In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .
It was 2011, and the L train was fucked. Even with ridership skyrocketing, service was still abysmal. Delays and temporary shutdowns were rampant, and overcrowding a constant concern, as it remains today. And this was after a $326 million upgrade in 2009, which automated the line, making it more reliable than most.
At the time, Jonathan Vingiano was living off the L, and, naturally, hating it. He's relied on the train most of his life, having been born in Manhattan's Stuy Town off the 1st Avenue stop, and later relocating to apartments nearby in North Brooklyn. On one particularly frustrating afternoon Vingiano, who had experience in creative design, sat down and parsed through Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) data—namely, a clunky stream of data that the transit agency in charge of New York's subways sends to its control boards, which regularly updates in real-time with each line's service status.
He wanted an easy-to-use tool that he and his friends could use to know exactly when the L train was running without delay, or at all. "I just wanted it to be simple, and also fun and funny. Like poking fun at the MTA being shitty, while also being useful," he told me recently. "You know what I mean? Like a utility that wasn't super bland. So I made one, and I told people about it."
Nearly ten years later, IsTheLTrainFucked.com has 11,000 likes on Facebook, an iPhone app, and a gambit of spin offs (some now defunct) in Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and even within New York City. Perhaps because it's such a basic idea; the only question commuters are really asking themselves when they're waiting on that platform. And Vingiano's site—which sports a black background and an answer in gray, the line's color—gives it: "Nope," if it's running smoothly; "Yup," if service disruptions of any kind are reported; and, sometimes, "IDK," when the MTA is updating its status.
I just wanted it to be simple, and also fun and funny. Like poking fun at the MTA being shitty, while also being useful. - Jonathan Vingiano
For those living off the L, the data tool has become as useful as a subway swipe, and a sort of symbol for the area's transit woes, of which there are many. And now that the L train is facing a 15-month shutdown between Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2019—(read: about to be much more fucked)—Vingiano's website has unknowingly taken on an ominous presence. It's no surprise that a handful of news articles surrounding the shutdown also include the word "fucked."
Vingiano, 30, says he hasn't really touched the site since he created, as it updates automatically—its daily readership is around 100, he says, spiking to upwards of 5,000 when there are major service delays. He has, however, received a slew of fan emails, praising the New York native for seemingly providing them with an outlet, and promo offers from Uber and Lyft (of which, he says, he has not accepted). And while he has no plans for the site during the shutdown—he noted that it'll likely say "Yup" for 15 months straight—he does think that it'll pose an opportunity to improve the transit system overall, through data.
"I think if they invested in data, it's not just like giving visualization tools for you and I," he said. "I imagine they'd be able to understand their own system better, and make improvements that will end up benefiting the whole entire system, and end up benefitting the subway system, and the bus system."
What this would look like on the ground, Vingiano explains, is something like through-put, or the concept of having a system react to data in real-time, with more than just service status updates. Say, for example, an unexpected surge of people let out of a show downtown. If an agency could know when subway turnstiles were clicking at greater speeds, the system could move fluidly, instantly dispatching more trains at those specific stations to accommodate flow.
Of course, with the city's aging transit system, that's easier said than done. A century-old signal system is considered by many transit critics to be the biggest obstacle to innovation, with subway workers unable to pinpoint exactly where trains are at any given time. As James Somers wrote in The Atlantic , "It's hard to say what, exactly, but something important seems to have gone wrong when the tracking apparatus for subway cars is worse than it is for pizzas."
That said, Vingiano says the MTA has improved how it integrates data in recent years, but still lags behind its competition, as other cities' transit agencies have released in-depth dashboards, making data free and available for anyone to use, or build from. The feed from the agency is "all over the place," encouraging him to offer his own open-source version. "I think because they're just a bureaucratic system, they just had one person go in, who probably had a task to solve, then solve that task, and hasn't revisited it since, when they probably should," he mused.
It seems like the MTA (kinda/sorta/maybe) gets it. The agency's data has become more readily available on the city's open data portal, as have countdown clocks at stations and a few smartphone apps, like BusTime, which uses GPS tracking to let you know where the hell your bus is. And just last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a challenge to developers and planners to modernize the MTA's notorious signal system, with $1 million as a cash prize.
In Vingiano's mind, the future for the transit agency is one in which the MTA makes it as easy as possible for those willing to help it, even if it's just for fun. "It'd be great to see a high school computer science class be able to use that data," he says. "That's your final project: use MTA data to create something. That'd be cool."
In that sense, then, IsTheLTrainFucked.com can be seen as a progenitor of what data can do for the largest transit agency in America, 600,000 clicks in and five years later. Even though you'll rarely hear Vingiano say anything of the sort. "What I made was a joke, but also, a useful thing, basically replicating what the MTA already gave you, to a degree," he said. "I just made it not a boring, faceless, government entity, that had an attitude, and a point of view."
Follow John Surico on Twitter.