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Tech to Help New York MTA Better Manage Crowds, Performance

The Metropolitan Transit Authority will lead several year-long pilot projects to improve rider experience and system performance. The projects include crowd management and push alerts to ease congestion at stations.

Data related to crowded New York City Subway platforms and delayed trains is getting increasingly detailed, aided by two new technology projects, while two other projects are slated to address bus performance and routing.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which oversees the city’s subway and bus system, will lead several year-long pilot projects to improve rider experience and system performance. Four companies have been selected by the MTA’s Transit Tech Lab, an accelerator program to get startups engaged in solving transit issues in the New York City metro.

Veovo and Axon Vibe have been selected, following an eight-week process, to pilot technology to improve the subway experience. Meanwhile, Preteckt and Remix were selected to take on bus system challenges.

Veovo uses various sensor technologies including Wi-Fi, 3-D cameras and “deep learning algorithms” to provide a “detailed overview of passenger movement and dwell times,” said Eddie Llado, sales manager for Veovo in North America, during a press conference at MTA to announce the winners of the pilot contest in late July.

Cameras mounted on the ceiling of subway stations along the L Train line are designed to “only count heads,” said Christian Carstens, marketing manager for Veovo, in an interview with Government Technology. “It’s not a facial tracking of any kind. It just counts heads.”

The system can determine how many passengers are entering and exiting the stations, Carstens explained.

“And with that knowledge, the MTA can see if the occupancy and the flow are as usual, or if there’s been any development in overcrowding, and they can take preventive measures,” he added.

Some of those preventive measures could be along the lines of offering warnings to riders about the crowds or encouraging them to travel at another time or use another station.

“The goal is to provide pre-emptive alerts of potential overcrowding at stations, allowing the MTA to take preventive measures,” said Llado.

Veovo will be used on the L line, which connects Manhattan with Brooklyn and is undergoing significant upgrades and repairs to trackwork and the tunnel which runs beneath the East River. The project is expected to run 15 to 18 months, according to the transit authority.

“I think piloting this on the L Train makes a great deal of sense, given how busy the L is,” said Patrick J. Foye, MTA chairman and CEO, responding to reporters’ questions in July.

Veovo has largely worked with airports to aid officials in crowd management in areas like security screening. The company’s technology — then known as BlipTrack — was used by San Diego International Airport from March 2016 through February 2018 to measure customer wait times in the taxi queue area.

“These devices pinged a customer’s cellphone and measured the time from when they entered the line, until they left the line and entered a taxi,” said Rebecca Bloomfield Gilbert, public information officer for San Diego International. “The data was used to measure wait times, and helped ensure that we maintained the proper level of taxis at our transportation islands to ensure a wait time of no longer than 10 minutes.”

BlipTrack, which was acquired by Veovo in 2018, was installed at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 2014 to monitor the queuing wait times in the security screening operation, conducted by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel.

Veovo recently closed a deal to install the technology at New York Port Authority airports, which include JFK International, Newark Liberty International, LaGuardia Airport and others in the New York City metro region. 

Meanwhile, Axon Vibe will work to better inform subway riders about delays. The system uses smartphone data to understand commuter patterns and requires users to opt in. The alerts it offers suggest alternative forms of transportation, like other train lines or bikes.

The project is building “intuitive, interactive alerts,” said Boris Matz, head of business development for North America at Axon Vibe, a Swiss-based public transit technology company.

“It’s these proactive, intuitive alerts that we’re aiming to pilot here in the upcoming year,” said Matz at the July press conference.

The Preteckt pilot takes aim at predicting maintenance issues on buses, saving time spent in repair shops, or the added inconvenience for riders when a bus breaks down mid-route. And Remix, a provider of transit planning software, is working to help the MTA more quickly and easily design bus route improvements.

“We’re looking to significant customer benefits, both on subways and buses,” said Foye, the MTA chairman, adding, “MTA is not obligated to do business with any of these four companies. My expectation is that we will.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.