday, September 26 to 10 a.m. Sunday, September 27, there are no 1 trains between 14th Street and South Ferry. The 2 and 3 trains provide alternate service between 14th Street and Chambers Street. Free shuttle buses replace 1 trains between Chambers Street and South Ferry. These changes are due to track maintenance.

From 12:01 a.m. to 9 a.m. Saturday, September 26 and from 12:01 a.m. to 10 a.m. Sunday, September 27, 1 trains skip 28th, 23rd, and 18th Streets in both directions due to track maintenance. 2 and 3 trains provide alternate service.

From 12:01 a.m. to 9 a.m. Saturday, September 26 and from 12:01 a.m. to 10 a.m. Sunday, September 27, 2 and 3 trains run local between 96th Street and Chambers Street due to track maintenance.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 26 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, 4 trains run local between 125th Street and Brooklyn Bridge due to communications cable work.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 26 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, there are no 4 trains between Bowling Green and Utica Avenue due to communications cable work. The 3 and N provide alternate service. Note: 3 trains are extended to New Lots Avenue all weekend.

From 6:30 a.m. to midnight Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September, 27, there are no 5 trains between Grand Central-42nd Street and Bowling Green due to communications cable work. Customers should take the 4 instead.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 26 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, Manhattan-bound 6 trains run express from Hunts Point Avenue to 3rd Avenue-138th Street due to a concrete pour at East 143rd Street-St. Mary’s Street.

At all times until December 21, 2009, Manhattan-bound A trains skip Beach 90th and Beach 105th due to station rehabilitation.

At all times until January 18, 2010, Far Rockaway-bound A trains skip Beach 67th, Beach 44th, and Beach 25th Streets due to station rehabilitations.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 26 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, A trains run local between Jay Street and Euclid Avenue due to the Chambers Street Signal Modernization Project.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 26 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, Manhattan-bound A trains run on the F from Jay Street to West 4th Street, then run local to 59th Street due to the Chambers Street Signal Modernization Project.

From 6:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27, there are no C trains between Chambers Street-World Trace Center and Euclid Avenue due to the Chambers Street Signal Modernization Project. Customers should take the A instead. Note: C trains run on the E track at Chambers Street-World Trade Center.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 26 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, D trains run local between 34th Street and West 4th Street due to a track chip-out in the 53rd Street tunnel.

From 12:01 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27 and from 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, Coney Island-bound D trains run express from Pacific Street to 36th Street due to platform edge repair.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 26 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, E trains are rerouted on the F line in Manhattan and Queens due to a track chip-out in the 53rd Street tunnel:

  • There are no E trains between 34th Street and World Trade Center. Customers should take the A instead.
  • Manhattan-bound E trains run on the F line from Roosevelt Avenue to 34th Street/Herald Square.
  • Queens-bound E trains run on the F from 34th Street-Herald Square to 47th – 50th Sts.; trains resume normal E service from 5th Avenue to Jamaica Center.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, September 26 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, Manhattan-bound E platforms at Queens Plaza, 23rd Street/Ely Avenue, Lexington Avenue-53rd Street and 5th Avenue stations are closed due to a track chip-out in the 53rd Street tunnel. Customers may take the R, G or 6 instead. Note: Free shuttle buses connect the Court Square G/23rd Street-Ely Avenue, Queens Plaza, and 21st Street-Queensbridge F stations.

From 8:30 p.m. to midnight Friday, September 25, and from 6:30 a.m. to midnight Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27, there are no G trains between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Court Square due to the track chip-out in the 53rd Street tunnel. Brooklyn-bound customers may take the R to Queens Plaza, transfer to a shuttle bus connecting to Court Square. Queens-bound customers may take the E instead.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday, September 26, downtown N trains skip 49th Street due to track cleaning.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday, September 27, downtown N trains skip 28th, 23rd, 8th and Prince Streets due to track cleaning.

From 12:01 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27 and from 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, Coney Island-bound N trains run express from Pacific Street to 59th Street due to platform edge repair.

From 9:30 a.m. Friday, September 25 to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, there are no Q trains between Prospect Park and Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue due to Brighton Stations Rehabilitation. Free shuttle buses and the D, F and N trains provide alternate service.

From 6:30 a.m. to midnight Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27, 95th Street-bound R trains run express in Brooklyn from Pacific Street to 59th Street due to platform edge repair.

From 12:01 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27, and from 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Monday, September 28, Manhattan-bound R trains run local in Brooklyn from 59th Street to 36th Street due to platform edge repair.

Categories : Service Advisories
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  • Technology to improve a commute · Ten days ago, I linked to a WNYC series about improving our commutes and asked SAS readers to opine about their daily trips to and from home. Yesterday, WNYC dropped another podcast about improving our commutes. This one was on technology and its impact on the commute. The comments on WNYC’s website are telling. Most commuters are relying on iPhone applications, Google Maps, HopStop for the directions and the Kindle and iPods for distractions. Think bigger, I say.

    The best way for the MTA to improve my commute would be to offer real-time transit information on its website and for every station to be equipped with train arrival boards. I live five minutes from my subway stop. If I could check the status of my train and then arrive at the station just in time, I could streamline my commute. If I knew how long I would have to wait for a train, I could better temper my expectations and scheduling. While both of these proposals would require true technological investments, a system truly prepared and designed for the 21st Century should feature this information technology. · (4)

Earlier this week, New York City Comptroller and Democratic mayoral hopeful William Thompson released a spate of audits critical of the MTA. I examined his report on station maintenance yesterday, and today, we’ll delve into Thompson’s views on New York City Transit’s performance metrics and the way the agency doesn’t really make this data available to the public. Obviously, Thompson isn’t happy with this state of the MTA’s data.

Before we delve into the report itself, I wanted to take a minute to ponder the politics behind it. Thompson has overseen the release of a few critical audits of the MTA this week, just a few days after he secured the Democratic nomination for mayor. He is going up against a powerful incumbent who has made populist unrest over the MTA into a cornerstone of his campaign, and while Thompson’s audits started in 2008, he is seemingly trying to play catch-up through the Comptroller’s office.

Anyway, politics aside, Thompson does not believe that Transit is communicating its internal metrics properly to its riders. “If the MTA wants to win rider trust after the recent fare hike and other missteps, it must make sure that it is upfront with riders about how it is doing,” said Thompson. “One key step is measuring service accurately in a way that’s easy to understand.”

The report — available here as a PDF — urges the MTA to be more forthcoming with its internal assessments. Thompson claims that the agency’s current indicators “distort reality,” and he wants Transit to better inform the public. Riders, he says, currently “cannot track how crowded their subway or bus is compared to other lines, the severity of service gaps how clean or well lighted their subway station, among other measures.”

To this end, Thompson proposes that the MTA streamline its data presentations and offer riders more information about subway crime and safety. He bullet-points his suggestions:

  • Revise on-time performance data to reflect real-life experience during rush hours, off-peak periods and night-time and weekends and add measurements on service levels and crowding;
  • Release more subway and bus information by line, so that riders can see how their line stacks up against other lines. Thompson praised NYC Transit for releasing subway-car breakdown information by line for the first time ever in July.
  • Release station-by-station information and revising station ratings so that they include measurements of deteriorating structural conditions, water conditions and other problems;
  • Ask for more complete crime information from the New York Police Department. Currently, NYC Transit releases data only about major felonies, missing many of the more commonplace crimes that occur on subway trains and in stations. For instance, NYC Transit’s crime statistics do not record petit larceny or fare-beating.

According to Thompson, his motive for releasing this report were purely altruistic. “Because of the overall lack of useful data, riders, advocates and elected officials must rely on anecdotal reports or outside analyses by groups such as NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign,” he said. “The lack of meaningful data makes it hard to define what must be improved and prevents NYC Transit from taking credit for service improvements.

“An unreliable and unappealing mass transit system drives away both riders and employers,” he continued. “My intent – and I am sure yours as well – is to help position our transit system so that it receives its fair share of public financial support.”

Take that for what you will. As Comptroller, Thompson has urged the city to provide more money for the MTA, and he has urged the MTA to provide more accountability to the public. Nothing has come of it. This report may very well fall on deaf ears, but it shouldn’t. While I doubt riders are, as Thompson claims, avoiding the MTA due to its lack of on-time performance metrics, we would all benefit from more information about our train lines.

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  • Making the case for open transit data · Ten days ago, I delved in depth on the legal battle between the MTA and various software developers. The agency had taken issue with iPhone and other online apps that present MTA scheduling data, and its lawyers were overstating its copyright claims in an effort to shut down perfectly legal applications. While Chris Schoenfeld, the creator of the Station Stops iPhone application (and an advertiser on Second Ave. Sagas), reported that the MTA has dropped its legal challenged to his Metro-North scheduling app, the battle is far from over.

    Still, the MTA does not have real-time scheduling information available anywhere. Still, the MTA is far more unwilling to release its scheduling data in a format suitable for developing. Open source is not the MTA’s forte. At Streetsblog yesterday, Ben Fried made the case for open source scheduling information as a way to drive more people toward mass transit. The argument is simple: If the MTA makes it easier for people to know when the buses and subways are coming, if the agency can make their data available to those who have the time, money and expertise to write information-delivery applications, mass transit becomes easier to use. With transparency the latest MTA buzzword, Jay Walder, as Fried concludes, should and could lead an MTA data revolution. · (8)

Just over one month ago, the ceiling at 181st St. on the West Side IRT came crashing down and with it arose cries of a subpar station maintenance program. This week, New York City’s Comptroller William Thompson issued a damning report highly critical of the way New York City Transit goes about maintaining a database of stations in need of repairs and fixing those repairs.

“We recently averted tragedy when a subway ceiling collapsed onto tracks in Upper Manhattan. That should have signaled not just the need – but the urgency – to repair hazardous conditions,” Thompson said in a statement. “Instead, it’s as if New York City Transit is looking the other way. New Yorkers deserve better.”

The audit — available here as a PDF — paints a rather bleak picture of the current state of repair underground. Thompson and his office began investigating the MTA last year and have come to a rather stark conclusion. “New York City Transit is failing to repair reported defective and dangerous conditions – holes in station ceilings and platforms, corroded metal, loose or warped rubbing boards and broken steps – in commuter areas at subway stations across the city,” the Comptroller’s press release read.

The report features numerous stories such as the one about these stairs:

The Comptroller’s Office encountered this decrepit entrance at 33rd St. on the East Side IRT on November 25. On December 22, someone placed a service call, but on February 9, the steps still appeared in this state of disrepair. At other stations, damaged platform ceiling go unreported, and loose electrical wirings at 116th St. on the A went unrepaired for at least three months.

Beyond these reported and ignored problems, Thompson’s office found that the MTA has been closing out open tickets without making actual repairs. A handrail at 71st St. on the D/M in Brooklyn was reported broken on June 2, 2008, and while the trouble-call was filed as complete, six months later, the handrail was still loose. Stories such as these are pervasive at stations throughout the system.

In fact, auditors found problems with 399 of 426 sample trouble-calls, and the remaining 26 were at locations that were unidentifiable. According to to Thompson, 15 percent of calls were not repaired despite being filed 60 days prior to inspection. Two-thirds of these calls were closed out without any actual repair work being done.

The Comptroller’s Office also urged the MTA to institute a series of inspection measures:

  • Ensure that station inspections are appropriately performed by station supervisors and that all observed defects are reported to maintenance shops;
  • Establish a minimum requirement for frequency of station inspections and include this requirement in the Station Supervisor Training Program Manual and other operating procedures;
  • Ensure that required inspection and frequency reports are used to evidence inspections and establish record maintenance requirements for such reports;
  • Establish minimum requirements for supervisors to randomly review the work performed by maintenance personnel and to report on these observations. These reviews should be used as part of employee evaluations; and,
  • Consult the Information Technology-Information Systems (IT-IS) department within the agency to discuss the weaknesses and needs of the MSU in tracking trouble-calls.

In response, Transit noted that it is in the process of instituting many of these suggestions. “Several of the recommendations made in the Comptroller’s Office audit report on MTA New York City Transit’s efforts to maintain and repair subway stations are being followed, while some, including those requiring the use of web-based technology, are under review for future incorporation,” the agency said in a statement.

“Improvements,” the statement continued, “are currently underway in the areas of the procedures governing station inspections and the frequency of these inspections, while supervisors receive additional training in the identification of station defects. This includes the continuation of a two-day training refresher that helps maintain the supervisor’s proficiency in this area.”

While the Line Manager program will streamline the repair process and subsequent oversight, the MTA is going to start compartmentalizing station rehabilitation plans in order to address problem spots at stations not up for a complete overhaul. Still, as the MTA struggles to reach its state of good repair and as last month’s station collapse is still fresh in our minds, Thompson’s report comes as a rather sober reminder that our system is fragile. We need better investment in transit, and we need it now.

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  • TWU members protest MTA appeal · While the MTA is awaiting its day in court as it tries to appeal a binding arbitration ruling in favor of the TWU members, the union’s rank-and-file have taken to the streets in protest. According to Pete Donohue, more than 350 union members picketed outside of MTA headquarters this morning in advance of the monthly board meeting. According to union sources, their main targets were Mayor Bloomberg’s four board appointees. TWU officials believe the Mayor has urged the MTA to appeal the decision to secure an 11 percent raise for union workers over the next three years. “He’s the mayor of the city. He always has a say,” Curtis Tate, Local 100’s acting president, said. While workers will not shut down the system any time soon, labor relations between the MTA and its union are icy at best right now. · (1)

While the MTA and Upper East Side residents are at odds over Second. Ave relocation measures, the authority has a cash reserve in place to mitigate moving expenses. According to a report in the Daily News, the MTA has set aside $10 million to compensate residents for the inconvenience and headaches of a move.

Pete Donohue has more:

The MTA has set aside $10 million to move and compensate residents forced out of 60 apartments being cleared to make way for Second Ave. subway construction. The six-figure package averages out to about $160,000 for each upper East Side apartment in four buildings subject to eminent domain proceedings. Payments are likely to vary widely, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority description.

In one possible scenario, a tenant in a market-rate apartment would get $21,000 to cover higher rents over a 42-month period. In another, a tenant in a rent-regulated apartment would get $153,000 based on a more complicated formula including age, income and higher rent over a 36-year period.

“On paper, I think it’s fair,” area Councilwoman Jessica Lappin said of the plan, noting some who don’t mind moving out of the area stand to receive “a nice payout.”

Because the figure was set before the housing bubble burst, the MTA does not expect to need the full $10 million. The money, however, should meet the federal standards for “comparable housing” and “additional assistance.”

While this fund shows that the MTA is concerned with the residents in the area and are trying to meet the eminent domain requirements, it comes as a stark contrast to the ways in which Second Ave. businesses have been marginalized. When I last wrote about the economic impact of the Second Ave. construction, a reader challenged me on my defense of residents and my disregard for businesses. After all, businesses have a right to their just compensation too, and while eminent domain is a federal requirement, the businesses are economically vital for the area.

So should the MTA or city be compensating impacted businesses as they are residents? They aren’t federally required to, but the current vitality of the Upper East Side may depend on it as construction stretches through the next decade. In light of the MTA’s economic position, a cash outlay seems unlikely, and maybe business pains are the cost of constructing a new subway line. But while we will all benefit from a new subway line, we should remember how residents and business owners struggle to cope with it.

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