The Codcast: The T’s chief technology officer

Riding the T sometimes feels like a step back in time. Red Line cars that are 40 years old. Payment systems that are slow and inefficient. Underground stations that leak whenever it rains.

But David Block-Schachter, the MBTA’s chief technology officer, says the transit authority is changing. In an interview for The Codcast with Josh Fairchild and James Aloisi of TransitMatters, Block-Schachter, who doesn’t own a car or a driver’s license, provides a glimpse of what technology can do for the T.

His biggest project is called AFC 2.0, which stands for automated fare collection. Instead of just using Charley Cards, passengers will be able to pay fares with phones and contactless credit cards. Cash will be a thing of the past; no more waiting in line as someone tries to feed a dollar bill into a cranky machine. Fare readers will be located at every door on Green Line trolleys so passengers can board more quickly and trains won’t have to idle at station stops.

The new technology will allow the T to better track the movement of its users. Where do they get on? Where do they get off?. What lines are struggling to meet demand? The technology opens up all sorts of possibilities — fares based on distance traveled or time of day and service levels that can be adjusted to meet demand. “Real-time information will allow us to adjust in real time,” he says.

The MBTA is also looking to deploy technology to solve simpler problems. For example, the T can track its buses, but not in real time. Block-Schachter says buses could be equipped with simple GPS devices that would generate data allowing customers to track their bus on their phone the way they track an Uber coming to pick them up. He said the T is also working with a handful of communities on technology that would allow a bus moving down a street to change upcoming traffic signals from red to green.

Block-Schachter, a graduate of MIT who formerly worked at the now-defunct private bus startup Bridj, routinely uses apps and the information they provide to make his commute easier. But he says many riders never bother. So he wants to introduce cheap, simple screens at bus stops that would deliver all sorts of helpful information — when the next bus arrives or what’s the location of the nearest fare vending machine or bike share. He’d also like to see the same information displayed on buses themselves, so passengers would know as their bus approaches a subway stop when the next train arrives and departs.

Block-Schachter is eager to introduce new technology to the T, but only if it improves the ridership experience and makes sense financially. He says the T has no desire to be the guinea pig for high-risk technology experiments. “We don’t want to be the innovator,” he says.



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