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Real-time data is now available for ALL New York City subways – thanks to crowdsourcing

Introducing: real-time transit data for MTA’s lettered lines, and (just for kicks) a disruption-proof transit planner, too.

January 19, 2017

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Note: before the MTA released real-time for the lettered subway lines, our app Transit successfully launched a crowdsourced transit tracker. It gave you real-time countdowns, even when subways weren’t being tracked officially. Today we’re happy to report that all subways ARE being tracked in New York, which means you can get countdowns for every line. You can find them on our app, Transit.

If New York City is the world’s biggest apple, then New York’s subways are the world’s biggest worms. And those worms need lots of love:

New York’s subways serve millions of people and (unlike London, Tokyo and Paris) they operate 24 hours a day. That means limited overnight maintenance. Most has to be done over the weekend. Like installing all those coveted countdown clocks.

Every week, the MTA releases a list of all the trains and stations undergoing weekend service changes. The MTA calls the list (rather benignly) “The Weekender”.

We tend to prefer the term “The McClusterf*ck List”.

Does this sound familiar: you’ll plan a trip on Google or Apple Maps (or another transit app), set out for the subway station — only to realize that your train isn’t running? Worse, you have no idea when any other trains are coming because your station doesn’t have countdown clocks?

Don’t despair — today our app Transit is launching two big features that will get rid of all your bushiest transit tangles. Introducing:

  1. Weekend-proofed trip planning for MTA service disruptions
    (and even better…)
  2. Crowdsourced countdown clocks for trains that don’t have them
    (yes: the MTA’s lettered lines + 7 line now have real-time departure info!)

1. Weekend-proofed trip planning

Until today, you’ve had three options to avoid weekend service disruptions in NYC:

  • Check the MTA’s Weekender website, then manually stitch together your revised transit trips (unusual transfers, shuttle buses, etc.)
  • Plan a trip on Apple/Google Maps.
  • Show up to your station, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.✌

All of these options were pretty bad. Unless you’re a hardcore transit nerd, it isn’t easy to understand the MTA’s tortuous weekend advisories — making it impossible to plan around them. That rules out The Weekender.

Or maybe you like to live dangerously and would rather press your luck instead of checking service disruptions on an app. To those brave souls: we wish you luck.

But what if you need more than luck to survive the MTA’s weekend mayhem? You’ll probably try a trip planner like Google Maps. However, none do a terribly good job at handling weekend subway disruptions.

Consider this weekend:

  • Google Maps told us to take the L train when it wasn’t running
  • Google Maps told us to take the 2 train when it wasn’t running
  • Google Maps told us that the F train wasn’t running at all — even though it was only disrupted in Brooklyn! It suggested a trip that unnecessarily took 25% more time, including a 16 minute-long walk
  • Google Maps told us the 7 train wasn’t running at all, when it was only skipping a few stops in Queens. Google freaked out, took the whole train offline, and ended up telling us to take a bus from Manhattan to Queens. WTF?

Why is this happening?

Well, it turns out that Google’s developers (and Apple’s, ours, and everyone else’s) don’t actually have access to any of the MTA’s service disruption data. Literally all we have to work off of is the text on the The Weekender website.

It seems like Google Maps is trying to parse the The Weekender website’s text — but that’s problematic. A single service disruption can take entire pages of textual description.

Unfortunately, Google Maps’ automatic parser messes up. A lot. (Apple doesn’t even try — they just copy key parts of The Weekender and put it in their app. Their actual trip planner doesn’t react to MTA service disruptions at all.)

Apple Maps says the L isn’t running. RIGHT: Apple’s trip planner still takes the L.

So wouldn’t it make sense for the MTA to at least try to publish their service disruption information in a format that transit trip planning apps can use? After all— besides those rare transit geniuses — who can get around the New York subway on the best of days without a trip planner?

Forcing people to use The Weekender or in-station notices is a sick, byzantine joke.

What you need to ride the MTA on the weekend: shoes ✔ shirt ✔ subway ticket ✔ PhD in Transit Studies ✔

Thankfully, one of those rare transit geniuses works for Transit. His name is Leo. Every week, Leo reads The Weekender with his morning coffee, and with a combination of automated tools and human oversight turns The Weekender’s text into data that our trip planner can use ✅

That’s right: Transit is now the first transit app to offer reliable trip suggestions for New York’s weekend transit mayhem.

Three L train alternatives that won’t send you on a wild goose chase

So no matter how messy the MTA’s service disruptions are, including…

  • Added service
  • Removed service
  • Altered service
  • Locals running on express tracks
  • Expresses running local
  • Single-direction service changes, etc.

…we’ll spare you from having to read The Weekender ever again. Which is great news for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who use our app every day. Thanks Leo!

Leo: France’s best gift to NYC since that really big statue

Now for some even BIGGER news:

2. ⏰ Crowdsourced real-time data is now available on ALL transit lines in NYC ⏰

A B C D E F G…. J M N Q R W… 7 and, um, Z.

No: that’s not just our drunken attempt at the alphabet. Those are all the New York City subway lines that were without real-time information. Until 2017.

DECEMBER 2017 UPDATE: the MTA now has official real-time for all lines. Find them with our app Transit on iOS and Android.

The letter lines are taken by the majority of NYC subway riders. So why wasn’t official, agency real-time data available? Well… it’s complicated. But it doesn’t have to be.

Whenever the MTA doesn’t have real-time for a line, you can still find it on Transit. How? Because the magic of real-time crowdsourced transit data is now possible in the city that loves crowds the most: New York, New York.

Here’s how it works:

  • You download our app
  • You plan a trip (or just pick your route) and tap “GO”
  • Our app will detect once your train has departed
  • We’ll then broadcast your anonymized location data (using a tiny bit of mobile data and battery) and make precise departure predictions all the way down the line to fellow riders.
  • Yep it’s that simple.

Finally: all New Yorkers will know when their subway is going to show up!

New York is the fourth place we’ve launched our crowdsourced data pilot. And it will probably be our best: In Montreal, Victoria, and San Francisco, we’re already generating real-time data for thousands of trips a day.

Spotted in Montreal: 3 crowdsourced vehicles coming your way.

However, those “transit trips” are mostly on buses with 60–70 people, not the 1000-person capacity trains you’re used to riding in New York.

What does that mean for New Yorkers? With 10x the riders per vehicle, you have 10x the odds of having crowdsourced departure data for your train. We’re going to help you navigate your big, wormy apple better than anyone else.

Transit is the biggest app for public transportation in North America, with hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers using us every day. Weekend service disruptions are a chronic problem for our riders, and we’re confident that with Leo’s help, you’ll finally be able to navigate around them with confidence.

As for our crowdsourcing pilot? It furthers our goal of creating real-time transit data where it doesn’t exist, and improving data where it does. Riders on the MTA’s lettered lines are no longer the neglected stepchildren without any real-time data.

New Yorkers deserve a transit app that shields them from as much as possible. Whether it’s helping you plan around disrupted subway lines, helping you get better real-time data, we’re here to make sure that transit doesn’t have to be stressful.

So go get our app and start pressing GO. Tell your friends too.

Hakuna matata. ✊

Transit is the official transit app of some of the world’s biggest cities, including Boston, Toronto, and (soon?) New York City.
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