Sally Librera, Senior Vice President of Subways, distributing free face masks to transit customers on July 23; Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit on Flickr
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Sunday asked Apple to develop a more simplistic face-recognition system to prevent riders from removing face coverings to unlock their smartphones while commuting. An update to the company’s Face ID feature is currently in the works, but in a letter to CEO Tim Cook, MTA Chair Pat Foye requested the technology be expedited. “We urge Apple to accelerate the deployment of new technologies and solutions that further protect customers in the era of COVID-19,” Foye wrote, according to the Associated Press.
In an interview with Cheddar’s Opening Bell on Monday, Foye said mask compliance has been at around 90 percent on buses and subways. But the agency has observed riders removing their masks to unlock their iPhones.
“And what we want to do, and we’re asking for Apple’s help, what we want to do is keep mask compliance high at the 90 percent level,” Foye said in the interview. “Frankly we’d like to raise it even higher. And by making it easier for our customers who are using facial ID to be identified with a mask on, and again we’re going to leave the technological solution to Apple.”
In addition to updated technology, Foye said Apple could also remind customers to use a passcode to unlock their phones, instead of the Face ID feature, to incentivize riders to keep face coverings on.
In response to mask-wearing mandates across the country, Apple in May released an update that presents the passcode option to users immediately when swiping up from the lock screen. The MTA has previously worked with Apple for its new OMNY contactless fare payment system.
“There’s nothing more important to us than the health and safety of our customers,” Apple said in a statement to AP. “We are fully committed to continuing to work with the MTA to support their efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Masks and/or face coverings are required to ride the city’s subway and buses. The MTA’s “mask force” has distributed millions of masks to customers without them. Last month, the agency installed dispensers with free masks on 100 buses. And some subway stations now feature PPE vending machines with items like face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes.
Ridership has gradually increased since record lows during the height of the pandemic this spring, but still only a fraction of what it was pre-COVID-19. According to MTA data, weekday subway ridership hovered around 1.3 million people each day, with daily weekday bus ridership at about 1.2 million commuters. Pre-pandemic, the system served about 7.6 million riders on average each weekday.
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