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