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

The Verge logo The Verge 10/10/2018 Andrew J. Hawkins
a passenger train that is sitting on a subway car © Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales /The Verge

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.”

Technologists and engineers interested in participating have until November 30th to submit their products to the MTA for beta testing. To evaluate submissions, the MTA is eschewing the normal bureaucratic red tape and convening a panel of experts and specialists to pick the winning companies.

The panel includes: Reilly Brennan, general partner, Trucks Venture Capita; Shana Fisher, managing director, Third Kind Venture Capital; Maria Gotsch, president and CEO, Partnership Fund for New York City; Nick Grossman, general manager, Union Square Ventures; Dylan Hixon, principal, Arden Road Investments; Brian Keil, managing director, NYS Innovation VC Fund, Empire State Development Corporation; Linda Kirkpatrick, executive vice president, U.S. Market Development, Mastercard; and Kevin Ryan, chairman and founder, Zola, Workframe, Nomad Health, Mongo DB.

The most promising companies will be selected to participate in an eight-week accelerator program starting in February where they will be able to refine their products. At the end of the program, the MTA will select successful companies for a 12-month pilot with the transit system.

The problems facing the MTA are very familiar to commuters: dangerous overcrowding, an aging signaling system, crumbling infrastructure, declining ridership, and, at the center of it all, is a pointless political feud over whose responsibility it is to fix it between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Last year, the MTA launched an $800 million rescue plan to fix the system; since then, agency officials insist things are (slowly) improving.

But that’s not evident to most New Yorkers, who regularly vent their frustration with the city’s subways and buses on social media. And for some, the worst is yet to come: in just six months, the tunnel under the East River that serves the L train will shut down for 15 months, displacing roughly 275,000 people who take the L every day.

This isn’t the first time the MTA has sought providence from the tech world. Last year, the agency announced the Genius Challenge, which called on transit experts to submit proposals for improving the crumbling subway system. The winning proposals, which were announced in March, included robotic communications systems, wireless signals, and modular subway cars. The eight winning teams will split $2.5 million in grant money.

The Tech Lab project doesn’t involve any prize money, though. Asked why anyone should help the MTA, a $15 billion agency, for free, Foye said, “In the real world, there aren’t stipends, there aren’t prizes.” Moreover, there’s nothing to stop these tech companies from trying to make money from whatever solutions they end up submitting to the MTA.

“This is an opportunity to sit down with the MTA and help come up with a product that can help deal with challenges on the subways and buses,” Foye said, “and for these companies to make profit is plenty of incentive.”

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