‘Big Ideas’ for transit: subway beacons, data stories, smart helmets

What if subway passengers agreed to let the M.T.A. know where they are in the system using their cell phones?

That was the premise of a futuristic—but not necessarily unrealistic—vision presented Tuesday night at an installment of the N.Y.U. Rudin Center’s “Transportation Innovation: Short Talks, Big Ideas” series.

The same week that the M.T.A. unveiled a $32 billion capital plan, which repeatedly mentions technology investments, many of the night’s presentations imagined an even more ambitious path forward for transit, transportation and technology.

Neysa Pranger, director of consulting at Control Group—the New York-based innovation strategy firm that runs the new information kiosks in subway stations and has also expressed interest in the city’s plan to reinvent payphones as WiFi hotspots—focused on the potential of beacon technology.

Until recently, Pranger noted, the M.T.A. mainly engaged in one-way communication with customers through maps, subway diversion notices, countdown clocks and advertisements and did not “ask riders to provide any information.” With new types of antenna technology that can detect cell phone locations, she described how the ability to “push back contextually relevant” information could improve the passenger experience.

If the M.T.A. could communicate with riders in transit, she said, it could transmit back information to their cell phones to offer subway seat-finder tools, personalized platform directions, travel alerts or wayfinding instructions for non-English speakers. She also suggested that it could allow the M.T.A. to offer more demand-responsive service by deploying an extra bus or train.

“Can this happen? We think people are ready,” she said, pointing to integration opportunities with the subway kiosks, subway station WiFi and frictionless payment systems.

Other presenters focused on how data analysis could help to understand pedestrian and commuter flows in neighborhoods and inform policy decisions.

“Our ability to collect and store data has outpaced our ability to comprehend it,” said Richard Dunks, a master’s student in the Applied Urban Science and Informatics program at N.Y.U.’s year-old Center for Urban Science and Progress, and a former intern with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. He presented a recent project to visualize and analyze information generated by urban data sources on Water Street in Lower Manhattan. The project was a submission to the city’s recent Big Apps software development competition with Jeff Ferzoco, owner of the mapping and design firm linepointpath.


Their visualization drew on data from Big Belly smart trash cans, Citi Bike dock data, wireless access point data and 311 data from  one day in July to illustrate the patterns of docks filling and emptying, trash cans filling up and being emptied, and WiFi usage spiking as workers enter the neighborhood. Those patterns can reveal “data stories,” he said.

“You can see people having lunch,” he said, pointing to the usage of trash cans near public seating areas. “You can see that people working in Lower Manhattan are commuting in on Citi Bikes.” Without such analysis, he said, the data “is wasted.”

Arlene Ducao, an adjunct professor at N.Y.U. Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, showcased her MindRider application, which maps data collected from a modified bicycle helmet using EEG sensors to track the mind’s state of relaxation and concentration. The project, which she first began at M.I.T. Media Lab, now has several beta testers who are transmitting data as they cycle around the city. Examining the maps of that data indicates riders’ spikes in concentration as they approach bridges, encounter tricky traffic or interact with other riders.


Now, Ducao and other members of her team have begun an effort to overlay and compare concentration spike hotspots from the MindRinder application with a map of traffic accident hotspots from NYPD crash data and explore possible patterns.

Two city agencies were represented at the event. Ryan Russo, assistant commissioner at the Department of Transportation, focused on Vision Zero, the Swedish traffic-safety plan that has been embraced by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Beyond past efforts to reegineer streets and the recent increase in speed cameras, Russo described how the department was using data and mapping to create pedestrian safety plans for all five boroughs. That effort involves heat-mapping priority areas that, for example, indicate the locations of 50 percent of the serious traffic accidents in Brooklyn.

In addition to hosting forums where New Yorkers can raise traffic concerns and show danger areas on maps in person, Russo noted that D.O.T.  had also collected over 12,000 inputs to its online interactive Vision Zero map aimed at crowdsourcing dangerous traffic spots, which highlighted that speeding was one of the top concerns.

Malinda Foy from M.T.A. Bridges and Tunnels spoke about open-road tolling using E-Z Pass.

Paul Salama, senior planner at WXY architecture + urban design, discussed the technological infrastructure necessary to promote green loading zones for zero-emission commercial vehicles in the city.

The final speaker, John Biggs, East Coast editor of Techcrunch, described how he “reduced all the problems from transit and traffic through magic” in his children’s bookMytro. And though his invisible train system is fiction, he suggested that such an idea was reflected in a number of new travel-related inventions, including telepresence robots, Google’s self-driving cars and the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Those innovations, he said, correspond to the transportation priorities of tech enthusiasts he speaks to: “Traveling without moving, constant contact and travel as a last resort.”

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