What’s gone wrong with New York’s subway system – and how is MTA planning to fix it?

The New York Subway map. Mmmmm, maps. Image: Getty.

Though those living outside the city may not have noticed, New York’s subway system is broken. Outdated infrastructure and faulty technology, as well as past Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) decisions regarding signals and safety policy, have brought the famed public transportation system to a grinding halt.

It’s clear to both the authorities and the public that something needs to be done – and so, after years of ignoring the problems, the transit authority recently started scrambling to fix them. In 2018, the MTA announced its “Fast Forward” plan to update and improve the subway system over the next 10 years. For New Yorkers suffering in the city’s transportation crisis, those changes can’t come soon enough.

Riders of the New York subway system are likely to encounter a number of problems on their daily commute, the most obvious of which are delays. Monthly passenger hours lost grew by 45.3 percent between 2012 and 2017: such delays can cause New Yorkers to be late for work, contributing to economic costs and frustrations for both businesses and employees.

Many factors contribute to the New York subway system’s city-stalling delays. Old and faulty signals cause train operators to slow down excessively for fear of speeding penalties, which means trains don’t always operate at their highest safe capacity. Increased safety precautions about running trains around construction work delays trains further, and means fewer trains can run per hour. All of these issues are avoidable – but only by installing new signals and performing track maintenance at night. No wonder New Yorkers are impatient for the MTA to implement fixes.

In addition to delays, outdated and inaccessible infrastructure can wreak even more serious havoc in the lives of those with mobility impairments. The majority of New York subway stations still lack basic components of accessibility, like elevators. A lack of accessibility can prevent the mobility-impaired, injured, elderly and parents of young children from using the subway. Subsequently, the city misses out on the economic and social contribution these segments of the population could make. Furthermore, the lives of New Yorkers prevented from using the subway system are disrupted in a huge way: getting around the city is hard enough without having to worry about whether you’ll be able to get back to street level at the next stop. 

The subway system’s poor infrastructure affects everyone. Delays, safety and accessibility concerns, even discomfort caused by crowding and dangerous lack of air conditioning – all drive New Yorkers out of the underground and onto the streets. If these problems aren’t addressed, people may begin to choose alternative modes of transportation, including some still undergoing testing.


The fix

But fixing the subway system has proven to be a complicated, because there isn’t one single cause of its problems. In fact, the former president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation said, “The whole way we run things is broken.”

He was referring to the long-term neglect of the subway’s infrastructure as a whole. Large and small problems at every level have combined over the years to add up to enormous dysfunction.

In the past, the MTA has blamed over-crowding and aging technology for the system’s problems. While these factors can certainly make an impact, other cities have shown they can and should be overcome.

The New York City subway system and the London Underground both depend on ageing architecture – but where updates and innovations are concerned, London has excelled where New York has lagged behind. To a New Yorker, the London Underground seems noticeably safer, faster and more efficiently maintained.

As the MTA makes plans to fix New York’s broken subway system, it’s looking to other cities for pointers. Some of the updates proposed in the MTA’s “Fast Forward” plan – such as a tap-and-go payment system – have already been successfully implemented elsewhere.

In addition to the updated payment system, the MTA plans to make changes to all levels of the subway system. It’s planning to install updated communications-based train control (CBTC) signals that will allow trains to run closer together, allowing for an increase in frequency. It’s also promised to replace outdated cars, upgrade underlying infrastructure including power systems, and work towards repairing and improving stations – though it is unclear if upgrades to stations will include accessibility improvements.

Perhaps the most important part of MTA plan is to embrace pro-active maintenance. By fixing potential problems early, instead of leaving them to fester, the MTA will avoid future transportation crises like this one.

Though the MTA’s plan for improving the subway system isn’t perfect and will take at least 10 years to complete, it is a step in the right direction. And hopefully, as the MTA works to improve public transportation, New York’s subway system will become the shining beacon of efficiency that it was meant to be when first envisioned. But for now, if you’re planning on visiting New York, you might want to think about taking the bus.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.