IoT Archaeology Leads To API Resurrection

What happens when someone’s personal project is turned into a startup which becomes something of a publicity darling, then collapses with very little product shipped and takes all its customers’ money with it?

That’s the subject of a blog post from [Kevin Chung], who investigated the legacy of NYCTrainSign, a company whose product was an LED NYC subway sign and which has become a meme byword for a startup scam. Along the way he found himself reverse engineering its API, and eventually even purchasing the expired domain name to resurrect the API for any NYCTrainSigns that may still be out there.

Securing a second-hand NYCTrainSign, he dismantled it to see what made it tick. Inside the handmade wooden case was an array of LED panels, driven by a Raspberry Pi 3 and an Adafruit LED panel HAT. This gave pause for thought, as the component choice gives rise to a very high BoM cost which was unsustainable given their habit of steep discounts.

The software proves straightforward enough to reverse engineer, and since the original domain was for sale he bought it and set up a replacement API. Do you have one of the few signs that made it to customers? Now you can run it again.

The rest of the piece tells a tale that will be familiar to startup veterans: one of far too much marketing, too many bosses, and too little engineering to create a viable product. The founders remain tight-lipped about what happened and where the money went, but since there are few more efficient money pits than a badly-run startup, it’s more likely that ill-advised spending is to blame than someone running off with suitcases of cash.

If you’d like a public transit sign without the dodgy start-up, we’ve got you covered.

an RGB LED display showing expected arrival times of trams and buses sitting on a table

A Private View Of A Public Transport Sign

[Stefan Schüller] was a fan of the LED signs that display arrival information for the trams and buses in their city of Zürich. [Stefan] was having trouble finding a source to purchase the signs so, instead, decided to build one himself.

[Stefan] decided to recreate the 56×208 single color 2mm dot pitch display with an 128 x 64 P2 RGB LED screen respecting the same 2 mm pitch. The display is driven by an ESP32 DMA RGB LED matrix shield utilizing a HUB75 RGB LED matrix library, all being powered from a 5 V 4 A power supply.

In addition to driving the LED matrix display, the ESP32 polls Zürich’s public transportation API and then parses the XML for the relevant information. Since [Stefan] wanted to match the fonts as closely as possible,
he created a new font from scratch, including the bus and accessibility icons. The new font was encoded into a glyph bitmap distribution format (BDF) that was then converted to work with Adafruit’s GFX library, with [Stefan] creating a custom conversion tool, called bdf2adafruit, to do the last leg of the conversion.

Since the LED matrix had full color capability, [Stefan] decided to add a little extra flourish and color code the transportation lines with the official tram colors. All source code is available on his GitHub repository for the project, for those looking for more detail.

We’ve featured DIY builds of public transportation feeds before. With the ubiquity of low cost RGB LED displays and public APIs, hopefully we’ll see many more!

Credit: Lewin Day

The O-Bahn Busway – Obscure Transit For The Masses

Around the world, governments and city planners have long struggled with the issue of transport. Getting people where they need to be in a timely fashion is key to making a city a comfortable, attractive place to live. As far as public transport is concerned, this typically consists of buses on the roads, and trams and trains on rails.

Down in the city of Adelaide, Australia, things get a little muddled, however. Nestled in a river valley lies a special  transportation network known as the O-Bahn, where buses ride on concrete rails and the drivers can even take their hands off the wheel. The system remains a rarity worldwide, and was spawned by a perfect storm of conflicting requirements.

A Child of Circumstance

In the 1970s, the South Australian government found itself backed into a corner. Facing a booming population in the north-eastern suburbs, new transport links with greater capacity were needed to get people to the central business district. Original plans from the 1960s had called for more freeways to be built all over the city to solve the problem. In the face of stiff public opposition, legislation was passed in 1970 blocking the construction of any new freeways for a full decade, forcing the government to consider alternatives.

O-Bahn buses passing at speed near Stephens Terrace. Buses formerly reached speeds up to 100 km/h on the network; this was dropped to 85 km/h in 2012, adding 20 seconds to the average run. Credit: Lewin Day

Despite plans being shelved, a corridor of land stretching from the city to the north-east had already been acquired for freeway construction. This was retained, and studies were commissioned to determine the best transportation solution to suit the needs of the area. The “North East Adelaide Public Transport Review” suggested light-rail or a busway would be the best solution.

Initial plans were proposed to link the north-east with a light-rail tramway that would connect with the existing tramline from the city proper to Glenelg in the west. However, the City of Adelaide protested the plan, believing that extending the existing tramline to the east would damage the city’s carefully planned structure.  Plans were made to rectify this by running part of the line underground, massively increasing costs, and the proposal was shelved.

It was at this time, the guided busway in Essen, Germany came to the attention of the state government. Aiming to help reduce congestion by allowing buses to share tram tunnels, it began as a demonstration which later developed into the Spurbus network. The system offered lower cost and higher flexibility than light rail, and avoided the need to carve up the city to hook in to the existing light rail network. Had Adelaide laid out its existing heavy or light rail networks differently, the O-Bahn might not have gotten a look in. However, back in the early 1980s, it was an easy solution in a sea of difficult choices.

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