Service Emergency Proves Digital Displays' Value

When subway service is curtailed in a major emergency, riders have a new source of information: 102 double-sided digital screens installed above entrances at 50 subway stations.

When subway service is normal, the screens provide a mixture of service information and advertising, which helps provide funding for the MTA’s transit services. But when service is disrupted by emergency conditions, as it was during Hurricane Sandy, the MTA takes over the entire screen to provide bulletins on subway service status.

Photo of digital screen installed above entrance at subway station

“When you see information about disruptions before you even enter the subway station, you save the time and energy it takes to walk down at least one flight of stairs. Instead, you can immediately begin assessing any alternate means of getting to your destination,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph J. Lhota. “Our goal is to give up-to-the-minute information to our customers even before they get to the station. This is one more information option for those who haven’t received service disruption info via email, text message, apps, the web or the news media.”

Normally, service information appears as a ticker occupying the bottom 20% of the screen that faces the stairways to the subway. And MTA messages appear in still images that occupy on the main part of that screen for 15 seconds every two minutes. During emergencies, the digital displays can display information about the overall status of service systemwide, or they can be tailored so that they show information only about disruptions to the lines served at a specific sign’s location.

For Hurricane Sandy, the subway system was shut down as of 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 28. As of that time, all of the screens initially read: “This station is closed due to severe weather conditions.” The screens were temporarily turned off immediately after the storm because of widespread power outages and because the servers that feed data to the screens shut down because of flooding.

Beginning on the morning of Thursday, November 1, the screens came back to life and began providing information about service status while incremental restorations were taking place. And as of midnight on Tuesday, November 6, service had been restored to the extent that it was again possible to mix in advertising content in a limited way with service messaging.

“Providing digital and ‘addressable’ media on the streets of New York is a major opportunity for advertisers who love the flexibility as well as the vibrancy of the new urban panels. What we learned last week when the hurricane hit, is just how valuable these signs are in being able to provide up to the minute MTA information,” said Jodi Senese, spokeswoman for CBS Outdoor, which manages the screens’ advertising displays for the MTA. “Not only were we able to broadcast the initial news of the subway shutdown, we were able to provide very detailed information as individual lines were restored. Together with our MTA partners, we were able to provide this vital communication to all New Yorkers.”

Hurricane Sandy is the first citywide emergency in which the digital displays have been available for use. They were first installed as a pilot program in early 2011 at two stations: 14 St-Union Square, and 34th Street & Seventh Avenue. They were expanded to 102 locations between November 2011 and January 2012. Further expansions are under consideration as funding allows. The MTA hopes to provide a similar service underground as well with its expanding network of “On the Go!” interactive screens.

The flat-screen panels measure 65 inches wide by 43 inches tall. They are wrapped in heavy-duty protective housing to shield them from the elements and vandals.

Information that feeds the screens comes from MTA New York City Transit’s central subway control center. That control center also feeds information to the MTA’s website, email and text alerts, in-station screens that are always 100% dedicated to displaying service information, the On the Go! interactive kiosks, countdown clocks, and in-station public address systems.

When the servers went dark because of flooding, the MTA worked with CBS Outdoor to set up a temporary data feed through CBS’ facility in Spokane, Washington.