While the 2013 fare hikes may be the lasting memory New York City has of future mayoral candidate Joe Lhota, one of the outgoing MTA Chairman and CEO’s last acts came on Friday morning as he unveiled a beta release of the MTA’s new Subway Time app. I wrote about the app earlier this morning, and now that it’s available publicly, we can assess the good, the bad and the ugly of it.
“This is what generations of dreamers and futurists have waited for,” Lhota said. “The ability to get subway arrival time at street level is here. The days of rushing to a subway station only to find yourself waiting motionless in a state of uncertainty are coming to an end. Now, you can know from the comfort of your home or office whether to hasten to the station, or grab a cup of coffee as part of a leisurely walk.”
That all sounds good, but how does it work? First, a foray into the details: The app is currently available online for iOS devices via the iTunes App Store. The MTA has also released a desktop version as well as a live data feed. There is no Android version, but the MTA hopes developers will take the feed and build out their own apps.
And now the good: Subway riders along the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 lines and those using the 42nd St. shuttle can access the same info available on countdown clocks from anywhere with an Internet connection. The L train info will be added within the next 6-12 months, and the 7 will follow in a few years. We’ll now know when to get to the station and how long the wait will be ahead of time.
The technological infrastructure is robust as well. Subway Time can handle 5000 requests per second as the data is hosted on a cloud-based system managed by Acquia. Such a platform will allow the MTA to ensure its data feed can meet demand. Acquia kept the MTA’s website afloat during Superstorm Sandy.
The bad though is fairly obvious. With only seven subway lines represented in this app, that still leaves 15 without real-time tracking data, and that data isn’t coming any time soon. To install Automatic Train Supervision along the A Division took the MTA over 10 years, a few false starts, and $228 million. Doing the same for the B Division shouldn’t take as long but will be quite costly.
The MTA says it has “long-term plans in place to upgrade these lines to ATS signaling,” and Joe Lhota, according to Capital New York, said it may be as little as three years before the rest of the system is on Subway Time. But it’s a matter of money, and right now the dollars just aren’t there. GPS-based data for outdoor sections may be available in the future, but for the foreseeable future, we’re left with only the A Division.
As an added bonus, the app offers a glimpse into headways though. For instance, a few minutes ago, I could see that trains along the Eastern Parkway IRT local were bunching badly. There were long gaps with no trains, and then a 2 and 3 would follow each other in quick succession. It’s good for transparency but bad for operational efficiencies.
Finally, we arrive at the ugly. Design has never been the MTA’s forte, and this app is no different. The interface isn’t optimized for the longer iPhone 5. Thus, not all train arrival information fits onto the screen without requiring an unnecessary scroll. Additionally, the app doesn’t enjoy iOS’ native momentum scrolling. It feels a bit awkwardly-constructed.
So that’s my quick take. What’s yours?