By Subway, Bus and Uber in New York, With Twitter and Other Apps in Hand
Posted June 20, 2018 3:52 p.m. EDT
How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Emma G. Fitzsimmons, a reporter for The Times who covers New York City transit, discussed the tech she’s using.
Q: What tech tools are most important to stay on top of your beat covering New York City transportation?
A: I take the subway to our newsroom in Times Square every day and experience the constant delays that New Yorkers love to complain about. Right now, I’m focused on what’s being done to fix the system and whether it’s working. I monitor the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s website to see if trains are running on time and use Twitter to find riders who are swept up in major incidents.
The MTA is working to overhaul its dilapidated equipment, but it is also trying to communicate better with riders. My station in Washington Heights recently got countdown clocks that show when the next train is coming. I also use the Subway Time app, which lists train arrival information by station. It makes such a difference knowing if you’re going to be waiting for two minutes or 20 minutes. There’s a similar app for buses, Bus Time.
If I need to be somewhere on time, I check the MTA’s website before I leave. When I moved to New York seven years ago, I didn’t have to do this. The trains ran on time most of the time. If I see delays, I check the subway’s Twitter account for more information because problems often pop up on Twitter first. I’ve learned what type of incidents could be a small hiccup versus a day-ruining nightmare. Signal problems or a “train with mechanical problems” spells trouble, and I might switch to a different line. A problem with a sick passenger usually clears more quickly.
I also occasionally vent about my commute on Twitter. I had my first child last fall, and it really brought home the costs of the subway crisis. My son’s day care closes at 6 p.m. I’m dreading the day that the subway makes me late to pick him up.
Q: What’s good about the MTA’s informational tools, and what could be better?
A: The countdown clocks aren’t always accurate, but they’re better than nothing. The MTA’s service updates are often vague, but the subway’s new leaders have promised to be more direct. For instance, riders will be informed when their train has hit someone on the track.
Q: You’ve reported on the impact of Uber on New York. What are the pros and cons of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft?
A: New York City is unique because it had a thriving yellow taxi industry for decades before Uber arrived in 2011. Now, a lot of people have switched to Uber, and that has decimated the taxi business. Six professional drivers who owned taxis or drove for car services have killed themselves in recent months. Friends say they were hopeless over losing their livelihoods.
But for New Yorkers, Uber and Lyft are a cheap and easy travel option, especially outside Manhattan’s core where taxis are less common. After a series of controversies at Uber, some people are reconsidering the ethics of using the app. Uber drivers also complain about making low wages after the company takes its cut. I’m glad Uber began to offer a tipping option last year. I rarely have cash, but I tip my drivers a few dollars in the app.
Q: How much do you rely on Uber or Lyft for your job?
A: I take the subway if I can. It’s still usually the quickest way to get around because street congestion keeps getting worse. I use Uber for work sometimes, but more often for personal trips. When I take my son outside our neighborhood, it’s easier to use Uber since the subway is not exactly stroller-friendly. Fewer than one-fourth of stations have elevators.
Q: Is technology solving any of the headaches of transportation, like delayed subway trains, inaccurate bus schedules and never-ending city traffic?
A: Technology is helping. Hopefully, it will help even more in the coming years.
Elected officials in New York are considering congestion pricing, a proposal to toll drivers in Manhattan that would raise money for the transit system while reducing traffic. London and Stockholm have already embraced the idea. Over the last decade, the technology has advanced so that you can use sensors and cameras to charge drivers higher tolls at busy periods during the day.
The Bus Time app uses GPS to track buses, and the MTA uses equipment that allows a bus to turn a traffic light green so it can keep moving. For the subway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York is pressuring the MTA to embrace a technology, known as ultra-wideband radio, to upgrade its antiquated signals. Cuomo has pointed to self-driving cars as a model for the subway’s future.
By 2020, the MetroCard will be replaced by a new fare payment system where you can tap a smartphone or a credit card on a reader. London already uses this technology, and it’s so much easier. (Hillary Clinton and others have famously had trouble swiping the outdated MetroCard at the right speed.)
Q: Outside work, what tech products do you and your family use a lot?
A: Like many millennials, I’m a cord-cutter. I haven’t paid for cable in a decade. Last year, my husband bought a Roku TV and an old-school antenna. It’s been nice to watch television on a big screen again, instead of on my phone or laptop. We’ve tried some of the streaming services like Sling TV.
We also use an app called 23snaps to share photos of our son. I’m self-conscious about flooding Facebook and Instagram with photos. 23snaps is for close family who want to see every ordinary moment.
I like that 23snaps sends email alerts to our parents when we upload a new photo. But there are a ton of photo-sharing apps, and it would be great if there was one dominant service that our friends used so that we could have one place to keep tabs on all of the cuteness.