Home MTA Technology From a Barcelona firm, the future of subway technology

From a Barcelona firm, the future of subway technology

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Alon Levy May 25, 2010 - 2:12 am

I think countdown clocks are okay for now. I’d rather the MTA waited for new technology to be debugged elsewhere before implementing it; this would give it time to have multiple vendors, vigorous tech support, etc.

Barcelona can innovate successfully because it has world-class cost control. The subway line it’s building right now, line 9, has escalated from 1.9 billion Euros to 6.5, but due to its length its cost is only about $180 million per underground km, somewhat lower than other lines of similar complexity and barely one tenth as high as SAS. New York, which overpays for everything, should wait a while.

JP May 25, 2010 - 6:46 am

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.
only a month late? we should celebrate!

Christopher May 25, 2010 - 8:31 am

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.

But isn’t that exactly what they tried to do with the cameras and that was a complete utter failure. Going with unproven technology and start-up providers that has cost the MTA a fortune and put the project years behind schedule while putting the safety of the system in jeopardy.

And count-down clocks are a lot older than a decade. I can’t speak for DC’s Metro, but BART has had them since launch in the mid-70s. Even SF MUNI for all it’s failures has them.

That being said, the in-train information in the MTA is the best in the U.S., at least on the cars bought within the last decade and a half. (Unfortunately, in-bus displays are not as strong in NYC as they are in DC and SF, both which have retrofitted older fleets with in-bus displays.)

Kenny May 25, 2010 - 7:35 pm

BART doesn’t exactly have countdown clocks. Approximately once every five or ten minutes, and every time a train leaves, the display indicates how many minutes until the next trains on that platform, and where they are headed. But I can tell you, having waited on those platforms many times, those multiple minutes in between when the screens display only a useless ad or a blank space really feel interminable. I don’t understand why the “countdown” isn’t always displayed.

(In Los Angeles the time of arrival for the next few trains is constantly displayed, but this is just schedule information and doesn’t let you know whether the train is running slightly slow or fast.)

Andrew May 25, 2010 - 8:57 am

I think you’re getting the technology confused with the end product. New York isn’t using the same technology as London and Washington, even if the end result looks similar to the customer. The back-end system that feeds the countdown clocks its information – ATS-A – was implemented with countdown clocks as only one of its many goals.

It’s easy to say that stations should have signs showing how crowded each car is – but how is that information gathered, and does the benefit justify the cost? (Aside from customer information, what other benefits are there to this sort of data, and how much are they worth?)

Christopher May 25, 2010 - 9:59 am

These are different systems, but the result is the same: more information increases efficiency and benefits rider experience. I understand the NY masochist pleasure in having a “tough” system and a “tough” city: the idea that conveniences are for wimps. But this is a relatively new idea, NY’s subway was built with refinement as a part of its agenda. Systems around the world put customer experience higher and that benefits not just the riders but the overall brand of the city. We’ve seen a huge improvement in NYC in cleanliness and streetlife — building a tree-shaded and relatively litter free environment, this has dramatical improved quality of life for all NYers. Spending the money to make back to the leadership position of transit service seems like money well spent: quality of life, technology advancement, city branding, and all of benefit.

Andrew May 26, 2010 - 1:25 am

Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. I’m just saying that it’s also bound to be a very costly idea, and I question whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

Alon Levy May 25, 2010 - 5:35 pm

The main benefit to the customer is lower peak-car crowding levels. By extension, this means shorter train dwells, i.e. higher capacity, i.e. lower average crowding levels.

Kid Twist May 25, 2010 - 10:19 am

The BMT company had a culture built around customer satisfaction. It was a real innovator when it came to advances in car technology and passenger comfort. That ethos died when the Board of Transportation took over the private systems in 1940, and none of its successor agencies has shown any consistent ability to innovate successfully. ATO/CBTC work, I guess, but they’re overpriced and way late. Metrocard was obsolete the day it debuted. And then there’s a history of debacles, stretching from the R-46 cars to the security cameras to the bus tracking system and more. Yes, you can bring modern technology to an aged system — London’s Underground is older than our subway. I just don’t have any confidence that the MTA can reach beyond the cutting edge. I’d rather see them invest in some old technology first, like mops and buckets. Maybe when they prove they can do some basic things, like keep the walls and platforms clean, I’ll think about trusting them to spend vast amounts of money on gadgets and geegaws. In the meantime, if I want to know whether a car is crowded, I’ll look through the windows.

Rhywun May 25, 2010 - 11:32 pm


I happened to take a really good look up for the first time in 3 years at my home station the other day (R – Bay Ridge Av) and recoiled in disgust at the appearance of the paint job ready to fall off any second. It’s really bizarre to me that they’re spending millions on technology when they demonstrably CAN NOT keep the stations clean.

Shawn Chittle May 25, 2010 - 10:42 am

Countdown timers are fine. They are still a few minutes off on the L train but not a bad guide.

But “occupancy density” LMFAO! People would be rushing along the platform, especially on the A, B, C and L trains, to find a “green zone” – but who are we kidding? There are no green zones during rush hour. And the L train? Ha! Just paint the whole thing orange.

This concept is a recipe for disaster and I can almost 100% guarantee you that will never see the light of day in New York City.

Matt May 25, 2010 - 10:53 am

Coming in NYC in 2089!

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JLS May 25, 2010 - 12:14 pm

I have to second Chittle: putting that information on display platform is more likely to cause multiple deaths by trampling than improve anyone’s riding experience.

Think twice May 25, 2010 - 1:24 pm

IMO the seemingly technocratic Jay Walder would see these innovations and dream of incorporating them, but meanwhile he has to herd all these cats.

Over at the NYCDOT, I personally find it astounding that an innovator and doer like Janette Sadik-Khan can actually thrive in a city and state run by stasis-loving luddites. Is it that she’s a commissioner of a department instead of a chairman of an authority? Is it because Bloomberg’s her benefactor and defender? What unions does JSK have to answer to? Where does she get all the funds to bankroll her projects? And what can help Walder do what it takes to get. this. $#!+. done.

Could the buses and subways be better run under the NYCDOT?

Alon Levy May 25, 2010 - 5:37 pm

NYCDOT is the agency that came up with the “bus has to sit still while fares are being inspected” fiasco on the Bx12. It may get things done quickly, but it doesn’t do them competently.

Andrew May 26, 2010 - 1:31 am

Fiasco? How much time does it add to the average trip? It costs about 3-4 minutes when it happens, but it doesn’t happen on most trips. Figure about a minute on average, then. That’s not negligible, but compared to the overall savings that SBS achieved, I’m not going to complain too hard.

Given the interior layout of the bus, could inspections be carried out while in motion while still denying fare evaders the opportunity to escape at the next stop? The way it’s done now, two inspectors guard the exits. I guess two inspectors could be sent ahead to the next stop to guard the exits when the bus arrives.

Alon Levy May 27, 2010 - 9:13 pm

The interior layout of the bus is identical to the interior layout of other BRT systems. The difference between New York and Berlin isn’t how the buss look. It’s that in Berlin the inspectors walk around the city and board buses at random, whereas in New York they pull up to the bus in their SUV.

The 5-minute or so cost of this blunder is not just an average cost. It means lower reliability for riders. It has the same effect as subway trains sitting in the middle of the tunnel for 5 minutes.

Jerrold May 25, 2010 - 1:59 pm

This is of course completely off-topic, but I wonder if anybody else noticed:

That picture is from Barcelona. The destination sign says “Nova Trinitat”, which is apparently Catalan rather than Spanish. I believe that most people in that part of Spain tend to use more Catalan than Spanish.
An intersting historical note is that when Franco was the dictator of Spain, he unsuccessfully tried to wipe out the Catalan language by forbidding its public use, especially in education.

Rhywun May 25, 2010 - 11:48 pm

Yes, authoritarian rulers do have a tendency to trample all over their subjects’ languages and customs. I have spent some time in Tarragona, another Catalan city south of Barcelona. The situation of Catalan seemed to be somewhat similar to the situation of Welsh and Gaelic in the UK – many hundreds of years of official suppression followed by recent, reasonably successful attempts at revival. It’s probably that while the place names are still all in Catalan, most official notices are bilingual and 90+% of the population either speaks Spanish or is bilingual too.

RailGuy May 25, 2010 - 3:37 pm

Get real folks, there is not a chance that, in Barcelona, they actually know how many people are in each part of the car. This is purely a designer’s fantasy. Don’t criticize the MTA, because even the best transit systems in the world don’t actually have this info at hand.

Alon Levy May 25, 2010 - 5:38 pm

True. There are plenty of very good transit systems without this info: Toei, Tokyo Metro, Osaka Municipal Subway, JR East, JR West, Keio, Kintetsu…

Oh, wait. You were talking about the MTA. Sorry – ranking it 50th on the list of the world’s best would be charitable.

Sara Nordmann May 25, 2010 - 4:01 pm

If only there was an indicator to show which car has the stinky homeless person in it.

Jerrold May 25, 2010 - 7:14 pm

If you had to sleep in the gutter (or on the subway), you would not be able to take a bath as frequently as a person SHOULD take one.

Rhywun May 25, 2010 - 11:26 pm

That’s easy. Avoid the empty car in the otherwise full train.

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