subway rider wearing mask (DimaBerlin/

NYC transit looks to tech to tamp down virus transmission

As New York City residents enter Phase 2 of reopening and venture out of their homes, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is requiring commuters wear masks on public transit to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But that may be only the beginning of new precautions. 

Given the importance of limiting passengers’ exposure to COVID-29, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a non-profit advocacy group, recently issued a report suggesting the MTA consider scanning its CCTV video to monitor mask use and physical distancing and deploy other technologies to reduce crowding, speed passengers through checkpoints and limit the number of touchpoints as public transit ramps up.

Specifically, the report suggested transit agencies:

  • Modernize their infrastructure by combining ultra-wideband technology and communications-based train control to support instantaneous communication between transit officials, trains, dispatchers, maintenance staff and passengers.
  • Encourage contactless fare payments that also collect the appropriate data on crowding at stations and on buses and trains.
  • Speed movement of riders through stations and support alternate routing when trains and buses are delayed. When stations get too crowded, the existing automated turnstile systems can lock out passengers outside of stations as a measure of last resort.
  • Install new, relatively low-cost thermal and video cameras at turnstiles to monitor temperature and mask compliance for more effective communications with riders, such as public service messages that announce the percentage of mask compliance.

Addressing issues of data privacy, the report said its recommendations “can and should be implemented in a way that safeguards user privacy.” Data collected to support real-time crowding estimates, for example, might use application programming interfaces to pull information from summaries of turnstile entrances and the number of devices connected to Wi-Fi networks.

“None of the proposed systems require the collection of individual-level data by transit agencies, except where they are already used in existing systems,” the report said.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.


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