MTA's Touch-Screen Subway Maps Are Great (Too Bad No One Seems To Be Using Them)

Navigating the New York City subway system can be as painful as passing a kidney stone. But the Metro Transportation Authority, the city's public transportation service, is trying to ease the pain by installing touch-screen maps that help you easily plot your route across the city. But will people actually use this service?

These $15,000 interactive On The Go! subway maps, which The Huffington Post wrote about last year, have finally found their way to their first subway station, Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal. The city has installed 18 of these kiosks in the historic station, and HuffPost took the time to try out one of the touch-screen cartograms.

We found On The Go! to be a fine replacement or supplement to smart phone apps, in areas of subway stations where wireless service is lacking. The maps inform riders of service changes and provide directions to different subway stops. Advertisers can pay to have ads appear on the screens, too.

If you’ve ever played with an iPhone or iPad, then On The Go! will be a familiar experience. Everything about it is simple and logical. It even makes the touch-screen MetroCard kiosks, at which New York commuters purchase fare cards, seem difficult to use.

Riders have two initial options to choose from: "Map & Directions" and “Service Advisories." Both display information exactly as their titles imply.

We spent the most time playing with Map & Directions. There are two ways to use this feature. Riders -- presumably tourists -- can tap into a “Points Of Interest” function, which gives the route to major points of interest in the city, such as the Statue of Liberty. If you already know where you need to go, you can simply tap a stop on the map and On The Go! will give you a route to your destination. You can even use the system if you're wearing gloves.

Unfortunately, the close proximity of some stops makes it difficult to touch the map icon for the exact stop you’re attempting to get to. Also, using the touch screen's arrow keys to move the map over from Manhattan to boroughs such as Brooklyn and Queens can be difficult.

An On The Go! kiosk shows incoming Metro-North trains at Grand Central Station.

During our testing, we saw the kiosks go largely unnoticed by the droves of New Yorkers heading home on the train during the late-afternoon rush.

Hopefully for Control Group, the design and tech consultancy firm that partnered with the MTA to create On The Go!, more people will begin to notice and use these kiosks. As Gizmodo notes, Control Group “is footing the bill [for the project], in hopes that the kiosks will eventually pay for themselves with advertising revenue.”

We also encountered a few riders who questioned the sanitary nature of the screens. Damian Gutierrez, an associate partner at Control Group, expressed confidence that the screens present no health risks to users. Indeed, the company designed the On The Go! maps to be strong enough to withstand pressure washing.

"It's almost certainly going to be cleaner than a lot of other surfaces [in the subway station]," said Gutierrez.

Subway patrons walk past an On The Go! kiosk in Grand Central Station.

In the future, Control Group plans to add WiFi to the kiosks so advertisers can leverage the technology for ad campaigns.

The next set of On The Go! kiosks will be placed in stations in the outer boroughs, as well as in Manhattan stations that see the most commuter traffic. "We're trying to extend the service to as many boroughs and New Yorkers as possible," said Gutierrez.

From what we've seen so far, the touch-screen system seems like a helpful tool in making the New York subway experience easier. Still, with more than half of Americans in possession of a smart phone, we really wish the MTA would just put WiFi in its trains and stations.



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