Home MTA Technology Real-Time Train Data: There may soon be an app for that

Real-Time Train Data: There may soon be an app for that

by Benjamin Kabak

If all goes according to plan, the MTA will soon offer real time train information from the countdown clocks to app developers. (Photo by Kim Last)

As the MTA has expanded the widely popular countdown clocks throughout the A Division stations, a common cry has concerned the lack of publicly-available real-time data. As I mentioned during my talk at the Transit Museum last month, Transit is sitting on a wealth of data that could redefine how we ride and wait for trains if only they would make the feeds from the countdown clocks available in real time.

A tidbit in this month’s MTA Board book reveals that the authority may read to release the data. According to the procurement summary, Acquia, Inc. has bid $771,758 on a contract to install cloud-based infrastructure and a web application that will allow the MTA to offer a real-time feed of train location data to the public.

“The MTA can build on that success” of the countdown clocks, the Board materials read, “and expand our customer’s access to real-time data exponentially if the MTA creates a web feed for application software developers. Creation of an MTA web feed of subway arrival estimates for A Division lines 1 through 6 will make it possible for app developers to deliver real-time information currently displayed in countdown clocks to our customers’ cell phones, smartphones and other hand-held digital devices.”

Such a feed would be a welcome addition to the transit app landscape and would allow straphangers to eliminate the element of surprise from many of their off-peak subway trips. According to the MTA documents, 37 percent of the daily ridership would gain access to any apps that incorporate real-time subway data, and in the future, the MTA would provide real-time subway arrival estimates from B Division routes as well.

To get this effort off the ground, the MTA will leverage an existing New York State Senate contract with Acquia to use cloud computing and Drupal as a content management and development frameworks. The authority aims to spend just over $521,000 with a contingency of $250,000 included in the bid. It is worth the cost.

“A launch of a web feed for lines 1 through 6 would significantly improve customer service and being to deliver the same level of customer service available to those who use mass transit in other major U.S. and world cities, including London, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington,” the staff summary said. I’m looking forward to it.

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Alon Levy March 28, 2012 - 12:44 pm

The MTA sure is paving its way toward Tokyo mode shares one app at a time. No need for first-world staffing levels, a maintenance schedule that doesn’t make weekend travel hell, commuter rail that’s out of the steam age, or any of those other unsexy things that require managers who know what they’re doing. Apps will save us! All hail our new entrepreneurial overlords!

Benjamin Kabak March 28, 2012 - 12:45 pm

Spending what amounts to 0.001% of the annual budget on an effort that will make riding a little more pleasant doesn’t really seem that crazy to me. Let’s put in perspective here.

Eric March 28, 2012 - 1:18 pm

Perspective? We’re New Yorkers. Are you perhaps mistaking us for someone else?

Alon Levy March 28, 2012 - 1:23 pm

I really don’t mind the expenditure. I mind the nontrivial amount of marketing spent on these things. It’s as if the MTA has decided Americans are irredeemably bad at anything involving public services, and instead can only do apps.

Anon256 March 28, 2012 - 1:52 pm

Doesn’t the evidence rather point that way?

John March 28, 2012 - 2:33 pm

I disagree. Also, imagine all the businesses that are right outside station entrances (delis, restaurants, even bars) that could display the countdown information with some type of device hooked up to the app. The nearest train information could be anywhere above ground, tailored by location. I think one of the things that annoys a straphanger most is rushing into the station and seeing that you have to wait 7 minutes for the next train (or worse, just wanting to go home after a long night out and seeing a 25 minute wait).

I don’t think the app argument here is really relevant. What we’re talking about is the MTA making this data widely available to everyone, rather than only those who pay the fare first. This could completely change the way the riding public views its service. Maybe I’m exaggerating that a little, but more transparency could never hurt.

Alon Levy March 28, 2012 - 2:38 pm

First, at many stations, the countdown clocks are visible from outside fare control.

Second, the MTA did not need to contract with anyone to develop an app in order to put up additional countdown clocks outside the fare barriers. Nothing prevents the MTA from acting like a responsible service provider and putting additional countdown clocks on top of station entrances, just as nothing prevents it or any other bus agency from providing real-time countdown clocks at bus stops.

Benjamin Kabak March 28, 2012 - 2:41 pm

The MTA isn’t contracting with anyone to develop an app. They’re contracting with a company that will, as one part of its services offered, provide a platform for the MTA to make available real-time train location data. I still fail to see why this is such a problem.

Alon Levy March 29, 2012 - 1:05 am

It’s a problem for two reasons.

First, the MTA is marketing it as a bigger deal than it is, in order to paper over endemic problems that apps can’t solve.

Second, if my interpretation of your post is correct, the MTA is using this as an excuse to not provide train (and bus!) arrival information itself at pertinent locations, such as on its website and outside station entrances.

John Paul N. March 30, 2012 - 5:51 am

Are you saying that the MTA will provide the real time data for third parties but not implement its interface itself through their website? Is there a transit system that even does that?

What would be the costs of more countdown clocks? Incorporating real-time arrivals to the On the Go kiosks? Incorporating real-time arrivals to the digital advertisements? Yes, more displays are always welcome. But how many devices can be bought for $771,758, plus installation costs? A customer might see an unnecessary redundancy if the clocks are at the entrances, only to encounter them later as they are walking toward the platform. That’s not my view, but I would foreshadow that.

As for emphasis on apps, I’d say that’s political. Although I am biased, I do see people becoming tired after the three NYC Big Apps contests and the MTA’s own. There was even an app suggestion contest, that had to influence the Big Apps organizers to hold the third contest (if they intended to be so). The contests and the marketing of apps in general are meant to help developers innovate and gauge the demands of the app users. I think, and I hope, that the MTA did not spend any money promoting its contest, only to cover marketing expenses, which would have been an expenditure anyway to promote something else. A major benefit of the contest to the MTA is that it showed that it responded to customers’ demands, even if the applications themselves were not so extraordinary (from reviewers such as from the New York Times).

And, of course, there are other people for which such apps are irrelevant because they choose not to have a smart phone. My mother is one of them. That’s totally acceptable and respectable. But the MTA’s role is not to market smartphone apps which would convince a person to buy a smartphone, as if that is their justification for their marketing or expenditure for smartphone apps.

I also hope you are aware that the MTA does market Bus Time on the buses, inside and out. I don’t know if it does a clear job promoting the website on the buses, but it could sure use better prominence on the site’s home page, as I said below.

Jacob Mason March 30, 2012 - 11:30 am

Alon, your arguments are entirely unconvincing.

In response to your first argument, I don’t think MTA or anyone is saying that apps will make other problems go away. Systemic underfunding and an over-reliance on debt will not be solved by apps, and no one is naive enough to say that they will. Lhota and Walder are both outspoken advocates for a better funding of the system.

As for your second argument, nothing in the article, or anywhere for that matter, says that the MTA is discontinuing the countdown clocks program, which will cover the entire system in a few years. Nor does the article say that the MTA is discontinuing its Bus Time program which should be systemwide next year. All this project is doing is releasing the data the MTA already has to developers in order to distribute information in another manner than the actual clocks in the stations. I see a lot of benefits in this and very little downside. More information available to customers is a good thing. Providing information to customers in an inexpensive manner is a good thing. Providing information in a flexible manner, which will allow research and advocacy is a good thing.

Why fight it?

stan March 28, 2012 - 1:34 pm

the absolute correct solution here is to spend the small amount of money providing the real time data feed and then just allow any app developer to build the better real-time train app. the mta should not spend a penny developing a user-facing application. let the world be their application developers.

Benjamin Kabak March 28, 2012 - 1:36 pm

And that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Dan March 28, 2012 - 2:04 pm

Most of the trains that have these countdown clocks are the underground ones, most of which have no cell phone service. So an app like this would only be marginally useful, as a large part of the NYC Subway system is underground. Perhaps if the promised underground cell service thing happens by 2013, this could be a bit more useful.

vbtwo March 28, 2012 - 2:08 pm

This is meant for before you go to the station. During overnight/weekends you can end up waiting up to 20-30 minutes for a train. This way you’ll know when to leave to get to the station right before the train comes.

Once you’re in the station, the countdown clocks are there, so you don’t need to use your app to find out when the next train is coming.

Andrew March 28, 2012 - 11:53 pm

Bingo. Why should I skip breakfast because I’m running late to work only to find when I get to the station that the next train is 10 minutes away? Why should I walk to my usual station only to discover that there’s a service disruption and that I should have walked the other way to a different line?

I can also envision some locations where bus passengers who transfer to the subway will find this useful, especially if they have multiple subway transfer options. The lines that come to mind are the 1 and A in upper Manhattan and the Bronx – Bx7 and Bx12 riders, for instance, might prefer the A because it runs express, but if they know the 1 is coming soon…

My only serious concern is that it looks like this is only being developed for smartphones. Not everybody has a smartphone. Will there be a web interface? Will the information be available by texting?

TP March 28, 2012 - 2:23 pm

My apartment is a 60 second walk from the turnstiles. I would definitely appreciate a countdown clock app. I could even wire it up to an electronic countdown clock by the door of my apartment! No more rushing down there to find that it’s 10 minutes wait.

Joe March 28, 2012 - 3:51 pm

3/4 million to put an XML feed online seems awfully expensive, but the apps will be super useful. Here’s an example of one I use in Chitown: http://www.itrans.info/landing/CTA/

Benjamin Kabak March 28, 2012 - 3:54 pm

I guess this wasn’t clear in my post, but the cost will be $521,000 for three years of a variety of hosted services. That’s not exactly outrageous. The data feed is just a part of the offerings.

UESider March 28, 2012 - 4:02 pm

beware of the success of these apps – if 8M people have the same idea, the turnstiles will become bottlenecks as people rush into the station in the seconds before a train arrives

that will be something to see!

jtp2106 March 28, 2012 - 11:10 pm

Doesn’t Google Maps already do this? I’m not sure if this it’s the same on iPhones, but I can get accurate timetables on my Android phone using Google Maps. If I’m trying to catch a train after hours, I always consult Google Maps first before heading underground. It makes getting home on the weekends so much easier now. It’s a lot better than how things were when I first moved here 8 years ago when you went underground at 4 AM and hoped a train would show up within 30 minutes.

Andrew March 28, 2012 - 11:58 pm

No, all Google Maps knows is the published schedules. It doesn’t know where the trains are in real time.

John Paul N. March 30, 2012 - 4:43 am

It should be no surprise where I stand on this news.

Just to comment, as I and my app users have observed, trains actually do come on schedule most of the time. When somebody says the train comes as the app said it would, I cannot and I should not take any credit for that.

As others here have pointed out, the utility of the service will really be the visualization of delays and irregular services, and also long-headway periods. It is possible that such a visualization will alert people to delays before the MTA formally posts a service alert (but not while people are en route on a train underground). I myself tend not to open my app whenever I can see the countdown clock. I only open it to see how close the times are to the scheduled time, and I expect to wait 5 minutes or more.

I would expect the MTA to provide its own interface implementation to the data, as it did with Bus Time. But there should be greater prominence on the home page, and the issues of that home page stems from the shortcomings of its own web site design, in its entirety.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines March 30, 2012 - 9:01 am

[…] MTA on the Verge of Opening Up Real-Time Subway Data to Developers (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Anticipating real-time subway arrival data :: Second Ave. Sagas May 1, 2012 - 1:50 pm

[…] from the transit authority. The MTA had issued a procurement call for the technology to release a real-time data feed of available subway arrival information. The feed would cover the A Division lines that currently enjoy the benefits of countdown clocks […]


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