Transit Tech Lab Alumni Veovo’s Crowd Flow Tech is Helping the MTA Put a Digital Eye on Platform Safety
Platform safety is critical to building a better transit experience for millions of riders. In 2019, the Transit Tech Lab sought applications from companies to better predict subway incident impacts and serve customers. Through that search, transportation technology company Veovo demonstrated its ability to use its passenger flow software — often used in airports — to predict crowding conditions in subway stations and platforms.
The MTA selected Veovo for a yearlong pilot to test its solution at the 14th Street Union Square subway station. Veovo’s sensors would count the number of passengers using the station, provide data on crowding conditions and measure how long it takes customers to pass from the turnstile to the platform — calculations that were previously performed manually.
We spoke with Patrick Salemme, Strategic Account Director for North America at Veovo to talk more about the Transit Tech Lab, the potential use cases for crowd flow data and advice for technology companies looking to tackle government procurement.
Veovo was selected for the 2019 Transit Tech Lab Subway & Bus Challenge. Tell us what Veovo does and what problem you solve for transit agencies.
Veovo is a transportation technology company. We mainly focus on airports where we provide operational software and people flow software. For example, if you go to an airport and you can see that it will take 15 minutes to get through TSA, that is the type of insights our software can generate.
Outside of aviation, we also have a significant and growing presence in mass transit. Broadly speaking, we provide tools that help transit agencies achieve higher operational efficiency and deliver a better passenger experience.
We use different sensor technologies to help transit agencies understand how passengers move through their stations in real-time, including on stairways, at the fare array, and on the platform. This data can then be used for tactical responses to conditions on the ground and longer term, more strategic operational planning and even capital planning.
Why did you decide to apply to the Transit Tech Lab?
Well, we love New York! Veovo has been a partner with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey since the late 2000s. But when the Transit Tech Lab launched its Subway Challenge and started looking for technologies that help predict subway incidents and improve customer experience, we knew that was right in our wheelhouse.
We understand the traveler journey well, so applying the technology that we had mastered in the aviation space and bringing it to the largest transit system in the world seemed like a slam dunk to us.
We also appreciated the Lab’s interest in engaging a targeted pool of innovative companies trying to disrupt transportation for the better.
Can you share key benefits the MTA realized after deploying your technology?
Initially, Veovo deployed its technology to gain insight into platform occupancy at the MTA’s Court Square and Union Square stations. The MTA asked us to help analyze if and when subway platforms were becoming dangerously overcrowded.
If the MTA had better visibility into when peak crowding events occur, then they could deploy crowd control strategies to help alleviate the rush, maintain safety, and proactively reduce potentially unsafe underground conditions.
Without the right technology, gauging passenger flow relies heavily on human attention and discretion — usually a pair of eyes physically monitoring CCTV feeds. In New York City subways, pillars and other obstructions can make monitoring platform occupancy even more challenging for the human eye.
The alternative we offer uses a combination of optical sensors and trackers that pick up latent Bluetooth signals from devices to give insights into how many people are on the platform at a given time for how long. We automate that information and provide historical data that allows an agency to analyze how riders experience transit.
What other use cases did you discover for the data Veovo was collecting?
Since our pilot ran parallel with the pandemic, ridership nearly halted in 2020. As the platform crowding use case receded into the background, we started exploring other uses for the sensors we’d already deployed with the MTA.
One use case was from a capital planning standpoint. We provided insights on stairway congestion to aid in planning for future stations by helping the MTA understand foot traffic and whether a station stairway will meet the performance criteria to ensure that it’s a safe experience for people exiting and entering the station.
We also discovered that the sensors at station platforms detected passengers’ devices on individual trains and that we could offer visibility into how full the trains are as they enter and leave the station.
Additionally, by comparing the fair payment system data with the visibility we have at fare thresholds, Veovo can identify fare evasion trends — when and where it’s happening. That kind of analysis can give the MTA a baseline understanding to allow the agency to test the effectiveness of different fare evasion mitigation strategies.
What have been some positive outcomes for your business after participating in the Lab?
Participating in the Transit Tech Lab has definitely opened some doors for us in the transit space. New York has one of the world’s oldest, largest, and most ridden subway system. As a technology company that is primarily known for its work in the aviation space, working with the MTA gives us an incredible amount of credibility as we talk to other transit operators globally — a lot of the conversations that we’re having now as we try to build our mass transit business would not be possible if we didn’t have such a great use case from the MTA and Transit Tech Lab.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur interested in applying to the Lab?
Programs like the Transit Tech Lab are valuable because they allow younger, smaller companies to get exposure to their target customers with guidance along the way. Government contracting and procurement can be very complex processes and bring with them a lot of requirements that can be challenging for a small company to handle. So, my recommendation is, if you think your company has a great solution for public transit, go for it! The Transit Tech Lab is looking for innovative ideas and is willing to bet on new-to-market solutions. It’s a great opportunity for smaller tech companies to explore procurement opportunities with hands-on support from the team at the Lab.
What is your biggest lesson learned through your experience participating in the Transit Tech Lab?
Patience is key. The Transit Tech Lab does a great job of getting solutions into play quickly. However, there may still be some runway to scale from that proof of concept to something with a larger footprint. That’s certainly been the case with Veovo.
It’s important to remember that being selected to participate in the Lab means that you are handpicked to help solve important issues, but the reality is there can be a lot of important issues at any given moment in a transit agency, and you may have to wait your turn.
However, once you’ve connected with that transit agency, use your access to talk to as many people as possible. Try to understand better what the client’s challenges and aspirations are, how they view technology and what that means for the future of the agency.
Some companies may say, “Hey, here’s my technology. It’s running great.” And only come back when it’s time to renew a contract, but that’s not the best way for a client to get the most value out of your solution, nor is it the best way for you as a company to grow and continue to build a set of capabilities that is going to, by necessity, evolve over time.
As an innovator, you never know what interesting things may happen after you deploy a project. We at Veovo certainly couldn’t have predicted all the exciting outcomes and learnings that have come from our pilot, and we are even more excited about the future possibilities.