At times, I often think that Felix Unger and Oscar Madison got along better than the MTA and technology do. For various reasons — some more legitimate than others — the MTA has seen nearly every other major international public transportation network pass it by in the way technology is deployed, and the authority has struggled with bringing its own projects on line. Countdown clocks, long a standard feature in other systems, are only now being slowly phased in, and Transit let slip yesterday that the rollout along the A Division stations won’t be completed until May 2011, one month later than recently anticipated.
Yet, despite these technological troubles, we can still dream of a better future. Sitting at our computers without the reality of the complexities of integrating technology into a system that is nearly 110 years at parts, we can explore what others are doing to make our commutes easier.
To that end, enter 4-id creative network, a Barcelona-based transportation design firm. In a blog post earlier this month, the 4-id team unveiled schematics for an LCD screen system that tells passengers how to board trains. This isn’t a simplistic instruction schematic. Rather, the technology scans subway cars to highlight which areas of the train are emptiest and which still have seats.
“With this new information,” the company explains, “people can better choose what carriage to board depending on their needs. A simple but attractive graphic shows users the amount of people that are on each carriage and which of them are accessible for Trolleys, Bicycles and Wheelchairs users. To complement this information a light strip is located along the platform that will also give the occupational density of the carriages in ‘real’ scale.”
Let’s take a look:
The system, 4-id says, uses either imaging sensors placed inside train cars or “artificial vision software applied to existing security cameras” to render graphical representations of the crowds. The screens — a close-up is shown below — can be reconfigured to include a variety of transit system-specific functions including service alerts, advertisements and news.
As I see what transportation firms are doing with forward-looking transit technology, I have to wonder if the MTA’s approach isn’t inclusive enough. While it’s true that the agency is short on money right now, I believe the authority should have been looking beyond preexisting technology as it rolled out its countdown clocks. Those clocks that are currently coming online along the IRT routes are definitely helpful, but the technology isn’t new. London’s Underground and Washington’s Metro, for example, have had the clocks for over a decade.
Instead, Transit could have tried to implement something with a component that added a “wow” factor and moved the technology forward. In installing something old, the technology will be out of date before it’s even activated in many stations. Lately, Transit’s outlook on technology has improved, but it’s not there yet. For now, then, we’ll just be playing catch-up while other systems may look further into the transit-riding future with help from 4-id and others.