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Is there an App for that? A visit to the New York Transit Museum

Published on
March 8

The crowd at the latest New York Transit Museum event was certainly a niche audience. City planners, software developers, MTA employees and subway enthusiasts filed into the room, awaiting a discussion of some of the most prescient technology in our everyday lives – the 100-plus year-old New York Subway and the connection of MTA scheduling and announcements with smartphones. Specifically, the discussion was about how the MTA can release information that will enable riders to use the system better – something that, to a comparatively naïve audience member like me, seemed like it would be an open and shut case. After all, why should a publicly owned agency that is used by millions of citizens each day be hoarding their information from us?

Then the speaker told the story of someone hacking into the transit system’s electronic screens in Toronto, Canada and posting unfavorable comments about the mayor of that city on the screens. This drew an appreciative chuckle from many audience members, but also began to illustrate the potential seriousness of the MTA’s information getting into the wrong hands. But over and above the safety concerns of fully publicizing such information is the absolute logistical nightmare of making it useful.

One very useful, but also very expensive solution to releasing this information, are the digital signs that have been installed at most stations along lines belonging to the “A division” – so all the numbered train lines. The response to these signs has been overwhelmingly positive. Studies have shown that people are much less averse to waiting when they have a sense of how long they will be doing so, and that we actually perceive time to pass more quickly when we know how much time is left. Makes logical sense, right? But statistics have also shown that crime has declined in stations that have the digital signage. This is presumably because people are able to spend less time waiting alone on platforms late at night when trains are coming. Or that the knowledge of a train coming within minutes provides a deterrent for potential criminals. Either way, this was an unforeseen advantage.

So why not continue to install these signs? A few good reasons: first, the technology for the current signs took about 14 years and millions of dollars to develop. And now that it is in use on even part of the city’s expansive subway system, it’s considerably outdated. Who would have thought fourteen years ago for example, that something called an “app” could provide you with train and bus schedules almost instantaneously, and that the “app” would be part of something called a “smartphone”, a wireless, handheld device many times more powerful and dynamic than the state of the art computers of the mid-1990’s? Furthermore, each of the electronic signs weighs several hundred pounds, a load that the roofs in many older stations were not equipped to hold. This necessitated actual construction to happen before the signs could be put into use. And the problems go on and on…

The latest prevalent fix for the release of the MTA’s information indeed seems to be through apps, of which there are already several viable options. However, the MTA, presumably in an effort to push these innovations further and involve themselves in the app developing process, held a contest for the best MTA app, announcing winners just last week. These will potentially greatly improve riders’ experience – if you have a smartphone, that is. The MTA estimates that approximately 50% of riders currently use smartphones, and that number is steadily increasing. But that still leaves at least a few million people riding the rails each day who won’t be able to take advantage of the MTA’s latest efforts at communicating information to the public. Not to mention that to achieve optimal usage, every underground MTA station would need to be outfitted with technology allowing smartphones to keep their signal inside the station. Again, huge amounts of money and hardware must be taken into consideration.

These conundrums barely begin to illustrate the challenges associated with integrating new technology into a rail system that is over 100 years old, a challenge which will continue to increase as the system grows older and new technology continues to develop at an increasingly rapid rate. For example, the MetroCard is nearly 20 years old, but there doesn’t seem to be a viable option for replacing it that’s yet in the works. After all, the more fundamental the function is to the system (as the MetroCard is an essential part of accessing the subway), the more difficult and costly any changes become. Looking at it from this point of view, it’s actually remarkable that the MTA and other similarly huge transit agencies manage to innovate at all. And here we are getting upset that our train is running 5 minutes late. From now on, I’ll just be glad that the MTA has a way of telling me that.

Aside from it’s public lecture series, the Transit Museum is a fascinating blend of original subway plans reaching back decades, old turnstiles, dynamic photographic images and fascinating history that is deeply tied to the city’s last 100 years of existence. Housed completely underground in what seems to once have been a functioning station in the heart of downtown Brooklyn, this rarely recognized museum is a fascinating addition to the cultural fabric of New York’s cultural institutions.

Other fun facts I learned about the MTA:

  • The MTA hopes one day to be running “smart” trains that can communicate directly with electronic signage or maybe even your phone about when they are arriving at your station.
  • Other potential innovations include signs telling riders how full the trains are as they arrive, and indicate which cars have more space for incoming passengers.
  • The MTA looks to Singapore’s and Tokyo’s transit systems for examples of innovation.
  • The Paris Metro system hosts an equivalent of Craig’s List’s “Missed Connections” on their website who are convinced that they’ve spotted their one true love on the train!
  • The app contest judges selected 42 winners, who put out what is primarily different variations on the same basic function.
  • The New York Public Interest Research Group is currently working with the MTA to suggest improvements to scheduling of trains.
  • Open Plans, an organization that started as an advocacy group, is now acting as a consultancy for tech tools for numerous public agencies, and is leading the way in establishing best practices for public agencies’ use of social media.

The New York Transit Museum is located at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights. Hours: 10 AM – 4 PM Tues. – Fri., 11 AM – 5 PM Sat – Sun, closed Mondays and major holidays. Click here for more info.

Admission to this museum is FREE to students, faculty and staff with a valid CUID.

There are also several upcoming public events at the Museum. More info on those here.