Walder: MTA Commitment to Open Transit Data Is For Real

At a conference at Google’s Chelsea office last night, MTA Chair Walder said all the right things about working collaboratively with software developers, confirming the agency’s dramatic turnaround on open transit data.

After a longstanding policy of keeping a tight lid on route and schedule information, the MTA reversed course earlier this year and began opening data to developers. The new policy promises to improve the rider experience by putting better information at their fingertips. A closer working relationship between the MTA and developers should bring New Yorkers closer to the day when they can, for instance, find out when the next bus or train is coming by checking their phones.

Last night was a chance for both parties to get to know each other, although Walder was the one with something to prove, reassuring developers that the MTA’s new position is for real. "If we can harness the power in this room, we’ll be a heck of a lot better than if we’re doing this ourselves," he said.

"Getting information to people in a way that no longer treats our transit system as a black hole will be transformative."

One of the more interesting exchanges came when Nick Grossman of OpenPlans (Streetsblog’s parent company) asked Walder about the MTA’s wishlist from the developer community. Here’s a rundown of the three most important ways Walder believes developers can help the MTA and improve the rider experience.

  1. Service advisories. NYC’s 24/7 transit system can throw some curveballs at you on nights and weekends. In London, Walder explained, if the Jubilee line isn’t running, it’s not running. In New York, the advisory is that the F train is running on the A/C line from West Fourth Street to Borough Hall, and then you have to transfer to a shuttle bus. "It is enormously complicated to communicate," he said, asking developers to help crack the nut of combining trip planning tools with real-time service info. "Think of that problem. I think it’s one of the most vexing problems we have."
  2. Real-time bus information. Walder referred to this as "countdown clocks for buses" and broke it down into three steps. He said the MTA has the first step — knowing where the bus is — under control. All the new fare-card readers for the bus system will have GPS units in them. The second step — figuring out "how long until the bus gets to where I am" — is where the agency needs developers to step in. "That’s an algorithm that we need an awful lot of help with," he said. As for the third challenge — how to get that information to people — Walder asked developers to make apps for platforms besides the latest and greatest smartphone OS, so all New Yorkers can have access to better transit information. "We need it to cut across social and economic boundaries," he said.

  3. Maximizing smart card tech. This wish was a little more vague than the first two. Once the MTA makes the transition from MetroCard payment to swipe-less RFID cards, Walder sees a role for developers to play. The example he gave yesterday — collecting tickets on commuter railroads — would be more noticeable from a cost-saving standpoint than the rider perspective. "We walk blindly down the car asking if everyone has a ticket," he said. "If I can pinpoint the person who doesn’t have a ticket, that makes the job much easier and more efficient."

Video: Elizabeth Press

  • Glenn

    For #2 on the wish list, if they know where the bus is in relation to the bus stop / station why can’t they display that? The next M15 is 1500 feet away. The next Limited M15 is 1800 feet away.

  • Don’t forget that the commuter railroads can save labor costs today by switching to a paper-based proof of payment system. German and Swiss railroads have been running POP for decades now, since long before smartcards were invented.

  • agree with Glenn on #2. I don’t need an app to tell me when the next bus arrives, traffic makes that difficult. Why not just a map that will show all the “B63” buses along the route. and then let me judge when I need to leave to meet it.

  • Aaron, the B63 is so slow you might as well just hang an oil painting of Fifth Avenue in your hallway and let that prompt you when to leave.

  • Nick Peterson

    Question: GPS units on buses strikes me as extremely expensive. Are they really necessary, or can riders simply assent to allow their locations to be uploaded to a server for distribution to waiting passengers? I guess that requires that everyone uses the same app — is that the problem? Another might be that the system may not be completely foolproof. But I don’t think either of those reasons are strong enough to prevent the development of such an idea.

  • No, GPS units are surprisingly cheap. I Googled GPS unit bus cost and looked for results that gave the per-unit cost for transit systems. The first one was from Waco, Texas, where city council is now soliciting bids for a GPS system for the city’s buses. The cost of the system is projected to be $100-500 per bus, “depending on how high-tech it is.” To put things in perspective, a new hybrid bus costs $450,000.

  • J:Lai

    Agreed, GPS units are inexpensive, especially given that you do not need high precision resolution to know where a bus is.
    The real cost comes from 2 things:

    1) special challenges of using technology in Manhattan where tall buildings make signals less reliable (this is surmountable, but at greater cost.) I believe this to be a red herring since the major benefit of this technology would apply outside Manhattan.

    2) need to pad cost in order to pay off all the corrupt legislators and officials and their friends.

    If the MTA can’t get bus location technology implemented, a cheap way to get an almost as good system is to let a 3rd party provide the information based on user input. You submit that you just got on the B63 at whatever stop, and this information is aggregated across users to provide a semi-good real time location for buses.

  • I don’t think the first special challenge is too great. Hong Kong has already dealt with it by equipping buses with RFID units that communicate with RFID receivers at stations; when the bus approaches a station, the system updates its location. And even that may not be completely necessary. In Monaco, I haven’t seen GPS systems fail in cars; there’s also a good bus tracking system, but I don’t know whether it incorporates RFID as in Hong Kong.

    As usual, it’s special challenge #2 that’s brutal.

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