• 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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Three days ago, the MTA started to eliminate station agents at numerous entrances throughout the system. In the buildup to this cost-saving measure, the agency has faced criticism on numerous fronts from those who feel that eliminating the agents will decrease safety underground. While I believe the agents create the illusion of safety and don’t actually make the stations safer, it is hard to dispute the deterrent power of an official-looking station worker.

As the agents head out, the MTA suffered something of a public relations setback. No one really explained how the MTA was going to maintain safety in the subway. Today, the Daily News has word of a plan unveiled tomorrow that should quell some fears. As the MTA rehabilitates stations, it will include platform intercoms every 200 feet. These intercoms will will allow customers to report problems nearly at the source.

This is a great safety measure and one that should have been announced as the agents were being eliminated. Why we are hearing about this only know, I do not know. Pete Donohue has more:

Intercoms linking platforms and token booths are now few and far between – but NYC Transit is including them in all future station rehabilitation projects, a spokesman said. Among the first to see the communications upgrade will be riders at five Brighton line stations in Brooklyn.

Workers will install 61 of the devices, one every 200 feet, the spokesman said. The series of station overhauls began in October and will be completed in December 2011.

“The bottom line is it will be a lot easier for riders in an emergency to reach help, and that’s a good thing,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said. “It doesn’t completely make up for the smaller human presence in stations, but it helps.”

I don’t think Russianoff gets it right. The intercoms won’t act as deterrents as people would, but the technological should make riders safety. The intercoms could connect directly to outside help, and while the initial plans are to connect them to the token booth or the NYC Transit control center, if customers can summon emergency response teams from the platform without having to track down a station agent, straphangers would be far better off than they are now.

The MTA deserves applause for this initiative, and they should earn praise from the board tomorrow when the full plan is unveiled. The rollout may be slow and steady, but the intercoms represent a true measure of subway security.

Categories : Subway Security
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  • Contactless payment system to expand to buses · While Jay Walder, the incoming MTA head, wants to replace the MetroCard with a contactless fare card similar to London’s Oyster Card or DC’s SmartCard, New York City Transit is forging ahead with its current credit card-based smartcard system. In 2006, MasterCard and the MTA teamed up to bring a “Tap & Go” fare payment system to certain stops along the Lexington Ave. line, and now the agency plans to expand the program to eight popular city bus lines. Buses along the M14, M23, M79, M86, M101, M102, M103 and BxM7 routes will be equipped with SmartCard technology that can handle any major credit card equipped with a swipe-less RFID chip. The death knell for the MetroCard rings louder. · (8)
  • State Senate Secretary caught in new MTA transparency measures · Talk about ironic. The Daily News on Friday broke a story of corruption in the State Senate. (Shocking, I know.) Senate Secretary Angelo Aponte tried to convince the MTA to allow Martin Scorcese and the HBO to film in the subway after receiving a $25,000 donation for Senate Democrats from Time Warner, HBO’s parent company. And how did Pete Donohue get wind of this story? As Mobilizing the Region highlighted yesterday, the phone call between Aponte and New York City Transit was mentioned in part of the report from the MTA’s new Office of Legislative and Community Input, a body established at the command of the State Senate to increase accountability and transparency on behalf of the trainst agency. As Steven Higashide wrote at MTR, “transparency goes both ways.” Indeed. · (3)
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