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Innovative Apps Improve Commutes for Millions of New Yorkers

Over the past four months, developers from around the world devised apps utilizing real-time MTA data to improve commutes as part of the App Quest 3.0 competition.

In New York City, less than half of the households own a car -- they rely on public transportation -- and in Manhattan, that statistic drops to less than 25 percent, according to NYCEDC. In 2013, the city bus ridership reached more than 677 million, and the NYC subway saw more than 1.7 billion passengers, a number that is likely larger now and will continue to grow.

In an attempt to assist New York City commuters, a global competition called App Quest 3.0 solicited new apps, a few of which just might make an impact: This year's top winners included an app that notifies riders about train arrival times with voice alerts as they approach the stations they most frequent, and an app that allows riders to point their smartphone toward a bus stop to see departure times were among the winners.

“We see apps as a way to help improve our customers’ experiences with us,” said Aaron Donovan, deputy director for external communications for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). “While we have developed or commissioned a number of great apps of our own, we also recognize that the broad app developer community has a huge pool of talent and enthusiasm, and can come up with ideas that we might not. We want to encourage that outside creativity.”

Over the past four months, developers from around the world devised apps utilizing real-time MTA data to improve commutes. Forty-three teams from 10 countries submitted apps, and eight received prizes. A panel of experts in digital, transit and technology from across the state judged the competition, which specifically focused on helping persons with disabilities. 

“This is the third year of the competition, and each year the apps become stronger and stronger,” said Marissa Shorenstein, New York state president of AT&T, one of the sponsors of the competition (App Quest 3.0 was also sponsored by the MTA, Transit Wireless and New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress). “In the past few years we’ve seen some of the winning apps become well-used by New Yorkers. We feel the challenge offers developers anywhere a chance to access MTA data and work on emerging apps and technologies that can transform the experience for New York City residents and tourists.”

To increase MTA transparency and to give developers new forms of data to work with, the MTA released four new sets of raw data this year. App developers were able to use the new data and merge it with existing data to create apps that have never been seen before. 

“Over the years we’ve tried hard to find new and more and better data sets to add to our list, which first went online in 2010,” said Donovan. “And since app developers are directly helping our customers, we make it as easy as we can for developers to acquire a license to use our intellectual property, most of the time for no fee.”

The MTA currently provides 20 sets of data for app developers, including real-time service status for all lines, real-time elevator and escalator status, data on items in the MTA’s lost and found units, and real-time bus locations and subway arrival estimates for trains on eight subway routes and the Staten Island Railway. The MTA also publishes daily traffic volumes at its toll plazas, and the volume of subway customers using each bank of turnstiles at each station every four hours, and at each station based on type of MetroCard. Three to four times each year, the MTA publishes schedules for all MTA services, in raw, machine readable data formatted for app developers.

This year’s competition also incorporated the use of wireless PROMObeacons technology. The PROMObeacons were installed by Transit Wireless as an experimental “proof-of-concept” beta test and placed throughout the Grand Central-42nd Street subway station. In an effort to create solutions to help riders with disabilities or people unfamiliar with New York's transit system navigate safely, enabled apps could use PROMObeacons to know the precise location of an app user within a subway station. Since the AppQuest competition was first launched, Transit Wireless has also activated Wi-Fi and wireless service at 76 subway stations in Manhattan and Queens, allowing data to be accessed and shared even while commuters are underground.

And the Winners Are ...

The grand prize winner for MTA customers with disabilities was YoTrain!, which uses voice alerts to automatically notify riders when the next train arrives and when they are within half a block of any station pre-set in their app. Riders can also receive a text message so train arrival times are in a rider’s hand when they pull out their smartphone. 

“I think many transit riders have had this same dilemma I’ve had,” said John Nguyen, creator of YoTrain.  “You're in a hurry, power walking toward the subway entrance, and wondering if the train is late. Should you take a cab or should you make a run for your train? Combine that with the risk of taking out your phone and dropping it or falling down a wet, slippery subway staircase while looking at your phone. After cracking another screen on my iPhone, I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.’”

Nguyen said voice alerts that speak out the stations and transit times a half a block away even when a phone is locked can be a useful tool for many subway riders, especially those with visual impairment. 

To create the app, Nguyen created a back-end server that continually pulls MTA data and then makes it available on the app.

“YoTrain couldn't have been created without the MTA’s effort in creating an open, real-time data feed with their transit information,” he said. “There are lots of great transit apps out there that help to find routes and times, but you have to stop and search for the information. The goal of YoTrain is to sit behind the scenes and tell you train arrival times when you need to know it.”

Departures NYC, which won the grand prize for best consumer/transit rider app, shows departure times at all bus stops in New York City. Riders point their smartphone at the direction of a bus stop and departure times are displayed on their screen. Real-time data also includes information about delays and service alerts. Riders can retrieve departure information at other stops viewed on a map. 

Additional winners of App Quest 3.0 included: 

  • NYC Accessible provides riders real-time information through email and/or text messages on subway station accessibility, ensuring riders know which services are available at individual stations around the city. Information includes Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility, all elevator/escalator locations and service information, current elevator/escalator outages and estimated return dates. The Web-based app also allows riders the opportunity to share information about their commutes with other riders, the MTA and NYC Accessible. 
  • TravAlarm acts as a journey planner and delay detector for riders across the five boroughs. Riders can set alarms for specific trips and destinations so they can be informed if their normal modes of transportation are experiencing delays. App users have an extra incentive with local businesses signing on as partners to offer discounts or benefits to riders through promotions redeemable directly from the smartphone. 
  • 1-TouchNYC utilizes near field communication and QR codes to connect riders to real-time information about the transportation service options near them. Riders simply scan smart service posters for immediate access to information about train arrival and departure times or how many bikes are available at the nearest bike-share station. 
  • iRideNYC links riders with information on the most up-to-date transit availability – including bike shares, subways and buses – through a Web map. Riders can determine which transit options are closest to their current location and will deliver them to their destination most easily. 
  • ReMap provides commuters with a real-time subway map that visually displays service changes on the map itself. Utilizing MTA service information, the map redraws itself for night and weekend travel. 
  • Navigate is specifically designed to assist visually impaired riders navigate individual subways stations. Riders can receive relevant, location-based directional information about where they are within a station, where specific stairways lead and what platform they are currently on. 
Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at