Southern Brooklyn

Jay Walder’s Push For New Technology


THE COMMUTE: Like David Gunn, remembered for eliminating graffiti in the New York subways over 20 years ago, Jay Walder wants to be remembered for revolutionizing the MTA by bringing 21st century technology to the system – not the one who devastated it by instituting massive service cuts. He might get that chance, since Governor Cuomo’s does not intend to replace him. It will not be easy, though, with the governor’s decision to move $100 million from the Operating to Capital Budget this year.

Walder is moving forward on replacing the MetroCard with a swipeless card. Last week he also announced plans to study placing gates at subway stations to prevent passengers from falling onto the tracks. The Daily News was very skeptical.

This week the MTA also went live with Bustime, a pilot program now in use on the B63 on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, which alerts passengers of the time the next bus will arrive at your stop before you get on the bus by using your smartphone or by sending a text message to your mobile phone.

That may be the best of the three ideas by removing the frustration of not knowing when the next bus will arrive. However, it is only useful when alternatives are available. That’s why the B63 was a good choice for the pilot, because MTA passengers could choose to walk one block to the subway if the wait for a bus is too long.

The system however at this point cannot tell you the number of minutes you will have to wait, due to the unpredictability of traffic, but only the number of miles away the next bus is.  This system, as well as others the MTA is evaluating, are discussed in detail here.

The real benefit of such a system, however, would be if it could be used to get buses to operate at more regular intervals instead of in bunches. This has been the major complaint of bus riders for over 50 years. Until now the MTA has been answering these complaints by focusing on diversions by promising a GPS system that they spent at least $20 million on and never arrived, and Select Bus Service which will never affect more than a handful of bus routes.

Bustime was made possible by the MTA’s wise decision to use open source software and open up the process to web developers rather than trying to do all the work in-house or by contracting with an outside vendor. This represents a departure from the way the MTA has done business in the past.

The question still arises if new technology should be Walder’s major focus while other areas for improvement are being ignored, such as modernizing an outdated bus routing system to improve connectivity between neighborhoods. It should not take years for routes to be modernized or extended to new developments, and only after political pressure is levied.

Another area that has been ignored is studying the social dynamics within the organization to improve communication within and between departments and more attention paid to problem solving.  Too many departments are more interested in blaming each other than they are in working together toward reaching common goals. As a new manager, I once attended an MTA course where we were actually instructed to “get the monkey off your back” by shifting the problem to someone else, rather than trying to solve it.

Currently, if you report a problem to your boss and he ignores you, there is pretty much nothing else you can do. If you try to bypass him, then you become the target and are considered the troublemaker.

Upper management cannot be expected to know everything, and when communication does not get to them or they are lied to, which frequently happens because people want to protect themselves, things start to go awry. Since most matters almost always are of a technical nature, if the person being lied to does not have actual first hand experience in the subject, he believes what he is told and passes it on. The higher it goes, the less likely the truth will be discovered. Things escalate until something blows, and only then does the problem get the attention it deserves.

There are those who believe the MTA’s high ridership masks poor management practices and the MTA could be run with a far smaller operating and capital deficit and far lower public subsidies if more efficiencies were made. In an online discussion I was having with someone named “Sharon,” I was informed that in well-run companies, utilizing a modern computer information system, all important events are logged in to a central database to allow managers at all levels of command to monitor what is going on, and that this is not bleeding edge technology. Perhaps that is the type of technology that Jay Walder needs to be placing more focus on.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Comment policy


  1. The swipeless tech he’s talking about is actually Contactless Technology, RFID technology basically under the ISO 14443 specifications.
    This is already being used as a test pilot system along the east side of Manhattan for subway and in other cities throughout the subway system and on buses (ie. Chicago, Boston, Bay Area Rapid Transit in California). It’s successful wherever it’s used, but it’s only good for people that understand it CAN be used, and HOW to use it. Not everyone realizes they may have the chip and antenna in their credit cards so they can tap and go rather than swiping. However, this does not really speed up your commute, it just makes it more convenient so you don’t have to purchase a metrocard, you can use your credit card or in a few years, NFC capable phones, to pay for your fare directly.

  2. The place where it will speed up the commute is on boarding the buses.

    If you remember it also took a long time for MetroCard to catch on. It didn’t really take off until MetroCard Gold was instituted allowing for bus-subway transfers previously unavailable. When the cards were still blue colored, about 80% of the people still insisted on using tokens. So I think the problem of people understanding the new technology is a mioor one.

  3. I should just add that David Gunn did much more than eliminate graffiti which is what people most remember about him. Under his leadership, the system was brought back from its lowest point in history. You can only fully realize how bad the system was back then if you were alive and used it from the late 70s to early 80s. That goes for buses as well as subways.

  4. The MTA would benefit from effectively using the swipe-less system by changing how they charge fares. Although it should still allow adding a balance to the swipe-less card, they should change the unlimited ride system from a monthly plan, where you pay ahead of time, and instead implement a cap on how much you pay.

    My proposal:

    Allow an association of a credit card/ debit card/ checking account to the swipe-less card, but do not make it mandatory to allow swipe-less card balances to be to be refilled with cash. (This is pretty much accomplished with the Easypay Metrocard already)

    Have the monthly billing cycle be on the same day every month regardless of rider or when you buy your card. This avoids confusion for people because just as we all know that April 15th is tax day, we’ll know that the 30th (for example) is when our metrocard cycle ends.

    The cap would work like this: assume you make 40 trips a month (to and from work 20 days) you would be billed $90 but anything over 46 trips would cap at $104 (the current value) without having to buy a particular type of card ahead of time. This sounds like what we already have but the difference is you are billed after not before.

    This cap system can be expanded to benefit riders further. Assume you rode 13 times in your first week of the cycle, lost your job, and found yourself making 6 more trips during the remainder of the month. A simple algorithm can figure out to charge you the weekly unlimited rate ($29) for the first week and then pay per ride for the 6 remaining rides.

    This means that each individual is tethered to his/her card saving the MTA money by cutting cost on metrocard production/trash. Since there is already a surcharge on getting a new metrocard you can take the London model and just make buying a new swipeless RFID metrocard cost $3-4. This means the MTA makes more money from tourists using our system and New Yorkers don’t have to face fare raises for tourist use. The metrocard is already a souvenier for tourists visiting the city, I don’t see why the MTA shouldn’t capitalize on it if it can help New Yorkers.

    There are added benefits to the MTA because they can track usage (with anonymized data) beyond how many swipes occurred in a particular station/bus.

    I’m actually glad to read that the MTA is embracing technology. I had a glimmer in my eye and renewed hope when I read they went open source and will provide an API for GPS tracking on their bus lines. Now all they need to do is realize that they are implementing a new technology fare card to an archaic payment model. Maybe I’m being optimistic but I’d love to see the MTA working with us instead of for/against us.

  5. The MTA would never agree to that! They’d rather you pre-pay, so if you don’t utilize the full compliment of rides, they still keep your money. Going your route, the MTA could lose money if someone only rides $70 worth of rides and pays $70 instead of the full $104.

    Remember the MTA is only going your way so long as it benefits them! Next you’ll want them to actually make vast improvements versus the tiny cosmetic improvements that make it seem like real progress is being made.

  6. Actually, the MTA has already made deals with MasterCard and several banks. While pre-paying is a nice option, credit transactions make for instant profitability as well.


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