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NYC Subway is replacing printed maps with low-resolution digital maps (twitter.com)
151 points by danso 46 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 172 comments

I feel the tone of this tweet is needlessly hysterical. The NYC Subway is experimenting with digital maps, OK. The first version isn't perfect, OK. And they responded almost immediately indicating they're making improvements and listening to feedback. Isn't that what we want? Give them a second maybe?

It's rarely a good thing when a tweet tells you more about the personality of the tweeter than the ostensible subject at hand. Calm down, jesus.

I don't think you appreciate the rate of change around here. When something new gets put in place, it's there for a long time. We are still listening to incoherent stop announcements from 50-year -old speakers that should have been retired in the nineties.

These screens will probably be around for at least twenty years. They aren't good, a waste of money from an institution that is already cash-strapped.

> We are still listening to incoherent stop announcements from 50-year -old speakers that should have been retired in the nineties.

That's only on the older trains that are being replaced. Every new train on the main red, green, and blue lines have recorded stop announcements for at least the last 10 years.

Everybody knows that NYC subway isn't as modern as a lot of systems but don't forget that it's by far the largest subway system in the world and also one of the oldest.

They've installed LTE in almost all the stations now and are rolling out contactless payments. Progress is being made to modernize but it's not happening overnight.

> don't forget that it's by far the largest subway system in the world

Citation needed.

It is the 6th largest after Shanghai (676km) , Beijing (628km), Guangzhou (478km), London (402km), and Moscow (397km). NYC has 380km in comparison. (1)

NYC has a lot of stations compared to anywhere else, but in my experience the stations in NYC are often basically just a set of steps going down from the street, then a simple turnstile leading to a bare platform with basically no other facilities at all (e.g. you cant even change directions without going outside back up to the street and back down through the turnstile again ... I don't think there are even chairs?). Compare this to some stations elsewhere in the world where there is significantly more going on in a station (e.g. Paris, Moscow, London etc). Some of the larger stations in NYC have a bit more in terms of infrastructure, but a lot of the time there is basically nothing down there (and they are dark and filthy) and I can't imagine they are a significant source of strain on the system compared to the other parts (tracks, signals, rolling-stock, bridges, tunnels etc)

1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_metro_systems

It has 380 route-km but a lot of it is four-tracks, two local and two express. Most other subways only have two-track lines and few express segments.

As a result, NYC has 1182 track-km.

> a bare platform with basically no other facilities at all (e.g. you cant even change directions without going outside back up to the street and back down through the turnstile again ... I don't think there are even chairs?).

This simply isn't accurate.

You can change directions at most stations. Generally the only stations where you can't are local stops, with side platforms, and no lobbies... that configuration certainly exists but definitely isn't the majority.

Regarding chairs, off the top of my head I can't think of a single station that has no seating whatsoever. I mean there's probably a small handful like this, but it's definitely a tiny tiny minority.

> Some of the larger stations in NYC have a bit more in terms of infrastructure, but a lot of the time there is basically nothing down there (and they are dark and filthy)

What's the appeal of large stations? Big lobbies just add significant walking time to get to the platform. Also means more space for the transit authority to maintain, clean, and police.

As for cleanliness, personally I'd rather have a dirty 24/7 system than a clean part-time system.

>I don't think there are even chairs?

It isn't that they didn't have chairs, it's that they can't have chairs.

The homeless problem in NYC is bad and it just happens subway stops are better than above ground when winter comes. Call it mean, I think it is unfair but homeless people belong elsewhere than the subway.

NYC's homeless problem isn't even as bad as comparatively tiny places like Seattle or Portland where it's completely disgusting and sad. I left Seattle in 2009 and went back for a month last year and the homeless population looked like it had doubled despite so much investment and modernization happening in downtown over the last decade.

Sure NYC doesn't have the worst homeless problem, but it's still got one. And that's typically the reason for what may seem like otherwise stingy or stupid decisions.

Because that investment and modernization drives out the less fortunate onto the streets. Nobody is investing in affordable housing, it's all luxury apartments to sell to foreign buyers and maybe that one kid who made a few million selling his startup. Then they dress up the surronding area to pump their investment's value.

Even on luxury housing the profit margin isn’t great.

It isn’t really possible to “invest” in affordable housing without significant government subsidies. After all the difference between a normal apartment building and a luxury one is what? Hiring a concierge and buying a brushed metal fridge for the apartments instead of a white one? It doesn’t actually cost much different.

Street homelessness in US cities by and large isn’t about affordability, it’s about the inability and/or unwillingness to either cure or isolate the profoundly mentally ill or addicts that make up the vast majority of persistent street homeless.

Homelessness in the broader sense which includes people sleeping on couches or in shelters is much more linked to affordability. Unfortunately there’s not great vocabulary to distinguish among rather distinct issues.

> Nobody is investing in affordable housing, it's all luxury apartments

Please, tell me of a city in the US that's built affordable housing within the past 50 years - not luxury housing that got old and thus cheap, and not luxury housing that gets subsidized by the city.

A bunch of stations do have chairs though.

seating for 10, while there are hundreds, is barely anything. But I guess at least that's good for people who really need it

Who really cares about the quality of the stations, though? They seem fine to me. The number is more important. The more you have, the easier it is to get between any two points without taking a car or doing a ton of walking.

yeah I'm referring to stations, not miles of track. nyc has a ridiculous number of stations that causes the whole system to be a lot more complicated and expensive than just running miles of track with nothing in between.

The expensive part is not really the stations, the expensive part is that the design prioritizes one seat rides over transfer connections.

The station spacing is not really an issue in New York since the subway has express overlays and the commuter rail system for even faster travel. This is compared to Beijing or Shanghai, which have no/poor regional rail to speak of.

Shanghai has started building regional rail recently, and there are quite a few 50+ km subway lines that act like regional rail in practice. Map:


But the undisputed king of subway/regional integration is Tokyo, where virtually every subway line runs directly onto regional rail, often at both ends.


When I say regional, I mean something like the RER with sparse inner city stop spacing. Tokyo, for example, has the Chuo Rapid as an express overlay through the center of Tokyo. Which one of those new Shanghai lines matches that description?

> This is compared to Beijing or Shanghai, which have no/poor regional rail to speak of.

This is really curious. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai have subways optimized for short-distance travels, and high speed trains for long-distance travels, but not much for medium-distance trips like from one edge of the city to another. How so? Is it just because the demand isn't there?

Most governments, when building out subways, will choose to build two lines out and get twice the coverage rather than build one local and one express line that serve the same location.

New York was able to avoid this choice starting out, because its CBD and densest areas (Manhattan) are built out in a long, narrow fashion, and you can only thread so many lines through such a narrow space before you start having to make choices between missing transfers and building stops way too close, so the decision was made early on to concentrate tracks for easier transfer facilities.

It's also worth noting that New York's subway was built in an era where buses and streetcars were slow (and in some cases still pulled by horses), so the local lines have stop spacing optimized for walking to a station and the express lines are the actual commuting heavyweights that people transfer to. More modern subways are designed with medium-speed last mile transfers in mind, either via cars that park and ride (BART, DC) or lots of bus transfers (Asian systems.)

Eventually a city becomes too big and belatedly realizes that it needs to have regional express service running through the city, because transferring rail+subway+rail is way too slow. Cities that developed first during the Industrial Revolution can depend on the dense legacy rail networks that were developed during that time (Paris RER, Berlin S-Bahn, London Crossrail) and this mostly consists of building connecting tunnels through the city center with stops at major activity centers.

Those cities that developed during the 20th century mostly don't have dense legacy rail networks, and have to new build after the fact, which can be hard and difficult. Seoul is building a similar network to the above cities, but it's a massively expensive project that they have to build 50-60m underground because no provisions were made to accommodate it before hand. I suppose Beijing and Shanghai will get around to building such a network when they reach a similar level of wealth and can afford it.

On the Q train in Brooklyn, in the beginning, the distance between stations is very puzzling. There is what appears to be a block distance between Sheepshead Bay and Neck Road, and Brighton Beach and Ocean Parkway. Why...

I think that's just how the system was designed. The local stations feed express stations, and the express trains are what you ride to minimize travel time.

I think it all broke down when the city took over, didn't have any money, and cut the frequency of trains. You stopped being able to rely on a timed transfer, and so you often find yourself stuck on a local train because stopping every 5 seconds is still better than waiting 20 minutes for the express train.

The official policy of the MTA that I read a couple years ago is for trains to always try to make the timed transfer outside of rush hour. But my experience is that they stopped doing this when people started writing newspaper articles about on-time performance. Better to have an empty train arrive at the terminal on time than for it to be a minute late because it waited for the express. The customers got exactly what they asked for ;)

Where in the world are there subways with miles of track and nothing in between?

Well, all the cities with more miles of track but fewer stations than NYC.

It’ll be decades before all of the trains from the ‘70s and ‘80s (pre-recorded-announcement systems) are replaced and all trains have recorded announcements and decent speakers.

Heck, we’re only just now starting to replace the last of the trains (R32s) from the early 1960s (the trains that were supposed to replace them ended up instead replacing some ‘70s trains (R44s) that turned out to have a construction or design flaw that caused them to fail earlier than expected).

And the agency is basically bankrupt.

Decades to next upgrade the crappy waste of money digital displays seems to me to be a reasonable conjecture.

> Everybody knows that NYC subway isn't as modern as a lot of systems but don't forget that it's by far the largest subway system in the world and also one of the oldest.

Paris and London’s subway are older, around the same size, and much much much more modern than NYC. Underinvestment is what makes NYC’s metro shitty.

Paris and London's subway systems are not comparatively sized. Paris has more than 100 fewer stations than NYC. It's about 60% the size. London is even smaller.

Note that the count of 270 stations usually given for London excludes the DLR and the Overground, which are effectively part of the same system. The DLR has 45 stations and the Overground 112. It's perhaps debatable how much of the Overground should be included in the count, but the DLR certainly should.

London spends half as much per passenger mile as NYC. A mile of subway in Paris or London costs 1/7 as much to build as in NYC. What makes NYC’s metro shitty is that New Yorkers are running it.

Why are we cash strapped? Everyone from the governor and the state legislature to the unions and private contractors seem to be hell bent on destroying it.

Why won't NYS put more money into the subways? Why can't we get driverless trains? Why do trains have to slow to a crawl if there is work being done two tracks over? Do we need barriers between tracks? So many low hanging fruits blocked by greed and short term self interest.

Why put in more money, when the money we put in already is so inefficiently spent? Let the MTA prove they can be a good steward and then I’d be all for spending more on them as needed.

Has starving poorly run government authorities ever worked?

Is more than $20B/year a starvation diet?

> Is more than $20B/year a starvation diet?

You are absolutely right but I still think USD 20B is not enough.

How much of the GDP of the Empire State is (directly or indirectly) because of the city? Everyone benefits when the city has better infrastructure. Yes, the unions are at fault. I too get angry when the overtime nonsense making the news.

> After five hours, all he could explain is what a chief measurement operator does — claiming Caputo is “one of only a few people” who can operate an “advanced track-geometry car,” which examines the rails for defects.

> Overtime payments surged to more than $1.3 billion across the entire MTA last year, up from $1.2 billion the year before, according to Empire Center data.

> Tarek justified the megasized paychecks by saying the agency has been working on major upgrades recently, and claiming it is often cheaper to pay an existing employee overtime than to hire another person for the same work.


Yes, this is a problem. I don't have a solution but I think the solution to this problem will also help introduce self-driving trains and help us reduce head count at the agency which should help decrease costs.

The unions blocked driver only trains on the L line. What makes you think they’ll allow self driving trains?

And it’s not just unions either. The capital spending side is also monstrously inefficient.

As far as solutions go, I don’t blame you for not having one but I can’t support any additional money when we can’t even have confidence that it will actually improve anything rather than just going directly into even waste, fraud, and abuse.

Possibly. The assets even in their poorly maintained are worth $1T. In that context it’s about .02% of value a year.

A quick Google search suggests that homeowners are recommended to budget 1% of home value for maintenance.

I don’t think that’s a good metric. Why does a house outside OKC require so much less spending on upkeep than a similarly sized and aged house in SV?

Rules of thumb often don't work for outliers.

In the case of Silicon Valley, I would think that service prices would tend to make up some of the difference.

> Rules of thumb often don't work for outliers.

How much more of an outlier can you get than a subway system in NYC when the rule of thumb is for single family homes nationwide?

NYC MTA is not at all cash strapped. It’s budget is significantly bigger than transport for london’s, and the two cities have very similar systems.

If the MTA upgraded its facilities at the rate that people on HN want, then there would be articles on HN complaining about the MTA wasting money on needless upgrades.

Analog life is never going to be what people on HN want it to be.

sorry, I can't tell if you're saying that HN people want MTA upgrades or not.

As far as I'm concerned, low-tech solutions in the meatspace are frequently the best ones. Signage of static assets like subway maps should be paper. We've got these short-and-wide red LED signs for "next train in 4 minutes", those should be digital, but they're getting phased out in favor of LCD screens, that's dumb.

Those big new screens showing ads… I guess if they bring in more revenue, great? But if they double as notices for service interruptions, the serious stuff ought to show up more frequently than once every 12 screens…

All anyone wants is some common sense and not expensive change for change's sake. Low-res digital subway maps are stupid, full stop.

Or the regularly inaccurate station countdown clocks which took 11 years to roll out.

It’s really bizarre. There’s so much to criticize about the transit system here but the majority of what’s done (or perhaps what bubbles up on popular websites) is weird breathless criticism of things that either don’t matter or are small enough to be minutiae.

- Bring the NYC subway fully under the control of the city: remove Albany from the decision making process so we can actually fund the system.

- Charge based on distance.

- Stop policing poverty. E.g. stop paying cops to arrest fare jumpers and fix shit instead.

Charging based on distance would be a huge fuck you to the city’s most cash strapped.

I think the single fare is one of the city’s most egalitarian features and I hope it stays that way.

In this age of inequality further burdening those with the least is the last thing we should be doing.

I’d much prefer a tax on residences which stay vacant for more than six months a year, and a tax on empty store fronts encouraging store front rents to drop enough to let back in some more Mom and Pop stops to shop instead of yet another bank, Walgreens, or Subway.

I should have been more clear in my comment that we need to allow the lower classes free access to the subway. You're absolutely right that distance-based fares with no support structures would fuck a lot of vulnerable people.

In what fantasy land does that raise sufficient revenue?

> Bring the NYC subway fully under the control of the city: remove Albany from the decision making process so we can actually fund the system.

Great. Then you can also cut out the statewide taxes and the local taxes for counties that are in the MTA region, but where the vast majority of people don’t use the MTA.

> weird breathless criticism of things that either don’t matter or are small enough to be minutiae.

It’s bikeshedding.


About charge based on distance. I don't know about NYC in particular, but I would not support that where I live without thourough understanding what actually drives the costs in the system. It is not uncommon that commuters in far away suburbs, that commute far, actually get quite poor service, considering for example number of options for transit. Fewer trains or buses, etc. My guess is that what drives the costs is staff, and staff per square km is most likely higher in central parts of the system. So a fair fee strucure could very well be completely different than per distance.

Commuters that are coming into NYC itself from the suburbs are already paying distance pricing for the MetroNorth and LIRR which break up the routes into zones and your fare is based on how many zones you transition.

Also don't forget trains physically still cost money to maintain. The longer distance they travel, they sooner they'll need to undergo maintenance. As one example, the wheels they roll on do need to be taken off, inspected, repaired/replaced on fixed schedules.

The longer they travel with less people moved, the more expensive it is.

Another case is that the fuel or electricity they use isn't free either.

Bring the NYC subway fully under the control of the city: remove Albany from the decision making process so we can actually fund the system.

You trust City management more than I do. How did NYCHA work out? How about the endless proliferation of agencies being created, hand-outs to City employees and contractors?

Stop policing poverty. E.g. stop paying cops to arrest fare jumpers and fix shit instead.

Putting aside the debate about fare evasion and its relation to budget, being discussed here, how does not 'paying cops' and paying someone else (?) play a role?

So do you trust the state government more? We have to pick one, or you just end up with the current situation:

The amount of time and money being spent on policing fare jumpers is so small as to be effectively zero. But it's a point people will try to make all the same.

Distance based charging is absolutely coming long term. The contactless system is the ground work for it. It cannot be implemented with metrocards currently without creating absolutely massive bottlenecks to leave stations at rush hour.

How does contactless avoid that bottleneck problem? Even if you have a system with 99% or more success rate on first "swipe", it's still going to bottleneck quite badly.

Ever take the CTA in Chicago? Completely contactless.

Discounting the speed walkers who nearly cartwheel over the turnstile we manage to put millions through a day without bottlenecking the fare/board process even on busses (with the exception of those types of riders who will watch the bus coming down the road blocks away and still forget to have their pass ready)

“- Charge based on distance. - Stop policing poverty. E.g. stop paying cops to arrest fare jumpers and fix shit instead.”

What’s the point of tinkering with the fare structures if you want to make it pay-what-you-wish anyway?

I think you misunderstand. You'd still be made to pay, if you look like you've got a job. In San Francisco, the fare inspectors know exactly whose tickets they should check and whose they shouldn't.

Cops are being paid regardless. Fare jumping costs the system a non-trivial amount of money.

It may be hyperbolic, but it is drawing attention to the fact that a cash-strapped system has spent money trying to (and failing to) fix something that was not broken.

It's only failure if you side with the overly dramatic guy on twitter complaining about non-interactive screens.

Everyone that's been to a shopping mall knows how consistently broken information touch-screens are. Suggesting they put interactive maps in a subway is just silly.

The digital maps are to show realtime service information, train-times, etc. It is an improvement, and if you want a printed map, you can just ask for one at the booth.

The whole "my map isn't in 4k" argument is whiny, at best.

Because public transit is one of those things that should prioritize accessibility/safety above everything else (this isn't firmware hacking with arduinos). Low res screens do nothing but harm accessibility standards in the long run and alienate the people they're designed to help.

Mucking about with public transit and changing the way humans determine how to move themselves between home, work, health and play is not something to do lightly, and when servicing the public, all ages and needs should be considered. A map that is not readable is a pretty big deal.

Or like SVG with tappable nodes via D3???

This is a design decision that was neglected, plain and simple

You can tell from the photo that the low res is from the screens physical pixel density, not a poor optimized taster graphic. SVG wouldn’t help here.

Also, interactive maps aren’t as simple as “make it from D3.js”. You’ll have a screen that thousands of people interact with every day, likely. The UX needs to be thoroughly considered so that it’s non fuck-uppable or breakable. That’s actually the #1 problem with digital maps, they break.

Elaborate on how a D3 map would break?

You'd have to replace these screens, which are not touchscreens.

are they interactive in some capacity?

That's not how twitter works if you want engagement though. You need to hit that outrage sweet spot.

This is the new world we live in. Intense and hysterical knee-jerk reactions to even the smallest things.


Is it just me, or does anyone else think that the Twitter user is being fairly tame, and everyone here calling him "hysterical" are the ones overreacting?

It's not a small thing as it implicates millions in their daily lives. So a bad design decision on this scale trickes upwards and has huge costs for a society. The points the tweeter made were very well thought out. Everything should always be up for debate.

Most people using the subway aren't using those maps to begin with.

Not only did I downvote you, but I will specifically comment to tell you that you are both wrong, and even if you were right, it would be irrelevent. "Most" being what, 90%? 95%? So out of a city of 8.6M people, only 50,000 people a day need it to get around. Only 50,000 people need it to be able to move around from their home, the airport, the hospital and the restaurant.

Twitter is all about broadcasting people's unfiltered thoughts.

Twitter thoughts are more than unfiltered: the emotions have to be dialed up to the max for the tweet to stand out and get positive feedback. Small things get amplified AND they get interpreted as unfiltered thoughts.

In what world is the tone of the rely hysterical? They’re suggesting that things that aren’t broke shouldn’t get fixed. And to keep accessibility in mind when testing.

The problem is that this agency is not exactly a move-fast/break-things agile organization. They probably put out the call for bids for this junk five years ago, which means whatever is wrong with it today will be with us for five years, after they put out the CFP to fix it.

This was my exact thought. I fear that people translate a thought like "my train to work was crowded today" into something like "here are 8 points, all stupid, on how I hate your maps". The guy seems mad and complaney, not someone providing actual feedback.

Having infrastructure for digital maps is a good plan. The service patterns change at night. There is construction during all off hours that results in trains being rerouted. A digital map just shows you exactly what the state is right now. That is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Making the taxpayers buy super high resolution not-yet-invented displays instead of off-the-shelf $200 TVs to make this guy happy doesn't seem worth it. Just make the text a little bit bigger, or even redesign the map completely.

Do small things first -- make the countdown clocks work. It will go a long way towards making people believe MTA digital projects.

Make sure that when the electronic sign says that the train is "2 minutes away" it actually shows up in 2 minutes.

If a sign says train is "6 minutes away" there should not be a train entering a platform 2 minutes later.

If you think “make the countdown clocks work” is a small thing you haven’t researched this problem thoroughly.


Yes, it is a very small thing.

Start with automated lines ( the L ) where you know the location of every train. You know the speed of every train at every point. Now it is a standard algebra problem that 15 year olds were solving 20 years ago in algebra/comp sci exams, using pen and paper - it was pre-calc so they invented how they could divide the track into equal section and compute the time it takes the train it should take the train to get to the station by approximating the unknown time based off the time that it took the train to pass the sections behind it. On non-automated lines start by adding god damn train trackers to the individual trains and start splitting the blind sections of the track by adding cameras and sensors. They don't need to make the lines automatic. They just need to add visibility.

None of this is difficult. MTA and "infrastructure is hard" people are full of excuses. They are the same people who were saying that the L should be fully shutdown for 18 months when now we have MTA announcement that even with the partial shutdown they are way ahead of schedule with the tunnel work so they can start doing the station work.

There should never be the case when it says a train is 8 minutes away and a train behind it is 9 minutes away when a train gets to the station in 2 minutes and the train behind it gets to the station in 5 minutes.

What you've done there is you've found a very complicated way to solve entirely the wrong problem. Bravo, I guess.

"I hate the way our application is written. We need to be able to instrument it and also rewrite all that icky old logic. Basically we should rewrite the entire thing. It will take us about 3 years"

On non-automated lines start by adding god damn train trackers to the individual trains and start splitting the blind sections of the track by adding cameras and sensors. They don't need to make the lines automatic. They just need to add visibility.

This is not a small thing

Yes, because MTA does not have a right of way or power in the tunnels. Oh wait, it does! It must be because Wifi/BT enabled trip sensors sensors don't exist. Oh wait, they do. So it must be because we have never done Bluetooth/wifi tracking of clients based on addresses. Oh wait, we did.

They are already using Bluetooth transponders on B-division trains. The arrival time is then inferred from the arrival of that transponder at the previous station.


I think they rolled this out from prototype to full implementation in less than a year, which is very impressive.

> There should never be the case when it says a train is 8 minutes away and a train behind it is 9 minutes away when a train gets to the station in 2 minutes and the train behind it gets to the station in 5 minutes.

This is like complaining about a car trip taking less time than Google Maps predicted, due to an accident ahead of you getting cleared up before you reach that stretch of road.

Unpredictable things happen on public transit: sick passengers, police activity, signal problems, mechanical failures, cascading delays causing platform crowding and longer board times. These things cause delays, and then on the tail-end of the event, sometimes they cause trains to be "early" when the delay clears up. Even then, though, in my experience it's pretty rare that the train comes before the time on the countdown clock.

All things considered, I find the countdown clocks to be pretty accurate a vast majority of the time. And they're certainly a huge improvement over how things were before they were installed: a loud beeping noise about a minute before the train arrived, sometimes paired with a muffled inaudible announcement from the station attendant over an ancient PA system.

So about 30 minutes after I posted it I'm on the L and there's a train to Lorimer at in 8 minutes, train to Manhattan in 19 minutes. That's on the countdown clock. This will put the Manhattan train above the Broadway Junction.

There's an announcement on the loud speaker that there's no service between Broadway Junction and Canarsie in both directions because of police activity. Two minutes later, according to the count down clock there's a train to Lorimer in 6 minutes and to Manhattan in 17 minutes. Followed by 5 - 16 and 3 - 13. There's still an announcement that there's no service between Broadway Junction and Canarsie in both directions. But there are magical countdown clock connected trains that will be now here in 3 minutes and 10 minutes. Oh wait, the magical clock is saying there's a train entering a platform! It is going to Lorimer and it is followed by a train to Manhattan! The clock is at zero and it is blinking! All aboard the subway track! This went on for about 40 minutes. Twitter says there's no service. Countdown clock says there's a train coming! Google transit says there's no train. Countdown clock says there's one! And when the service was restored the countdown clock said the next train was going to Lorimer and it was finally 6 minutes away. Except that a train to Manhattan was pulling into the station.

The countdown clocks are garbage because the only time that they matter is when there are sick passengers, police activity, mechanical failures and cascading delays -- otherwise we know the train will be here in about ~4-5 minutes and that's exactly the time when the countdown clocks cannot provide reliable information.

MTA should finish that project and make it work. After that they can pick their next "digital initiative"

The L train is pretty hosed on nights and weekends until summer 2020. Yes, the countdown clocks specifically on the L are often wrong on nights/weekends during this project. It's not surprising. Do you have an example on a line that isn't undergoing a historic multi-year construction project?

Sure. G. It is always fun to watch the train on Lorimer heading towards queens to be 13 minutes away just to see it arrive.

The point is it does not matter if the L is going through the historic reconstruction project -- countdown clock should depend on two pieces of real time data and one piece of historic ( same trip data ) from previous sections:

1. Position of the train which is always known on the L because it is an ATC line.

2. Speed of the train. Also known because it is an ATC line.

The distance between stations is fixed. The data about speed and the distance train covered at t-1 and t-2 is known.

So it is algebra + basic message passing architecture + LCD displays connected to the local systems.

2. Speed of the train

maybe it's just my train, but the countdown clocks have always been pretty accurate for me.

Yes they are on the whole. But that one time there was some unexpected delay, and it ruins any goodwill the clock built up in the eyes of the rider. It's quite frustrating to see.

I have seen them wrong, it didn't ruin the goodwill. What I take away from the clocks are minor delays that don't get mentioned in the official notifications. I often see arrival times like "1 3 15 21" (literally a sample taken right now for my home station) and know something is wrong, but there is no communication from the MTA about it. I then choose an alternate route.

What the MTA needs to fix is when the schedule says that trains run every 3 minutes, the countdown clock needs to look like "1 4 7 10", not "1 4 33 36".

The purpose of the countdown clock is to provide information about that "unexpected delay". The clock is irrelevant if the trains are arriving every 3-4 minutes.

Think of this being an autoscaling group. The argument that people make sounds like "Well, autoscaling group works fine when one instance can handle all the traffic. We are happy with it." It is not an achievement to have an autoscaling group work when it has one instance in it.

> It's rarely a good thing when a tweet tells you more about the personality of the tweeter than the ostensible subject at hand. Calm down, jesus.

On some level, isn't this just the nature of twitter?

I suspect that these were changed because paper is missing a very important feature desired by NYC, ads.

It seems like then most likely reason they would roll out such expensive maps is so they can display ads and “recoup” their costs.

This would infuriate me greatly if I was rushing through the subway, trying to figure out my stops and it switched over to an ad for a few seconds.

However, displaying in different languages would be nice.

It frustrates me when orgs, especially ngo and gov, will incur some needless or not very necessary cost, then layer on some new burden like ads to try to pay for the expensive new thing. Thinking critically about cost and benefit helps in planning and avoiding these types of situations.

Highly cynical response. It pretty clearly states in their reply that one of the main motivations is to eventually display more real-time information like outages and maintenance. Not easy to do with static paper maps. In fact when I was living there, they had a bulletin board in every station that had to be updated by a human posting a flyer when their were outages.

Real-time information on real-time displays, static information on static displays. Maps are extremely cheap, change rarely, and should be everywhere. Don't remove the map from in front of my eye while I'm using it in order to warn me about maintenance that doesn't concern me, or give me a terrorist warning I've heard a thousand times.

Not cynical, realistic. I'm not american and was hugely surprised at how little digital information is provided in the NYC Metro compared to other large public transportation systems (Berlin, Paris, London) and that the few screens I came across spend a good part of the time displaying ads instead of service information (e.g. when the next train is coming). I understand the need for ads, but they could perhaps have printed maps next to the ad screen and cheap LED screens for service times or split the screen in info/ad sections.

You should see the screens in the Toronto subway. About 90% of the screen area is used for ads and 10% for next train arrival time. Example here:


Oh, and the screens were provided for "free" by a media company.

We have those kinds of screens plastered all over public transport in Scandinavia too.

We have an extensive public transport system especially with busses, but now there are up to 12 screens of inescapable news and advertisements with short blinks of actual info in each one.

It's infuriating and reminds me of the dystopian scenarios in Verhoeven movies. I distinctly remember seeing the subway scene in total recall from 1990 and thinking, that's a bit extreme.

But here we are lol - it's amazingly dark.

> when I was living there, they had a bulletin board in every station that had to be updated by a human posting a flyer when their were outages.

They still have that and it's a perfectly good way to get a quick look at what changes are being made to your train for the weekend or a coming holiday. Cheap, analog notices like that aren't bad just because it's not displayed on a futuristic interactive touch screen.

Empirically true actually. The hardware for screen buildouts is branded Outfront Media (https://www.outfrontmedia.com/media/transit/rail?), including the mounts and cable conduits.

> Highly cynical response.

There are already screens displaying advertising in NYC subway stations.

They were in place before adding maps.

Definitely cynical. Both in guessing intent and not believing the official posts at all. I think my cynicism is warranted based on years of experience with NY subway.

It will be cool if this time it’s different. But usually it’s not stupidity, it just will make sense once they start trying to make money.

This is not about ads. Those are placed in passages between platforms, predominantly. There's plenty of space for them there.

MTA press release shows why and where they intended to install them...


> "paper is missing a very important feature ... ads."

But we're working on that too, right?

What's sad is that the printed maps are extremely accessible, are never "out-of-order", and cheap to print. The MTA is probably worried about re-printing & updating the maps when routes change, but that happens pretty rarely and I doubt the cost of reprinting/reposting exceeds the cost of digitization.

Considering how often some ad hoc fix is going on like "A is running the F on this part of the route" or "only uptown service between here and there this weekend" or "express is local for now", having maps that can instant update and aren't misleading would be an improvement.

Not once in the last few years has every train been running on the tracks it's supposed to run on in the way the map says they run. /rant

Can confirm that the daily/weekly service changes are deeply confusing. A lot of information is implied through the MTA's frequently terse announcements of service changes.

For instance, I was waiting for a R train in the Canal St. station last weekend wanting to go to the Dekalb Ave. station. But then a N train started to come into the station on a platform it's not supposed to be on. A glance at the paper announcing this change said that the N would run on the R track between Canal St. and Dekalb Ave.

Does that mean the N would stop at Dekalb Ave (a stop it ordinarily would not make)? I didn't know and the MTA app's arrival ETAs for the Dekalb Ave station indicated that it would not. The "Next Stops" board inside the N train indicated that yes, the N train would stop at Dekalb Ave. If I boarded the N and it turned out it wouldn't stop at Dekalb Ave., it would take me ~15 minutes to backtrack. So I decided to wait for the next R instead.

MyMTA (beta) app is actually pretty good for knowing about these, I find. And, of course, it'll be way easier to push service changes to mobile apps than to digitized screens.

Why would that be easier?

Some thoughts: You push the cost purchasing, maintaining, and upgrading of the device to the user. You don't have to pay for the whole stack, just the application which is basically a web service client.

This was my thought as well. NY metro can be so confusing, last week they announced changes by printing an A4 page and putting it up on a wall. Interactive screen would be a huge improvement.

Several stations do put up extremely large notices on screens. Not all stations have the functionality yet.

While I was in France, I saw an interesting solution to this on their Metro system.

Maps were physical and line maps were even built into the train itself, with an indicator light showing where the train was on the line. When a stop was closed for maintenance or closed early or something, a vinyl sticker was placed over the stop with updated information. It was seamless and blended in with the style of the existing map.

A solution like this would be adequate in most areas I think.

All the new trains on the main red, green, and blue lines have that for at least the last 10 years.

Except it’s in the middle of the car. Good luck if it’s rush hour and you’re on an unfamiliar train.

The red LED time/next stop displays are similarly useless when the train gets crowded.

There's a minimum of two strip maps on every car since 2000. This is a non-issue.

Yep. Also don't forget the cars automatically announce constantly "This stop is XXXX", "The next stop is XXXX" loudly each stop to the point it drives me insane on long trips.

Routes may rarely change overall but there is a ton of daily maintenance, closures and re-routing that happens on the NYC subway system.

A paper map is probably good for generally learning the system, but not very useful in the station when you want to know the exact current state of affairs.

That would be fine if the screen only ever showed the map (and could do so at a high resolution). But dollars to donuts the maps will be periodically swapped with ads, terrorists warning, and maintenance notifications that don't concern me.

Indicate the direction of North at street level subway exits

As someone who vacations in NYC every few years, this would be great. Sad that my map collection showing NYC changing over the years may have its last map already.

On some of the subway platforms in downtown Chicago, they have signs on each wall of the station at the platform that tells you what street is at each end of the platform.

Then also on that sign they have a picture of the street there as well. So they have a Southwest view and a Southeast view, and ext one tells you which it is.

I grew up there though so not sure how useful it would actually be for tourists but seemed useful.

Chicago also puts the effective street numbers of the station, which is very useful.

You also get a compass rose embedded in the sidewalk outside of the station [1].

But of course when the sidewalk gets replaced due to other construction projects, it is never replaced.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/mildlyinteresting/comments/77aq9c/t...

this rose is so cool. I would love that here. I can never figure out where I should walk when coming out of an unfamiliar station in manhattan. It's always "a game"

The exits of stations in NYC have the name of the streets it dumps you on as well as the cardinal direction of the side of the street you'll be on (NE corner 44th St and 8th Ave for example).

Some local hipster stenciled compasses onto the ground at the exits a few years back, they were a huge hit.

Interestingly, the Stockholm metro system puts compass roses on the platforms (probably intended to provide some feeling of connection to the outside world), but not at the exits where they would actually be useful.

As a New Yorker....I just track the orientation vs. the train direction and the path I take in the station. Do people not practice spatial awareness?

That kind of response suggests millions of customers should learn this rather than hundreds of stations posting a sign, and that's the fundamental backwardsness of the "blame the user" approach.

And it doesn't work reliably. Yes, if you've been riding for a while, you do pick that up, and it does work in some stations. But, especially in DC, many stations aren't neatly on some cardinal direction, and you are turned around several times, and often not in 90 degree increments, by the time you exit.

Of course not, because awareness is haaaarrrdd. (And they would have to look up from their phones.)

Some people are just naturally better at it- it's one of those deeply ingrained abilities that some people are just much worse at than others.

Metro stations are designed like rat warrens, it's like they're meant to discombobulate. The man-hours required to just put up north markers vs requiring every single New Yorker learn how to maintain an inerrent sense of direction seems to significantly favor the former.

They're starting to do this at some stops, like mine. Presumably it will be rolled out to all of them in time.

This already exists. Most exists, at least when in the grid, are indicated with the cardinal direction.

I’ve always thought MTA ought to change their slogan to “We’re walking here!” to capitalize of regional humor and make light of all the problems they have.

They will usually reply to criticism that it’s because the subway is very large and very old and mere mortals don’t get how complicated it is - but funny thing was they once invited experts from other cities with very old and large subways (London, Paris, Moscow) and they were just as perplexed why NYC MTA has so many operational problems and why so many infrastructure repairs had multi-decade timelines.

There are not plenty of places to still get NYC Subway maps including ones made of plastic that are far more durable, and credit card sized maps that are far more easy to manage and reference on a crowded train.

There are thousands of the electronic map terminals, they are all hard wired for power and communications, and bolted or embedded in place. It’s not like an app where you have “maps beta” and progressively improve it. Its taken years to install those terminals (still ongoing) and it will take years more to retrofit and upgrade them, with huge labor and materials costs, all going to the lowest bidder and often broken apart in bizarre ways to appease the various union interests (ladder placing needs dedicated workers apparently). They really need to nail the functionality and usability before deploying in the field, it’s more of an afterthought in MTAs case.

You see the same issues in the myriad of incompatible and overlapping apps they publish, each with their own aesthetics.

What resources/budgets do NYT need to fix the subway system? Is it because the public transport is always underfunded and/or because the bureaucracy is very ineffective in the U.S.? Is there any decent coverage on the issues, like City Lab's? Have any politicians pledged to solve the problems?

> Have any politicians pledged to solve the problems?

Much the opposite, unfortunately. The governor, Andrew Cuomo, is in charge of the MTA. He 1. Falsely claims that he is not in charge of the MTA and denies any responsibility for its problems. 2. Wastes resources on frivolous projects he thinks will look good when he runs for president. For example, he championed a project to put WiFi on buses. This was pointless for most New Yorkers because you could already just use LTE. 3. sometimes, similarly, forces the MTA into idiotic schemes. See the debacle when Cuomo decided he’d like to be the L train hero https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2019/02/13/cuomos-new-l-train-sh... 4. In April, Cuomo reportedly felt that MTA chief (and true subway hero) Andy Byford was getting too much credit for improving the subway and allegedly came close to firing Byford. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/nyregion/cuomo-andy-byfor...

Ultimately, the MTA is a mess because of misplaced accountability. The governor needs to appeal to upstate voters to get elected, and only NYC people care about the subway. Ideally, the mayor of NYC should control the MTA and be accountable for its performance. In practice, many New Yorkers falsely believe the mayor is in charge(!), thanks in large part to Cuomo’s misinformation campaign in #1 above.

They made a huge deal over WiFi in the subway, great idea, some places cell service doesn’t work. It’s ok if your in a station and can’t get a cell signal, but every time you get to a new station you get pulled into a new captive portal and have to log in. By the time you do that you should be going on to the next station. By the time you get back on your return commute your login has expired and you get pulled into the captive portal again. Granted that doing it right is a much bigger technological problem, but a solved problem I’m sure - more or less the same challenge as wiring a stadium with a hundred thousand fans in it for WiFi.

Thanks. What an unbelievable situation!

It's definitely not an issue of budget. It's a bureaucracy problem.

Any more details? If the French RATP can do it, I can’t accept “bureaucracy” as the complete explanations

The political issue is the NYC subway is used by NYCers, but the organization that runs the NYC subway (MTA) is run by the state government.

And in state politics setting money aside for city transit is not popular, despite the city being the engine of the state economy. Further, NYC being nearly the only city in the entire US where a car free existence is possible, non NYC residents often can’t fathom why non car improvements are valuable.

Despite the ever-complaining complaints of (perfectionist) French people, somehow bureaucracy-burdened RATP and SNCF manage to be dozens of percentage more on time than any transit agency in the US.

Cases of misused technology can be quite frustrating.

Our campus van drivers help people move between noncontiguous buildings and they used to use a dispatcher and a radio to do real time traveling-sales-man routing to move people around campus nodes.

A year or so ago, one of their managers had the great idea to use RideCell to ‘help’ the drivers plan their routes more effectively.

Ridecell uses high-latency GPS coordinates from on-board iPads and assumes that nearest nodes also have short edges. The App has no idea that some coordinates that seem close happen to have very long traffic patterns (edges) that makes going from one to the other a very long and inefficient route to suggest (but it does anyway).

Also, the drivers are not allowed to use the radio as often anymore because the managers want data on how effective they are, and the RideCell app has a horrible alert UX for new rides, placing them at the bottom of a long scroll list.

The high-latency GPS coordinates are also interesting as you can imagine the system telling you to pick up someone right ‘next’ to you when you are already across campus...

Given how many of these they seem to be adding to each platform, the main issue for me is the removal of the old paper map display as opposed to supplemental, digital kiosks.

It's not like they're going to stop printing paper maps (or are they) so having one on display and available on the platform is useful, and far less annoying than the lo-rez rubbish displays they've installed.

Also, the problem of digital light pollution is very real.

Yep, the maps on the wall would be the biggest loss.

And I wish they would dim the screens at night, especially the new and very-bright ones at outdoor stations.

"We are the MTA. You will be illuminated."

MTA’s printed NYC Subway maps are a hallmark of great design. I hope this isn’t prelude to the end of an era in usability.

Eh... they're getting very dated at this point, almost 30 years old since the last redesign.

I’m kind of confused. You don’t seem to disagree with the previous poster’s claim that the design was great so does that mean that you you think the design is bad only because it’s old? What has changed in the past 30 years to make the design bad?

The London Tube maps seem ideal in comparison. They are minimalist, non geographic, and they are scaled depending on your location in the Tube platform system. Also, they are paper.

The NY subway tried the non geographic maps in the past. There was an article that was linked on HN about it.

It failed miserably. The NY Subway map being geographical has a lot of excellent features that made it extremely popular.

Paris does both for reference, and it feels like both have a different purpose, geographical maps are great when you know the place you need to go on the city but nothing about the stations. The non geographical are great when you know the station to get off to, but not how to reach it

I believe when the NYC subway tried that they did have both.

I think what this misses, at least as far as Manhattan is concerned, is the grid system that already exists. Once you understand the grid, and the relationship between the subway system and the grid, then knowing the subway map is as good as knowing the geographic map and vice versa.

The first time I visited NYC was in 2004 before our handheld map systems. It took me all of 15 minutes to know exactly where I needed to go and how to get there without ever looking at a map, because my friend explained the system to me.

A map that divorces the geographic and subway systems simply leads to the necessity of learning 2 different things that are very intrinsically related, and in the case of Manhattan can actually substitute for each other.

Not sure how they are going to solve the pixel density issue without going to interactive displays, which would be a mistake.

Malls trialed interactive maps sometime in the last decade and it was a worse experience. One print map can service a lot of people crowded around it. Make the interface interactive and suddenly it's only usable by one person at a time despite being just as large as the old print map.

The right solution, if you want interactivity, is perhaps a handful of interactive map kiosks that are much smaller and meant for one user at a time. You could fit at least 4 of them in the space of any existing giant print map.

If the screens can't change at all, I agree, but non-interactive doesn't necessarily mean not changeable.

If they can be changed, this situation is a tough call. I can see the benefit to screens if NYCT can

- Replace the images with emergency messages fast

- Change the maps without the cost of sending crews

- Save money and energy with screens (not sure which has less environmental or financial impact, printing and replacing many maps or powering a disposable screen)

High resolution would still beat low, though under magnification still seems readable to me.

Glad to see NYCT at least appear open to input and a citizen so giving. They should hire him!

> Save money and energy with screens (not sure which has less environmental or financial impact, printing and replacing many maps or powering a disposable screen)

We’re talking about replacing a paper map with a screen right? A map that’s replaced how often? Yearly? I would personally be blown away if the screens over their lifetime were not orders of magnitude worse environmentally.

The map is already updated several times daily (at least twice daily) as the system switches to late night service.

Couldn't they solve that by putting up two maps next to each other? If I'm correct in my (baseless) assumption that the screens are orders of magnitude worse environmentally, then having two posters wouldn't really matter.

I am dreading the day when the overhead ads in subway cars are replaced with screens with video ads. Absolutely dreading it.

Right now I can read on the subway. I get a huge amount of reading done commuting to and from work. But soon the colours on my page will change constantly, there will be flickers, smash cuts, flaring and fuck me it will be ruined. Give me the dipshit with the bluetooth speaker forever, I can wear earplugs, but I can't wear eyeplugs.


maybe augmented reality adblock will be what finally makes google glass-style accessories commercially attractive.

I am dreading the day when the overhead ads in subway cars are replaced with screens with video ads.

Sounds like Tokyo, the imagined HN utopia. Some Asian city I was in had video screens in the buses, too. I think it was Singapore, but I might be wrong.

I am wondering if digital maps on screens can reach the same availability levels as a printed paper map.

For such a system, is it more beneficial to the user to have up to date information most of the time but be at risk to have no information in rare situations. Or might it be better to be able to guarantee that some level of information is available to the user at all times.

Ooh, this tweet and the comments here on HN highlight some of the problems with low-friction digital publishing.

Here's the tweet:

> Seriously? The MTA replaced printed subway maps on this platform with super low-rez, non-interactive digital maps?

* Notice my italics-- the tweet is refreshingly careful to claim that a specific platform at an unspecified time replaced the printed map on the platform with a low quality digital map. We'll get back to that later.

* look how bright the low-res map looks in the zoomed out shot on the left compared to the zoomed in shot on the right. I remember reading these maps in NYC earlier this summer and though the resolution looks familiar they didn't appear anywhere as dim when I got close and read them. Something weird is going on with the camera but only in the zoomed in shot.

* that particular map is indeed non-interactive. Yet when I visited NYC I remember locals touching screens like these and then quickly moving on upon realizing they weren't interactive. Odd, right? I mean, why would residents be continually tricked by these screens?

Oh, right, NYC also has interactive screens:


Notice the familiar panning/zooming gestures plus the menu buttons at the bottom for realtime updates for transit times. Can't be sure but the resolution appears to be higher than what's shown in the Tweet above.

I can also confirm that these interactive digital maps are indeed on some of the more popular subway platforms. But I have no idea of the ratio of interactive to non-interactive screens. Does anyone here have that information?

* While I assume the non-interactive maps are older than the interactive ones, I don't know that. Does anyone here have a source for when each kiosk was introduced?

* most of the comments here seem quite satisfied to have assumed that this single sample represents the current state of the art on all NYC platforms. Is there some evidence I'm missing to justify all these assumptions made in the other comments?

Edit: I just tried a Google search to try to find the dates these kiosks were released, and guess what result appeared on the first page of results? You guessed it-- the tweet quote above!

Just to clarify-- I see a tweet about kiosk quality that appears ignorant of kiosk state of the art, do a search on Google to find out more about the state of the art, and get back a prominent link to the tweet which lacks the information I was after. Lucky for me I knew a priori that interactive kiosks exist...

And why do we value this guy’s opinions exactly?

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