MTA wants startups to help solve its coronavirus problem

A subway car on June 8th during phase 1 of reopening.
A subway car on June 8th during phase 1 of reopening.
Marc A. Hermann/New York City Transit
A subway car on June 8th during phase 1 of reopening.

MTA wants startups to help solve its coronavirus problem

The authority issues a new “challenge” for tech companies to keep transit safe.
July 8, 2020

New York isn’t exactly known for a speedy procurement process, or for taking chances on granting state contracts to small companies. But when faced with a global pandemic that threatens the future of public transit, fast-moving startups with innovative solutions may be just what the doctor ordered.

The Transit Tech Lab – an accelerator program for technology startups aimed at solving public transit issues – launched a new, coronavirus-specific challenge on Wednesday, which asks for innovative approaches to make public transit safer as riders return to subways and buses. Those proposals could eventually be piloted and implemented with the MTA, as well as with other participating agencies, including the New York City Department of Transportation, NJ Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "To truly modernize every element of how we run our transit system, you have to look far and wide for new ideas," interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg said in a press release. "That means tapping into the city's robust entrepreneurial and technology scenes and thinking in new ways about how a vital institution like New York City Transit can embrace innovation."

The Transit Tech Lab, which launched with its first transit “challenge” in 2019, is a program run by the Transit Innovation Partnership, a public-private partnership between the MTA and the Partnership for New York City. The idea behind the Transit Tech Lab is to quickly test and implement innovative approaches to longstanding transit issues like subway and bus delays, platform crowding or station accessibility. In the program’s first round in 2019, four startups were picked to pilot their technologies with the MTA, which included things like a smartphone app to deliver personalized information about service changes to customers, and sensors that monitor crowding on subway platforms. In the second round of the program, more companies were asked to submit ideas about how to make stations more accessible and make old subway cars compatible with new signaling technology.

Some of those companies have already proved helpful in addressing the threats posed by the coronavirus pandemic. One company selected in the first year of the program was Axon Vibe, a Swiss software company that has piloted a smartphone app with the MTA. Having established a working relationship with the authority, Axon Vibe was on hand to develop the new Essential Connector app, which is helping essential workers find alternative transit options during the subway’s overnight closures.

The new COVID-19 Response Challenge is seeking tools to monitor body temperatures, autonomous cleaning robots to assist with intensive disinfecting efforts, and tools to measure crowding in trains, buses, stations and other shared spaces. As the MTA has responded to the coronavirus pandemic, a number of tech-oriented solutions have been floated, including a Ticketmaster-like reservation system that would limit the number of people on the subway at a given time and allow for greater social distancing. 

One technology the MTA has considered to make sure that customers are wearing face masks is artificial intelligence, Gothamist reported last month. Artificial intelligence software could potentially be used to scan security footage to determine how many riders are wearing face masks, but the idea has raised concerns about privacy, surveillance and the possibility that AI-powered security cameras could be “weaponized.” One of the areas of interest listed in the new Transit Tech Lab coronavirus challenge is “tools to measure and support the use of masks and other personal protective equipment,” suggesting that compliance monitoring approaches could still be on the table. 

Companies are being asked to submit applications to participate in the COVID-19 challenge by July 30, though it’s not clear how long it will take for those applications to be reviewed and when startups might be selected to participate. 

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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