Open Data in Public Transportation

As cities experience an influx of new residents looking for a car-free lifestyle, reliability and predictability of public transportation becomes an essential amenity. Long gone are the days of a paper timetable updated on a quarterly basis. Tools such as trip planners and real-time arrival information for buses, trains, subway, and other modes help citizens understand their options to make better decisions for their commutes and day-to-day travels.

In recent years, the provision of open transit data has become the norm for local governments and transit authorities. The organizations have realized open transit data’s key benefits such as the ability to dynamically update their schedules and provide instant updates on service to riders.

This short video from StreetFilms (from 2010) explores the earlier days of open data in transit and explains the benefits of accessible transit data.

Now cities and transportation departments across the country have set up developer portals and created APIs (application programming interfaces) to give the public the ability to create tools and visualizations with their data. Here are some sample data portals offered by major cities and transit authorities:

Perhaps one of the most potent opportunities open transit data has yielded is the ability for independent developers to create apps and other tools to help plan their trips. In the Washington, D.C. region, local governments have teamed up with developers to create real-time transportation screens that businesses can install to give patrons up-to-date information about when the next bus or train is coming, as well as availability of bike sharing bikes in the vicinity.

For cities looking to embrace open data for transit and transportation, NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation has put together a primer on how to get started, identifying seven steps to releasing data:

  1. Find your data
  2. Convert data
  3. Test your output
  4. Write up a license agreement
  5. Publish and publicize
  6. Update and modify
  7. Create and maintain a dialogue.

With the proliferation of open transit data, Google has taken the lead in creating a common data format that transit authorities and local governments can use to publish their schedule information. Known as GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification), the format allows both static schedule information as well as the ability for real-time information based on vehicle locations and on-the-fly service changes. In Chapter 10 of Beyond Transparency, Bibiana McHugh writes about the story of the development of GTFS with the City of Portland. Here is more information on the GTFS protocol:

Finally, while the current trend is towards real time and dynamic transit data, the federal government has long provided information on the performance, safety, financials, and other vital statistics about public transportation systems across the United States. The National Transit Database has existed since the late 1970s and is updated regularly.

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