Wednesday, February 3, 2010

RIOC Director Jonathan Kalkin On How Technology Can Improve Roosevelt Island's Transportation Problems

MTA Chairman Jay Walder Speaks On Transit Technology

Roosevelt Island Board Director Jonathan Kalkin reports on ways to utilize technology solutions in order to improve Roosevelt Island transportation needs. From Mr. Kalkin:
Roosevelt Island has many transportation concerns that can be alleviated through the use of technology. I have been exploring some new and interesting ways to make travel on and off the Island a more pleasant and efficient experience.

Red Bus
The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) has direct control over the Red Bus used regularly by almost every Islander. There have been many complaints about the reliability, the bunching that results in service gaps, the route, and the frequency. Some residents argue that we need a firm schedule; others respond that a schedule would increase reliability but reduce frequency.

Both are correct. With increased frequency, you get increased maintenance and operating costs and an increased potential for bunching. With a schedule, you get fewer buses per hour. Some argue that the bus should be free, but the system costs about a million dollars a year, and there’s a deficit even with the present fare.

Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking can improve the system. I pushed for GPS tracking technology as a member of the RIOC Operations Committee. It has been installed, and you can access it on the internet or a mobile device at NEXTBUS.COM (click on Roosevelt Island). You can see when the next bus will arrive at your stop, and time your departure or decide to walk. On a mobile device, you can make the wait-or-walk judgment on the fly. (For cell phones without browsers, the information is available via text message.)

Countdown clocks at the bus stops can help, too. The configuration of Main Street makes it difficult to see whether a bus is coming, but a clock can help you decide whether to wait or walk. Thanks to funding arranged by Assemblymember Micah Kellner, we should have such clocks soon.

Tap cards, which are like EZ-Pass, can also help. Boarding, you pay by tapping your card on a terminal, even without taking it out of your purse or wallet. The system can be designed to alert the driver if someone passes without paying, so that both doors can be used for boarding. Ridership statistics pro- vided by such a system can help us apply for funding for further improvement of the overall system. Merchants can offer discounts for owners of these cards to increase patronage at their stores.


Improving the Red Bus system is only a start. Once you’ve reached the Tram or subway station, you may find it hard to board.

The MTA says we have enough trains per hour to accommodate our population. In its recent study, Columbia University agreed. But both noticed that trains are often late and, when the system slows down, there are not enough trains.

The good news is that much of this is on its way to being fixed, but the bad news is that it’s going to take years. Signal systems on the F line are at least a half- century old, but are “newer” than on other lines. They won’t be upgraded anytime soon, but it is part of their capital plan.

Human Behavior

Most people need to get to work by about 9:00 a.m., which creates the morning jam that we call rush-hour. Twenty minutes earlier, the Manhattan platform is not yet a clogged mess, but getting people to leave a bit earlier is difficult without an incentive.

Recognizing this, many cities use congestion pricing, charging more at peak travel times. Our new MTA chairman, Jay Walder, adopted this approach in London. Here, it can help spread the load, too.

The MTA also noted that people wait in one small area of the subway platform rather then spreading out. Cars fill unevenly, and boarding is more difficult. Signs can advise passengers to move to the part of the platform served by cars that are less jammed.

Commuters should also contact the managers of their stations about problems. The necessary e-mail addresses are on the MTA website, and I’ve suggested posting them in the stations as well.


When the MTA updates the current F train signal system, it may introduce countdown clocks on the platforms. Once they are in place, they can post other information, too.

Information about elevator availability, for example, would help the disabled know in advance what problems they might encounter down the line.

The disabled would also be helped by signs at wheelchair-eye-level (with the traditional blue and white colors for such signs), and signs showing the proper way to help a wheelchair passenger board (backward) would be helpful. And the MTA should mark the floors of the subway cars and the wheelchair loading area with signage to reserve space for wheelchair passengers.


Partial funding and ideas should come from private industry and open-source (free) software com- petitions. The initial GPS Red Bus installations were funded by the developer of The Octagon. Verizon FIOS will provide the internet infrastructure that will power much of the technology discussed in this article. Subway screens can be designed with open- source software competitions, and can be supported with on-screen advertising. Private industry can innovate at a greater speed than government bureaucracy.

Technology won’t solve all our transportation problems, but it can make our commute easier as the Island’s population grows. We were once at the forefront of technology in New York City, and there is no reason why we can’t lead again.
More information here on how to contact the MTA's Subway Line Managers including the one for Roosevelt Island's F Train.

Mr. Kalkin's report also appeared in the 1/30 Main Street WIRE as part of a series on the future of Roosevelt Island.


wes said...

I think the Red Bus system is actually far ahead of the MTA's bus system at this point and I appreciate that Mr. Kalkin has addressed most, if not all, of the issues that concern me still about the service. My main concern is the current fare payment system, however. I agree that an EZ-Pass type system would greatly improve the speed at which the buses can load passengers and convenience of payment. The main issues that I usually face are that I am not always able to conveniently get change for the bus and the "dollar bill-to-change card" method is a bit slow especially when multiple people are having to resort to this boarding the same bus at rush hours. It would be nice to at least have a change machine at the train station if not at multiple locations along the bus route. Or even better might be a machine much like the MTA's MetroCard machine that would dispense the RIOC Red Bus Change Card in addition to quarters. Overall, I think we're pretty lucky to have such technological conveniences that are strangely lacking in most of NYC's transit system.