Forget CBTC subway cars with air brakes and automated announcements. Forget countdown clocks and contactless fare payment cards. This news tonight — news that the MTA will unveil a redesigned and updated website on Wednesday — is, ladies and gentlemen, the surest sign that the agency is starting to get serious about technology.
Since 2003, the MTA’s website has received nary an update. Web 2.0 with all of its interactivity and customer interaction took over the Internet, and the MTA’s site remained materially similar to its late-1990s iterations. Since I’ve started blogging in November 2006, we’ve seen the MTA’s site suffer through some growing pains. A July 2007 power outage that curtailed service along the East Side IRT and sent users to the agency’s site led to an outage, and the August 2007 flood and subsequent traffic spike knocked out the agency’s site as well.
Meanwhile, the agency’s regional and national competitors have recently unveiled new site designs. In Washington, the WMATA’s site redesign earned rave reviews, and recent NJ Transit and Port Authority site overhauls have also been well received. Still, the MTA’s site, a mish-mash of boxes and links and agencies, lumbered ever forward.
When new MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder assumed the reins in October, he knew he wanted to overhaul the agency’s site, and this week, in conjunction with his first 100 days in office, Walder will flip the switch on a new site. “We’re not cutting-edge; let’s not kid ourselves. But we’re getting closer,” Walder said to The Times today. “The idea here was not to break new ground; the point was to provide good service to our customers. Customers want to be able to find out how to get from point A to point B; they want to see right away whether or not the train or the buses they’re looking to get on are on schedule.”
The MTA’s site is popular, second only to Amtrak among the nation’s transit providers. At its peak, the agency sees 1.8 million unique users per month and over 25 million page views. Now, it will be better, and Michael Grynbaum offers a first look:
Real-time information on delays and service interruptions — difficult if not impossible to find on the current site — is the first thing that catches a viewer’s eye. A widget on the home page compiles continually updated service status for every subway, bus and commuter rail line in the region, along with nine of the bridges and tunnels operated by the authority.
The information is color coded (red for delays, green for good service) and divided into categories (subway, rail, bus) by tabs, similar to a Web browser that allows users to toggle through multiple pages. At a glance, readers get a sense of whether the F train back to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, for instance, will be smooth sailing or an underground maelstrom.
Also prominent on the new home page is a feature called “Plan & Ride,” which lets users find door-to-door directions across several modes of transportation. The feature is similar to HopStop.com and the authority’s own TripPlanner application, although entering a search sends users directly to a Google Maps page…
The authority already licenses its scheduling data to Google, and Mr. Walder said that it made more financial sense to take advantage of an already popular outside service rather than to continue investing in a proprietary application.
The new site, says The Times, will also “make it easier for outside software designers to get free access to system timetables and routes.” The MTA has long been criticized for its approach to scheduling data and other route information, and I recently wondered when the authority would catch the open information bug. The answer, it seems, is soon.
When it goes live, the new site will still be a work in progress, and some web designers wish it could be “sexier.” Still, mobile versions for Blackberry and iPhone are in the works, and Transit has embraced Twitter. I’ll have a full review of the new site when it goes live, but I’m very encouraged by this news. A website redesign has been a long time coming for the MTA, and it shows a commitment to communication and customer service that had been, for a few years, lacking. Hopefully, this new site design is a sign of things to come.