Home MTA Technology Some thoughts on building the ideal transit app

Some thoughts on building the ideal transit app

by Benjamin Kabak

With underground wifi, demand will increase for more transit apps. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

A thought experiment, if you will, based on the following question: What elements would the ideal transit map contain?

Over the past few years, the MTA has embraced, with varying degrees of success, a mantra of open data. It began with Jay Walder and has continued since his tenure as the MTA has released a whole bunch of information to the public. Some of it, such as turnstile data, helps us visualize ridership patterns while others — BusTime and SubwayTime APIs — help riders track buses and trains in real time. Even as a report from the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA rightly criticized the agency for shuffling its feet on issues such as searchable board PDFs and the like, the MTA has improved in leaps and bounds since early 2009 on open data.

Still, transit apps are rather limited right now, and the MTA, not the best at designing things, has tried to encourage private developers to pick up the slack. This past weekend, the agency along with AT&T hosted a hack-a-thon. It’s part of a long-term effort to reward app makers using MTA data, and as this weekend’s winners walked away with a concept and few thousand bucks, the summer’s winners could earn as much as $40,000 when the dust settles. That’s not chump change for a transit app.

As a sponsor for Capital New York, AT&T filed a puff piece from the hackathon if you want a sanitized version of the experience. Meanwhile, a few developers took home smaller prizes this weekend. Earning $5000 were the creators of Subculture.FM, a web-based app that allows straphangers to identify their favorite subway musicians, find them in the system and buy songs via a QR code. A real-time tracking app called MTA Sheriff took home $3000. It allows riders to submit reports on subway conditions. The third place winners were Accessway, an app that assists visually- or mobility-impaired riders in navigating the subway.

Of that group, the third place winner likely has the most utility. It serves a legitimate, non-frivolous purpose and is seemingly missing from the marketplace right now. Disabled passengers have a tough time getting around the system as it is, and the MTA doesn’t go out of its way to aggregate its accessibility information in an easy-to-find and easy-to-digest format. Still, it’s potential reach is limited by the number of users who need the information.

To me, it seems as though app developers are spinning their wheels a bit. An app about Arts for Transit performers, while kitschy, is hardly going to improve or impact my commute, and that’s what I want from a transit-based app. I need something with information that helps me make decisions and streamlines my ride.

That said, I see the best transit app as offering up the following:

  1. Real-time train tracking. Admittedly, this is limited by the fact that the B division has no countdown clocks. Add the BusTime API, and this theoretical app is even better.
  2. Above-ground entrance locations. I can never remember where the nearest Wall St. and Fulton St. entrances are. Show me staircase location as the MTA’s neighborhood maps do, and add Exit Strategy’s staircase location as well.
  3. Point-to-point directions that incorporate up-to-date service changes.

As far as I’m concerned, anything more is just window dressing. But that’s just my personal preference, and it’s a bit utilitarian. So what do you think? What goes into your ideal transit app? Maybe I’m missing something, but maybe, in an age of ever more complicated devices and apps, we’re just overthinking it.

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Dela G May 8, 2013 - 12:02 am

I LOVE iTransNYC. Best subway app, bar none

incorporates realtime, has service updates/changes, etc

Nick Ober May 8, 2013 - 3:24 am

…and it has subway entrance information along with outlines of the stations. That for me makes the app a winner.

Abba May 8, 2013 - 12:44 am

I want to see an app that shows all the Number trains moving real time.Actual pictures of trains moving like we see at Myrltle ave on the L.

Kenneth M. Kambara May 8, 2013 - 2:04 am

I really like the above-ground entrance locations idea. Maybe augmented reality could be incorporated into it, but the development costs could be prohibitive. I see how AR could be used with Accessway.

I’d be interested in an app that tells you how crowded a given subway car is for an incoming train. Maybe PIRs at each door? Transmitting the data is another issue.

Mike Nitabach May 8, 2013 - 6:55 am

Contract with an app developer to make an SAS app!

Larry Littlefield May 8, 2013 - 10:27 am

I hate to say it, but this whole “App” thing reminds me of the huge increase in the availability of data from the U.S. Census Bureau since the widespread adoption of the internet.

It’s a great distraction from the fact that due to the gradual defunding of the Bureau, there is less data to access. I’d say the peak of avaiable information was a decade ago.

“Apps” are cool, but only if you have buses, trains, stations, signal systems, etc. The app I want to see is one that puts the MTA asset database, hopefully updated, in map form. Different colors for train lines, subway and bus routes (based on the of the fleet), and stations based on how close they are to the end of their expected useful life and/or their level of deterioration.

London Llama May 8, 2013 - 12:02 pm

There’s a great one in London that tells you which car/door is the closest to the exit/interchange passageway at your destination station.

Chuck May 8, 2013 - 5:48 pm

That’s the “Exit Strategy” app you may have heard people talk about here.

It has subway, line (strip), bus, and neighborhood maps, and of course, the various locations of exits and transfers on the platforms.

Only app I use. Well worth the $4.

Ducky May 8, 2013 - 2:13 pm

I would love for there to be an app that informs be of the likelihood of getting a taxi or car service at various subway stops. For instance, if you are at 47th – 50th Station, is there a better corner or location for hailing a cab. Likewise, in the outer boroughs,there have been times where I realize that I’ve needed to change plans and would love to know if I exited a train, would I find the office/waiting room of a car service close by.

I suppose that some of the taxi apps might have some of this functionality.

Michael Babcock, Empowering The Blind May 11, 2013 - 8:28 pm

Hey Ducky;
This is a grate idea. I think it would be very helpful for an app like the one you were talking about, however adding the feature to summon one from your location. If a GPS system would be able to be accessed in order to access the Geo Location information from your phone, and pass this information to the driver, your phone could then keep track of the progress of the assigned driver. The information could then update in real time, and even let the requester have an alert message that advises him that the cab was near. FInally, the cab driver could call the phone the order was placed from in order to inform them that he was there if the alert didn’t give enough notification and the person was not to be found or couldn’t be found. Or, another situation that comes to mind is when I was in Anchorage, I would use the gym a lot. When I was done, I really didn’t want to fight with the cabdriver trying to figure out exactly which door to pick me up at the gym, therefore, having an application that would automatically provided with all of this information would be much easier for me especially when locating a cab.

L May 9, 2013 - 3:27 am

Hi folks we’re making transit better. Please checkout Lumatic City Maps http://lumatic.com/itunes and let us know what you think. Thanks!

Doug May 9, 2013 - 2:31 pm

Good ideas. I’ll try to incorporate what I can into the app/mobile site I’m working on:


My challenge to the other contestants is not to think up an app that shows one piece of data in isolation. Mash it up with other data, or even itself in a different dimension. (Many of you are clearly better programmers than I–show me how much better!)

Michael Babcock, Empowering The Blind May 11, 2013 - 8:24 pm

Hey Doug,
I think it is very important that you consider accessibility at the get-go with your new mobile webpage/application. Unfortunately, developers can create great applications, that provided a wonderful service however would be even more beneficial if the application was accessible to blind or visually impaired individuals and, it’s a lot easier to just use an application then try to fight through it using accessibility. If you are an iOS developer, explore developing with the accessibility API, for voice over. If you are a Google developer, check out developing with talkback, the built-in screen reader for android devices. And, if you would like some assistance with testing your application or website for excess ability, find me on Empowering The Blind.
Hope this is a good idea.

Michael Babcock, Empowering The Blind May 11, 2013 - 8:20 pm

As a completely blind traveler who often travels between Seattle and Ketchikan Alaska, in order to go get my son, I really think that application developers have a long way to come in order to bring the potential of mobile phones to its entirety. For example, it was on my most recent flight, to and a half half weeks ago that I ever used the web check-in feature, and added the icon for my boarding pass to one of the home screens on my iPhone. I was then able to successfully check myself, and on my return flight myself and my three-year-old son in for our flights independently. In addition, we also were able to find assistance for different restaurants available within the Seattle-Tacoma international airport by using foursquare, a geolocation check in social network.
This is an interesting concept however, it is very interesting what some of the application developers could end up coming up with. For example, for a completely blind traveler, like myself and neglected to input on the reservation that he needed assistance to his gate, having an application that could either assist the blind traveler in locating the airlines employee for assistance in larger airports, or possibly even locating his gates, would be relatively beneficial. Also, an IPS (Indoor positioning system), for airport such as the Seattle-Tacoma international airport, that provides directions for individuals to restaurant, but also be beneficial. Just a couple of things that I considered when reading your article, likewise, if you’re curious what a blind individual does as an Internet entrepreneur, performing Internet marketing tasks feel free to check out my blog, Empowering The Blind, a site devoted to in powering the blind to work from home. Using smart phones and technology, I think it will be as you expressed in this article, relatively interesting to find out where we will be in 10 years with technology. I mean, my three-year-old using Siri to access the remote to change the channel on our Apple TV, intense.


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