The MTA seeks high-tech solutions for its bus and subway crisis

New York’s subways and buses are in crisis. As it copes with cascading delays, traffic congestion, and declines in ridership, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is seeking salvation from an unlikely source: the tech sector. On Wednesday, the MTA announced the creation of “the nation’s first Transit Tech Lab,” an accelerator designed to vet new high-tech products designed to help improve the nation’s largest public transit system.

To start out, the MTA is issuing two challenges to the tech companies: design tools to help us better predict subway delays and mitigate disruption for commuters, and new products to move buses faster and more efficiently through the city’s notoriously congested streets. Sounds easy, right? Obviously not, but the MTA is convinced that with this project, it can hopefully improve daily commutes for the roughly 5.7 million people who ride the system every weekday.

“This is, I think, a big deal,” MTA president Patrick Foye told The Verge. “The MTA is in dire need for the application of new technologies to the services we provide for millions of New Yorkers every day.”

The Tech Lab is being launched in tandem with the Partnership for New York City, a pro-business group that has some experience soliciting tech solutions for intractable problems (such as those facing Wall Street). This project will expose the MTA to “cutting edge technology, to new providers, it will expand our vendor pool and therefore create competition,” which will help the agency better control its own costs, Foye said.

So what could these new technological solutions look like? The MTA says it envisions high-tech cameras or sensors installed along bus routes to better identify obstructions and traffic patterns, or products that utilize Big Data to analyze historical subway data to find patterns that can be used to predict future disruptions. This could also include tools to instantly communicate subway conditions with riders or mining social media to glean fresh insights into subway incident impacts.

To be sure, the MTA isn’t seeking any half-baked ideas. The Lab “requires technologies to be past the prototype stage,” said Rachel Haot, executive director of the Transit Innovation Partnership, “with paying customers, established teams, and the potential to improve transit performance and customer experience.” Haot said the Transit Tech Lab is designed “to create pilots with proven technologies.”




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