The sometimes overlooked tech behind the MTA

From countdown clocks to signal modernization, here’s how the transit system is making much needed improvements.

OMNY contactless fare payment readers installed at the Fort Hamilton Parkway subway station

OMNY contactless fare payment readers installed at the Fort Hamilton Parkway subway station Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

In Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie “Her,” Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an artificially intelligent personal assistant while commuting effortlessly through Los Angeles’s futuristic elevated subway system. 

A decade later, artificial intelligence is helping high school students write essays without doing any work, creating otherworldly artworks, and generating chatty bots that flirt with meeting our emotional needs

Our mass transit system, however, has not kept up with science fiction visions of the future. There are no plans for a hyperloop that could zip people between New York and LA in 45 minutes. High-speed rail in the northeast remains a far-off dream due to its expense and need to lay new track and dislocate communities. New York doesn’t even have flying taxis or autonomous vehicles, although that hasn’t stopped start-up companies from dreaming about them.

Instead, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been making a series of improvements to its trains, tunnels, and buses while embarking on its largest infrastructure expansion in generations. Most technological  innovations have been largely undetectable to the subway system’s 3.6 million daily riders although some seemingly small changes such as countdown clocks on platforms or the OMNY fare payment system at turnstiles are arguably taken for granted today.

We remember a time when a lot of those things didn’t exist and they’re game changers.
Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association

“We remember a time when a lot of those things didn’t exist and they’re game changers,” Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association, told City & State. “The countdown clocks especially, there were none of them a decade ago and now they’re in all the stations, so that really shows the power of smaller changes that impact on a daily rider’s experience.”

After enduring a “Summer of Hell” that involved rail derailments and multiple subway delays in 2017, the MTA prioritized upgrading its signaling technology through communications-based train control, while also installing digital screens that show real-time schedules and clearer-sounding public announcement systems on trains and in stations.

Since then, service has slowly improved, although the system experienced 74 incidents in January, its highest number of service disruptions since 2018. And daily ridership remains just under two-thirds of its 2019 levels.

Jamie Torres-Springer, president of MTA Construction & Development, said the MTA has been focused on retrofitting advanced technology into the system while keeping the 120-year-old system operational.

“All of it is connected and requires a massive investment in technology to communicate (to) customers, manage service through our rail control center,” he told City & State. “We’re very focused on how we manage that system and improve service to customers.”

Transit workers are in the process of making several new upgrades too. Last year, the MTA announced that Boldyn (then called Transit Wireless) would double the size of its wireless network within the subway to cover 418 track miles. The company has now brought service into subway tunnels and is working on installing fiber cable on the crosstown G Train over the summer.

Wiring the system is the infrastructure move that enables us to adapt and be successful in the coming decades.
Jamie Torres-Springer, president of MTA Construction & Development

Torres-Springer believes the wireless upgrade will foster additional software and hardware innovations that haven’t even been conceived yet.

“Wiring the system is the infrastructure move that enables us to adapt and be successful in the coming decades,” he added.

But the MTA’s progress hasn’t always moved in a forward direction. 

Only half of the region’s transit ridership have an OMNY card five years after the authority rolled out the service and several groups, including students and Fair Fares program enrollees were excluded from using it. This month, the MTA announced it would drop its OMNY contractor after there were delays adding the payment program to Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road stations and hire another one to integrate its fares and schedules under one app.

There have been infrastructure blunders as well. The MTA allowed all-door boarding, a standard feature in other North American cities, on its buses during the pandemic but abandoned it out of fear people would bypass the fare box. Now its bus speeds are among the slowest in the country. And new turnstiles introduced in January designed to prevent fare evasion were found to have significant flaws that allowed people to sneak into the subways without being detected (MTA CEO Janno Lieber told reporters they were addressing the problems).

The most significant technological additions could still save money for the MTA on the back end. The MTA is piloting an artificial intelligence technology that can predict what part of a bus could malfunction by looking at anomalies and alert workers at the bus depot before it fails. Predictive maintenance technology has also been developed for train engines and rolling stock, but hasn’t been applied in the subway system yet. 

“If you actually knew how long each of the parts of your car lasted and had real-time information, you had a better view to fix the thing,” Dani Simons, a spokeswoman at Alstom, which is developing predictive hubs for rail systems, said. “That will potentially, at scale, save a lot of time and money.”

In the meantime, the MTA has focused on making the transit system friendlier and easier to use by retraining its station agents in customer service techniques. New York City Transit Authority president Richard Davey said that the agency has seen an increase in customer satisfaction when employees have face-to-face interactions with passengers.

“Customer touch is important,” Richard Davey said. “The past is the future for us, and that includes hands-on customer service. And the agents are doing a great job.”