Countdown Clocks and The False Prophet of Innovation

The new countdown clocks have been plagued by inaccuracies ever since they were installed late last year. It’s been tricky parsing all the different explanations I’ve gotten for why this is. Internally, I’m told by a few different sources, it’s considered a big deal. I think it’s a big deal, too, but probably not for the same reasons.

As you have probably noticed, there are two types of countdown clocks: the old-style clocks on the numbered lines (called the A Division) and the new ones on the lettered lines (known as the B Division). Not only do the clocks look different, but the technology behind the arrival times is different, too. The A Division clocks are the customer-facing portion of a system installed in the early 2000s that monitors the precise location of every train, helping improve train dispatching and whatnot.

However, the B Division clocks are not part of some wider train monitoring system. They’re just countdown clocks. To get them operational as quickly as possible, the MTA decided to use bluetooth beacons at the entrances and exits of each platform. In other words, the system only knows when a train has left or entered a station, not where it is between those stations. As a result, the countdown you see is an educated guess based on the scheduled time to get from one stop to the next.

Unfortunately, this makes the B Division clocks prone to inaccuracies. For example, when work is being done on a particular part of the system, trains are rerouted or have to go slower according to work rules. Temporary schedules, called supplement schedules, are issued. There are thousands upon thousands of supplement schedules every year, and even more of them now thanks to the Subway Action Plan. As the Daily News reported earlier this year, it’s hard to keep the countdown clocks accurate when so many supplement schedules are in effect, and a much harder problem for the B Division clocks which are working with less information.

But there are other issues, too. One thing I’ve heard over and over is that the software is simply buggy, the system architecture wasn’t designed particularly well, and small changes break things. They eventually get fixed, but in the meantime people notice they were broken. Most riders have experienced this in one way or another whether it’s a mislabeled train arriving, ghost trains that never arrive, or a mystery train that shows up that wasn’t on the clock. How often such events occur is something that only the MTA has studied with any rigor. I asked the MTA what they found with this study they launched last December, but didn’t hear back, nor have they published any results.

And then there’s the question of why countdown clocks sometimes don’t match other arrival time information. Here are just a few examples:

  • Interactive kiosks in stations: These kiosks are run by a few different companies. One told me they use the GTFS-RT data feeds which gives real-time train information, but I’ve heard at least one other only uses the schedule feed.

  • Discrepancies between countdown clocks and app-based arrival times: if you’ve ever noticed the countdown clocks don’t match, say, Transit or Citymapper or Google Maps, the most likely culprit is the way each individual app handles refresh intervals and how time rounding it handled. But all of these factors combined would explain a one or two minute discrepancy, tops. Anything more severe is probably related to the underlying issues with the data feed discussed above, or perhaps something that specific app is doing.

  • Discrepancies between clocks outside and inside stations: There aren’t many countdown clocks outside of stations, but recently-enhanced stations do have them. One quirk is that the street-facing clocks are programmed not to show the flashing “train arriving” animation. Instead, that train is wiped from the board. I’m not 100 percent sure why—one source told me it’s to prevent people from hurting themselves or others while they run to a train, but the MTA did not respond to an inquiry about this—but at elevated tacks like the recently-renovated 30th/36th Aves in Astoria, you can hear the trains coming anyways so that would be silly.

What can you take away from all this? In short, the B Division countdown clocks should be treated as the estimates that they are, and the further away a train is, the less reliable that estimate will be. Doing some spot checks this week, a train five minutes away might arrive in five minutes, but seemingly just as often in six or seven. Given the technical limitations of the solution the MTA provided, the arrival times are more useful as clues to detect bunching and other proxies for “good” service.

But there’s something much more important about the countdown clocks. That is, why the MTA chose to resort to the inferior bluetooth solution in the first place.

It’s important to note that NYCT doesn’t know where every train on the B Division is at any given time. To solve that, they either have to install the system the A Division has or full-on CBTC which only the L has (which does everything the A Division system does and a whole lot more, including controlling the trains for optimal service). The MTA has chosen to install both, even though there’s no benefit to having both. The Regional Plan Association has spent years railing against that decision and urging the MTA to focus solely on CBTC for its efficiency and capacity benefits, but the MTA’s logic has been that it’s worth doing both because, at its current pace, CBTC won’t be installed across the entire system for oh about a hundred years or so. By comparison, the predicted completion of December 2023 for the train monitoring system is the quick solution. It’s confusing, but to boil it down, the bluetooth solution was a stopgap to a stopgap to the real solution, which will be very useful to our grandchildren, assuming lower Manhattan isn’t underwater by then.

Of course, since all of these decisions were made, Andy Byford has cut through the stopgaps and wants to do CBTC for most of the system by 2030, which if NYCT had sensibly pursued a few decades ago—well, hey, it’s fun to think about, right?

Despite being inferior in every way to the older technology, the bluetooth solution was hailed at the time as cost-effective, “state-of-the-art…new and updated technology” by Governor Cuomo and the MTA. As a society, we have an unhealthy fetishization of “technology” as magical cures for the problems that ail us. The subway is no exception, but we see it everywhere. Yet, at the core of every so-called “technological” solution is people. It’s teams and groups and organizations coming together to make things work. Instead, “technology” or “innovation” are often deployed as lazy short hand for solutions in order to avoid discussing the problem.

The MTA is proposing many important, vaguely technological solutions on the horizon: a new fare payment system (NFPS) and the aforementioned CBTC expedited schedule, to name two of the most important. But even on smaller projects, the MTA often punts to “technology.” We saw this just last week with the Transit Tech Lab. As Spencer Wright of engineering-focused publication The Prepared noted:

The MTA is broken largely due to the fact that neither the city nor the state have the incentive to take it as seriously as it deserves, and it's not at all clear to me that the technological (rather than political) fixes that accelerators tend to produce will be effective in that context.

We can quibble about why exactly the MTA is broken, but it’s certainly in the political and bureaucratic realm. Its technological deficits are the result of those issues, not the cause of them. There’s a reason they had to “innovate” their way to the bluetooth countdown clock, while dozens of other transit systems have functional train monitoring systems with accurate information implemented years prior to the very existence of bluetooth. The false prophet of innovation is such a pernicious one because it prompts a vicious cycle in which innovative solutions are sought that create more problems that must be solved with innovative solutions. It’s vital we don’t mistake the symptoms for the disease.

News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • Port Authority released a study on the LaGuardia Airtrain that was supposed to evaluate alternatives to Cuomo’s preferred route. But, as Alon Levy wrote, “Unfortunately, the study also eliminates all the useful options and prefers to advance only Cuomo’s uselessly circuitous alignment.” And his kicker, well, kicks: “The only real question is whether good transit can happen while the state is governed by a do-nothing administration, headed by a governor who is more interested in a signature project than in improving transportation for his hapless subjects.”

  • The Daily News reports that loose rail was left underneath the tracks risking another potentially dangerous derailment like the one that happened in Harlem last year.

  • “Now I think that what’s become clear is that we got that a little wrong” is a snippet from an MTA planner that caught my eye from this SI Live write-up on the new Staten Island Express routes. The thing about launching new, completely re-designed bus service is there’s virtually no institutional inertia to stick to routes or policies that don’t work, so it’s much easier to simply admit, hey, we got this wrong, let’s change it, especially with good leadership on the project as Byford has demonstrated.

  • The City Comptroller found that reducing fares for LIRR inside the city to $2.75, matching a subway or bus ride and providing free transfers, would be an easy way to add capacity, reduce travel times, and only cost the MTA $50 million a year. The MTA and many LIRR riders aren’t fans. Whether or not it’s a “good” idea or not depends on what you think the point of a regional transit system is, something I increasingly believe New York has yet to figure out.

  • Gothamist wrote this headline straight because the joke writes itself: The MTA Is Creating A ‘Haunted Subway’ For Halloween.

  • I missed that Byford started a weekly blog called Andy’s Update.

  • Having to immediately close 1,500 bus shelters—bus shelters!—because they’re at risk of falling apart on top of people is a low-key contender for NYC transit metaphor of the year.

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log (the links are where I explain the change):

May 25, 2018: June 2022

March 30, 2018: 2030

March 16, 2018: 2024

February 2, 2018: 2021

January 20, 2018: 2020

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.

Weekend:

  • 4 – multiple diversions

    • No service between Brooklyn Bridge and New Lots Av

    • All service is local-only in Manhattan

  • 5 – No service between Grand Central and Bowling Green

  • 7 – No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards

  • D N – Reduced service

  • J – No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • Q – No service between Prospect Park and 96 Street

  • R – No service between 36 St/4 Av and 95 Street

Late Nights:

  • 2 – No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • 3 – No overnight service

  • A – multiple diversions

    • No service between 168 Street and 207 Street

    • Brooklyn-bound service runs via F line between W 4 Street and Jay St

  • E – multiple diversions

    • No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

    • Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • Istanbul now allows commuters to top up their subway cards at “reverse vending machines” where recyclables can be redeemed for fare credit.

  • SEPTA is making a big push to use more renewable energy.

  • Great roundup from Yonah Freemark of the political races around the country and what transit platforms the candidates do (or don’t) have.

  • I’ve been picking on DC Metro officials lately, but it’s hard not to when they say shit like this at their board meeting:

    • “I’d much rather spend money trying to encourage people to use Uber and Lyft to get to the trains.”

    • “Right now the only binding metric we have is growth of the net subsidy. And there’s lots of other ways we should measure how well we’re doing, but that’s the one that dedicated funding was conditioned on.”

    • “It would be crazy for this authority to simply run more trains in off-peak times chasing additional passengers.”

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

“On the train this morning there was a man who had tucked his phone, screen side out, into the corner of his Yankees hat over his right ear. He was listening to the Hot 97 morning show on it, speakers on high, totally impassive facial expression. That was how I heard the Powerball numbers. I don't want to encourage the listening-to-your-phone-on-speaker on the train but I did appreciate this particular disruption of the Bluetooth space.”

Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to signalproblems@substack.com.

Photo credit: Erica Hyman

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, freelance transportation reporter. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

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As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to signalproblems@substack.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.