I love New York City’s public transportation system. Having lived in California for 10+ years where getting from one side of a city to another takes at least an hour (and therefore most opt for cars instead), I’ve always marveled at NYC’s transit. One can get pretty much anywhere in NYC — from Brooklyn to the Financial District to Washington Heights — within a short amount of time. Amazing.
But I also loathe the New York City’s public transportation system. Have you ever taken the G train? Don’t. Unless you have absolutely nowhere to be or no-one to meet.
Bottom line: I can’t live with it, but I also can’t live without it. But I really, really, really wish I could live with it in a way that got me to work on time most days.
Disclaimer: I am not, nor will I ever claim to be, a transportation, operations, or data expert. But, in light of recent discussions on “open information” and “big data”, I decided to do some research. Given over 1 billion people ride the NYC subway each year alone, I figured there must be tons of data, and I was curious to see how the MTA is collecting and leveraging it — if at all — to make public transportation in NYC a better, safer, quicker ride for us all.
First of all: Apparently I’m not the only one deeply entrenched in a love/hate relationship with the MTA. Case in point: Last year, 129,000 commuters requested “late-for-work” excuse slips from the MTA (and yes, that’s a thing).
The MTA has a lot of data. A LOT of data. Think about it: every card swipe, every turnstile turn…the MTA has access to it all. But it was not until relatively recently in the organization’s history that it begin to actually utilize and analyze it. In particular, for the majority of its history, the MTA has struggled to keep up amidst the age of information. Historically, the MTA has maintained a very proprietary mindset and was involved in many lawsuits in the early millennium as a result. Bloggers, app developers, etc. worked to utilized MTA data to the benefit of the everyday user / consumer, but the MTA would sue for intellectual property infringement.
During the past ten years, however, the MTA has taken its first steps towards embracing open data information. What this means:
- Real-time apps that will tell you when your bus / train will next arrive.
- Trip planner apps (i.e. on Google Maps) that allow you to plan your route, using public transportation, from one area of a metropolitan area to another.
- The list goes on.
Essentially, in enabling open data, third-party developers have been able to analyze and utilize the MTA’s data to the benefit of consumers, enabling a much more transparent and streamlined commute. Theoretically, this has also been to the benefit of the MTA as consumers are more likely to use the transportation system (as opposed to other options — i.e. driving).
Increasingly, the MTA has also started to use its data internally to measure operational investments and efficiencies. Things like: commute speed, service frequency, and delay recovery time. The hope here is that, with time, the MTA (which has increasingly fewer and fewer resources and budget) will be able to identify which parts of the transit system need most work (and will most benefit consumers). This will save the organization money — and time!