Home MTA Technology The good and bad of Cuomo’s e-ticket announcement

The good and bad of Cuomo’s e-ticket announcement

by Benjamin Kabak
Gov. Cuomo unveiled a new MTA ticketing app to much fanfare earlier this week.

Gov. Cuomo unveiled a new MTA ticketing app to much fanfare earlier this week.

By many accounts Gov. Andrew Cuomo, like many politicians, thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. No matter the field, whether its in his wheelhouse of expertise (whatever that may be) or not, if he gets an idea in his head, the people who report to him have to execute. It’s not a dialogue between career public servants who know what they’re doing and the state’s chief executive; it’s a command from a boss to those who report in to him.

With that background, it’s easy to see how Cuomo’s recent transit steps, while earning him headlines and being a major part of his public relations push around the state, have been missteps in the eyes of the transit community. It’s why MTA staffers groan when they hear the governor is coming and just wish he would stay out of the agency’s hair. It’s why buses have USB ports, and it’s why these USB ports are trumpeted as some sort of savior at a time when New York City’s transit system is bursting at its seams with no relief in sight.

Earlier this week, Cuomo again seemed to think that a basic technological upgrade that’s standard operating procedure for most commuter rail systems the world over is a sign of strong leadership when he held a circus of a press conference to announce the long-delayed rollout of a mobile ticketing app for Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road. The app is powered by Masabi’s JustRide platform, and the details are rather mundane. The app will support a variety of time- or ride-based tickets and will require riders to “activate” tickets before use, as New Jersey Transit’s app does. It is Apple Pay-compatible and can support purchasing a ticket, according to promotional materials, in under ten seconds. It’s available now on the LIRR Port Washington Branch and the Metro-North Hudson Line, and it will be rolled out throughout the system by the end of August.

Cuomo’s words in a statement underscore his beliefs that technology is a transit savior. “Our administration remains committed to building a transit network that is responsive to the needs of travelers who rely on mass transportation, and the launch of the MTA eTix app is a major step forward in our efforts,” the governor said. “This new app puts riders first by eliminating the ticket line and helping New Yorkers and visitors get where they need to go with more freedom and convenience than ever before. We will continue to create a 21st century transit system that embraces innovation to ensure that we are building a stronger, more competitive New York.”

The most interesting part of the announcement came as part of the kicker paragraph in the press release which noted that “next year, the MTA expects to make the MTA eTix app even more user-friendly by allowing LIRR and Metro-North customers who transfer to or from the New York City Subway or New York City Buses to pay their fares using a single app and a single transit account.” As the Metrocard replacement project is still in the RFP stage, it’s not quite clear how this functionality will be available by mid-2017, and I’ll follow up on this aspect of the story.

Now, don’t get me wrong; mobile ticketing is a big step. But is it worth the brouhaha of a press release and official back-patting? The MTA is years late to game on mobile ticketing thanks to a combination of recalcitrant LIRR unions and an institutional aversion to major technological change. This announcement, and the fact that the governor had to prod the MTA to release this app, should have been slipped into a press release on a summer Friday, not trumpeted on the day back to work after the July 4th holiday.

But that’s not the weird part. The weird part was Cuomo’s rant at the press conference which you can find in this 20 minute video of the presser.

At around the eight-minute mark, Cuomo starts going off the rails on the current state of the transit system. “You can’t make a system that was designed and constructed for that [early 1900s] scale work for the current-day scale, and government’s tried in fits and starts to use bailing wire and duct tape and bubble gum and all sorts of ways to make it work. It’s not going to work. You have to build a new system,” he said. He also claimed that “our society is more litigious than ever” and thus government cannot make the changes to create a new system. In a concurrent tweet, Cuomo confused daily subway and bus ridership with monthly LIRR ridership and seemed to over-simplify when the subway system as we currently know it opened.

It’s hard to parse Cuomo’s words here. He seems to think that basic technological upgrades are a sign of a “new system.” He seems to think mandating buses that are “Ferrari-like” and faster rollouts of mobile ticketing apps will help with the crowds on Lexington Ave. or the lack of capacity in Queens. He doesn’t want to hear about it or take on the root causes of the MTA’s problems: high costs, an inability to deliver projects on time and on budget, and a lack of institutional support from the governor.

I don’t know where anyone involved goes from here. It’s not an intractable situation for transit advocates or the MTA or the governor, but it’s a situation careening from one band aid to another when real leadership is required. It’s not the collective fault of the millions of riders that the MTA can’t handle the crowds, and a magic app for Metro-North and LIRR riders won’t fix that problem. Unfortunately, Cuomo, the one man who thinks he can solve these problems, is blind to this reality, and we’ll have to live through it instead.

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Larry Littlefield July 8, 2016 - 6:29 am

We’ve been here before in NYC: from 1960 to 1990 or so.

Basically when the government has been left broke by a generational pillage, and in general taxes are rising and services deteriorating, you get politicians pushing lots of little initiatives and improvements. What else are they going to do? Go around telling people they are screwed? That’s my job.

At least, like subway air conditioning in the Lindsay Administration, these initiatives are real.

What we also got at the time was lots of downzoning. False promises that “Yes things are going to hell, but your neighborhood won’t go to hell, because we won’t allow anything to change.”

And lots of studies. Assemblyman so and so announced a study of tripling services and cutting taxes in half. The study found it would be a good thing.

I get the feeling that politicians such as Christie, Cuomo, Rahm Emmanuel et all inherited a disaster, realized that turning things around would mean confronting all kinds of entitlement and goring every ox in sight, and decided to punt. Since that sort of thing is only possible AFTER the collapse.

At the very least, you can’t blame Cuomo for making things too much worse, unlike most of the others.

subwaybuff July 8, 2016 - 7:28 am

Not everyone can afford a $600 smart phone which is obsolete in a year or two or the battery needs replacing by a pro at an added cost. Also not everyone can afford a data plan which is never used due to all that is needed is a simple cell phone with a voice plan and the cheapest text plan.
Paper tickets can still be used while if a smart phone dies or the battery needs a charge you lost your ticket.
Yes, many are addicted to smart phones but Facebook or you tube or iTunes is not needed.If a choice between groceries or smart phone I choose groceries- $600 is three months of groceries!
Any NFC (Contactless) fare system should include an option for those not using smart phones. WMATA sells a tap and go reloadable plastic card as will SEPTA.

kevd July 8, 2016 - 10:29 am

One is not required to purchase via smart phone.
ticket machines will still exist – and because most people who would be buying tickets at them will be doing so via their smart phones instead, the lines will be short or non-existent.
No more worrying about missing your Thanksgiving eve train out of Grand Central because of a 20 person line of people who have never used a ticket machine before.

kevd July 8, 2016 - 10:32 am

its a very simple and cost effective way to add capacity to the ticketing system without having to add much hardware – just QR readers for conductors.

Rich B July 8, 2016 - 10:47 am

I agree that no transit system should require a smartphone to use, and in fact no one is suggesting that. At all. Where did you even get that idea?

But smartphones are hardly the luxury you suggest. They were at one time, but not anymore. You can get a very capable smartphone for well under $100 these days. Cricket (AT&T network) has decent phones for as little as $10. Plans with unlimited voice and text (and a good amount of data) start at $35/month. They no longer offer a cheaper plan for non-smartphone users; data plans are standard. Smartphones are not a crazy luxury these days. They’re just “phones”.

Stephen Smith July 8, 2016 - 10:07 am

The part about litigiousness is not wrong. It’s a big issue in public works contracting, and it really constrains agencies when it comes to bidding.

JJJJ July 8, 2016 - 10:26 am

“It’s available now on the LIRR Port Washington Branch and the Metro-North Hudson Line, and it will be rolled out throughout the system by the end of August.”

I dont get this. Isnt it a list of stations with the correct pricing info? That takes more than 4 hours to put together?

As for technology/usb etc. What baffles me is how few commuter rail systems offer power outlets. When you’re sitting in the same seat for 100 minutes, thats actually a useful feature that creates a competitive advantage, unlike on a local bus.

Megabus has had them since, what, 2004? Amtrak maybe longer? Even the broken airline industry has gotten onboard, including on shorthaul regional planes.

And yet new equipment ordered in the past 10 years by commuter rail agencies doesn’t have this basic feature.

And if my ticket is going to be on my phone, Im going to need some power at the end of the day when Im going home at 3%.

It’s almost like the people in charge don’t ride the train.

anon_coward July 8, 2016 - 10:45 am

the new LIRR rail cars were designed more than 10 years ago

Rich B July 8, 2016 - 10:51 am

True, but these things are not difficult to retrofit. There are already 120v circuits on these train, no? Just add some outlet boxes under seats, like they’ve been doing at airports.

anon_coward July 8, 2016 - 11:05 am

for one you have to run electrical wiring to each outlet. that would mean you would have to do it safely and in theory the electrical components that drive the train would need to be able to handle the load.

whole thing needs to be properly engineered, certified, etc.

Michael Sanders July 8, 2016 - 1:20 pm

The new M-8 cars on the New Haven Line have power outlets. Express buses in CT have USB ports in place or in the process of being installed.

Stephen Smith July 8, 2016 - 12:14 pm

SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line has had a few outlets in each car for as long as I can remember, which is at least 10 years.

JJJJ July 8, 2016 - 12:38 pm

All trains have them (including WMATA) but theyre usually for maintenance/cleaning use and are not guaranteed to have a stable current during active service. IE: They could dry your device.

pete July 10, 2016 - 10:23 am

No electric train has continuous power. M8s power goes out a dozen times between GCT and stamford. Every catenary and 3rd rail phase gap, switches with 3rd rail, power change over at Pelham. The movable bridges on NHL.

I’d say the power on M8s goes out and stays out more often than on M2-6s due the M8’s hair trigger panto drop mechanism to prevent dewirements. ACS-64s also seem to loose HEP power and keep power off longer than AEM7s did at phase gaps.

The chances of 120v train power frying your equipment is the chance of the railcar catching fire, near zero. The 120v is the same that runs the bathroom, HVAC, and low voltage bus (batteries/lights). If the 120v kills your equipment, the HVAC, bathrooms and lights are killed too. Thats an expensive repair job for the RR.

SEAN July 8, 2016 - 10:40 am

A song that perfectly describes the press conference.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyV_UG60dD4&w=560&h=315%5D

Thank you Weird Al.

kevd July 8, 2016 - 10:40 am

To his credit, we probably do need a new system or two.
(even a broken clock, amirite?)

1) RER style, through running commuter rail with additional tunnels, some in fill stations and a city fare tied to the subway fare, 2) massively expanded, physically separated BRT and LRT and 3) a new subway line or two.

Show us the money, Cuomo.

smotri July 8, 2016 - 11:25 am

The last line of this says it all:
“Unfortunately, Cuomo, the one man who thinks he can solve these problems, is blind to this reality, and we’ll have to live through it instead.”

And, New Yorkers will re-elect him.

Nathanael August 8, 2016 - 7:13 am

We need to get rid of Cuomo. He’s an idiot, and worse, he gerrymandered the state Senate to keep the Republicans in power.

Will July 8, 2016 - 12:05 pm

We need through running on all lines. It’s ridiculous that Paris,Tokyo,Berlin, and London could do it but we can’t. ITS NOT HARD to run M8 over Hells Bridge through Penn Station to Trenton, or Trains with dual power modes Like in Paris to run from Mautauk to Dover. MTA and NJT needs to be sued for malpractice. And for the people that would say the change of power equipment. How about get dual power locomotive that are out in the market that can run on all the power mofes. 3rail, catenary, diesel. America will never be great again if we don’t push

JJJJ July 8, 2016 - 12:40 pm

A good start would be running a MTA line to Newark Airport (there are 8 tracks, enough for layover/reverse) and an NJ Transit line to Queens. Obviously, NJ Transit NEC should run into Philly.

mister July 8, 2016 - 8:18 pm

While i agree with you in principle, here are a few points to consider:

1. M8 cars at present CANNOT operate over the Hell Gate Bridge. The voltage of the catenary over Hell Gate (and into NYP) is different than what is on the New Haven Line. While Amtrak Locomotives can use both voltages, M8s cannot.

2. The current batch of dual mode locomotives are not really great performers. Trying to add a third mode onto that configuration would be an expensive mess.

3. MTA and NJT are state agencies. Bringing a lawsuit against them because they don’t through run is pretty pointless.

Adirondacker12800 July 8, 2016 - 8:31 pm

The phase break between the 60Hz New Haven system and the 25Hz PRR system is in Queens. Even if Metro North had the urge to run M8s to Penn Station and beyond they don’t have enough of them.

mister July 8, 2016 - 8:39 pm

You’re right, it’s a frequency issue, not one of Voltage.

22r July 8, 2016 - 1:32 pm

Instead of patting themselves on the back, they should be embarrassed that they didn’t have this three years ago like everyone else.

Ray July 8, 2016 - 3:02 pm

Ben makes reference to the frustration of MTA staffers having to execute the governor’s priorities; and paints Cuomo as a clueless and meddling state chief executive. Is that fair? My impression is NY State has a governor that shows more than a passing interest in transit and infrastructure. I struggle to think of a governor that’s doing more. My belief is history will be kind to Andrew Cuomo for the projects completed, started or advanced on his watch. My observation of the Governor’s relationship with our transit agency’s CEO is supportive and collegial. Is Cuomo in a hurry to get things moving? Sure. And I assume he’s happy to move forward, take credit and keep momentum during his term. He’ll be rewarded; the public likes progress. And there may be a bigger job waiting for Andrew Cuomo in Washington one day.

mister July 8, 2016 - 8:33 pm

Of course it seems like a collegial relationship: the Chairman and CEO of MTA serves at Cuomo’s pleasure. As an example of Cuomo’s “good relationship” with the MTA, recall the way the system was shutdown for the blizzard of 2015. Up until that point, NYCT had been developing a plan that included selective shutdowns of trouble spots on the system. This included a real sit down and studying of lessons learned after the Rockaways debacle of 2010. As the storm approached, and Transit was readying its plans to implement their winter weather plan, Cuomo announced that the system would be shutdown. NYCT was really caught off-guard; so much so that they still ran service ran all night, because they had no plan to shut down the system. In a sign of the great relationship that Cuomo had with the MTA, the CEO later on took ALL the responsibility for the shutdown… but only when it looked like a foolish decision the next day as the storm petered out.

What project has Cuomo genuinely been behind that will grant a real benefit to Mass Transit users? What he has done is propose useless projects, promise massive sums for upstate road construction, take away funds allocated specifically for the MTA and play a game of chicken with the Mayor over the capital budget. So… why would his transit record be viewed favorably?

Nathanael August 8, 2016 - 7:15 am

Andrew Cuomo is a “muscle car” fan who seems to have inhaled too much leaded gasoline fumes as a kid. He has consistently been hostile to all forms of public transportation, whether upstate or downstate, and often in spectacularly stupid ways which alienated all the local officials.

John July 8, 2016 - 11:40 pm

The LGA AirTrain will be a godsend to dozens of people per week. He is a great leader and a true visionary.

Nathanael August 8, 2016 - 7:14 am

“Ben makes reference to the frustration of MTA staffers having to execute the governor’s priorities; and paints Cuomo as a clueless and meddling state chief executive. Is that fair? ”



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