Experimental Clocks Tell Straphangers if the Wait May Soon Be Over

By Fred Kuhlman • maart 8th, 2010

Heading downtown on the subway the other day, Nerissa Campbell bounded to the edge of an A train platform and assumed the standard straphanger’s stance: neck craned, back hunched, eyes peering down a dark tunnel. Where on earth was that train?

The answer was hanging just a few feet above her head. A digital L.E.D. display, newly installed on the station ceiling, was counting down the minutes until the next express train would arrive — a basic bit of travelers’ guidance that has, until now, remained a rarity in New York.

Electronic arrival-time clocks, a convenience long enjoyed by users of mass transit in London, Paris and Washington, are starting to trickle into New York City’s labyrinthine transportation network, part of a recent push to bring 21st-century technology to a system that runs very much as it did on its first day more than a century ago.

Officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority say the clocks will revolutionize the way New Yorkers get around, soothing the usual anxieties that come with waiting for a bus or train that might never arrive.

Three experiments are now active in the city, including a multimillion-dollar subway tracking system in the South Bronx and GPS-based bus timers along 34th Street that cost the city nothing because a potential vendor picked up the tab.

Each has been promoted as a potential breakthrough for a problem that decades of planning and millions in investments have still not solved.

But a recent tour of stations and bus shelters equipped with the clocks found riders reacting to the new technology with shrugs as well as smiles. And while the clocks are mostly accurate, they all have their quirks.

Ms. Campbell, a jazz singer from Upper Manhattan, had been told by a digital sign at 145th Street that she would have to wait about six minutes for her A train. Eight minutes later, she was skeptical. “It lied!” she said, laughing. “They shouldn’t spend money if they’re not going to get it quite right.”

The clock in question was part of a pilot program that began last month in four stations along the A and C lines. It uses existing track signals to approximate a train’s location, generating estimated arrival times that can be off by more than two minutes.

Still, some trains arrive right on time, and the pilot cost only about $20,000 to install: spare change in the debt-laden world of mass transit in New York City.

“Trains coming more often would be better,” said Lindsey Timko, 23, a filmmaker waiting on the same platform, “but knowing when they’re going to come is a good thing.”

Many riders did not even notice the clocks, saying they never even thought to look up. At the entrance to the 145th Street station, most riders dug into pocketbooks and hurried through the turnstiles, seemingly oblivious to a countdown clock hanging from the ceiling.

On the platform, even those who were aware of the new feature defaulted to the usual method of staring into the tunnel — suggesting that the unconscious rituals of traveling in New York do not easily give way.

“It doesn’t change the way I commute,” said Bianca Ansari, a student at the Alvin Aileydance studio, after a clock was pointed out to her at 145th Street. “We probably don’t trust them. As a New Yorker, you know that nothing works.”

That is an attitude that Jay H. Walder, the chairman of the transportation authority, is trying to change. Mr. Walder, who gained prominence as a planner for the London transit system, has made the widespread implementation of countdown clocks a top priority since taking over the troubled transit agency last fall.

“We all know the experience that we have, every one of us, getting down into the subway and not knowing what’s happening. Literally, looking longingly down the tracks to see if we can see a white light,” Mr. Walder said in an interview. “We can take some of the angst out of the subway and bus experience.”

Knowing how many minutes until the next train will arrive seems like a simple task, but it has stymied New York’s transportation planners for decades.

The city’s subway tracks are equipped with signals that follow trains through the system. That is why trains do not run into one another, or sometimes speed up or slow down to conform to schedules.

But it is hard to harness the information from those signals, and harder still to convert it into an approximate arrival time that can be displayed for passengers. Signals are not routed to a central processing center, so controllers cannot see an entire route at once, and GPS and wireless signals do not travel well underground.

Only a single subway line, the L train, has a complete system of working countdown clocks, and that required installing from scratch an entirely new computerized set of signals. Such a task can disrupt train service for years, not an immediate option in a city so dependent on its public transportation.

But in the last six months, the transportation authority has tried out several new approaches.

Besides the A and C line pilot, eight stations in the South Bronx along the No. 6 line have been equipped with screens that display waiting times for the next four trains heading into the station. An automated voice makes periodic announcements — “The next Brooklyn-bound train will arrive in three minutes”— and the system can differentiate between trains heading to Parkchester or to Pelham Bay Park.

The system, which cost $213 million to implement, works by rerouting signals to a central control center in Midtown that can generate an approximate waiting time using a computer algorithm. That information is then sent back to a communications room at each local station, where it is transmitted to an electronic sign. The signs and a revamped public address system cost an additional $171 million to install. An unscientific survey found that most of the trains arrived almost exactly on time. A few trains mysteriously dropped off the display, and the clocks occasionally jumped around. (For instance, an eight-minute wait suddenly became four.) But when the signs flashed “0 min,” signaling an arrival, a train was almost always entering the station.

“Since it got put up, I find myself really relying on it,” a passenger named Keisha Malcolm said as she waited for train at East 149th Street. “Before you had to wait and see.”

“I was surprised to see them, especially here in the Bronx,” said Mercedes Guzman, who commutes to work from the station. She finds the signs helpful, although she says the automated announcements, which sometimes occur every 30 seconds, are annoying. “The thing I don’t care for is the man talking,” she said.

The authorities are hoping to expand this system within a year to the rest of the numbered subway lines, except for the No. 7. That would bring clocks into four of the system’s busiest stations. But the lettered lines will not receive the clocks until at least 2014.

Bus riders got their own clocks last summer at bus shelters along 34th Street in Midtown, serving the M16 and M34 crosstown lines. These clocks use GPS devices to track bus locations, part of a year-long pilot provided to the city at no cost by Clever Devices, which runs a similar system in Chicago.

A recent survey found the clocks were mostly accurate to within 30 seconds, although many of the passengers chose to peer down the street anyway.

“This is New York City, nothing runs on time,” Leonora Berisaj said as she waited for an M34 bus that took 10 minutes to arrive. “It’s not about the clock,” she added. “It’s about the bus.”


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