August 18, 2016

Open Data Drives Public Transit Innovations

Two MBTA buses
(Photo: Adam E. Moreira)

General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) might be the single most important technological innovation this century for public transit — at least I think so. GTFS features a common format for public transportation schedules and related geographic information, which enables developers to innovate using the available data. Public transit agencies such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) are pioneers in the use of GTFS “feeds” to release schedule and trip planning information. The opening of this data has led to major advances in public transit real-time information and trip planning tools, particularly as developers can now write applications that use transit data in an interoperable way.

Open transit data has many benefits for commuters — one major advantage is the improved customer experience due to the many available transit apps. Public transit agencies also enjoy operational and process improvements through greater transparency in operations and management, resulting from open data. Due to the rapidly changing public transit environment and the need to adapt to the changing demands of commuters, GTFS is attracting new investments to public transit and in doing so, lessening the financial burden on public transit agencies to provide similar services.

Transit Apps

Automatic and real-time information through GTFS feeds has powered new transit apps for bus, subway, and commuter rail services. Just a decade ago, it was hard to imagine that you would be able to check transit schedules, plan your trips, pay your fares, select your routes and preferred combination of transit modes (bus, rail, walking, etc.), and so much more — all using devices such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer. 

I am fascinated by the many transit apps available to commuters. In Massachusetts, for example, there are over 40 MBTA bus tracker apps. These include the MBTA Commuter Rail app, MBTA mTicket, and NextBus. Further, global companies such as Google are, through their provision of services, driving public transit improvements. Google, in particular, is making great strides in public transit information access. In Massachusetts, for example, Google Maps has unique features that integrate travel by car, public transit, cycling, and even the transport network company, Uber (another service disrupting public transport as we know it — more to come in a my next blog post!). Relatedly, there are some apps such as Transit App: Live Tracker that not only give local commuters many choices such as requesting an Uber, reserving a car-share service (e.g., car2go), or getting a bike-share (e.g., hubway), but also span many cities and countries.

One distinctive feature of Google Maps is that other countries are now making GTFS feeds available and, in so doing, improving information access to commuters, which translates into benefits such as faster journeys and less wait times.

Suffice to say, open transit data is revolutionizing public transportation as we know it. Currently, GTFS feeds are also available through websites such as Transit Feeds which maintains a comprehensive list of GTFS feeds and is built on a community contribution process via Github.

Supporting Public Transit Infrastructure

GTFS feeds can be static, providing only fixed schedules or automatic supplying real-time data. Undoubtedly, real-time information requires public agency investment in automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology for bus fleets collected by a vehicle tracking system. AVL on buses and trains can facilitate predictions of next stop locations, delays, wait time, on-time performance, arrival frequency, and even provide notifications about disruptions through travel alerts on routes. The commuter is now equipped to make informed changes in their trip plans — instant improvements to the customer experience!

Investment in automatic passenger counters (APC) is also important particularly for determining overcrowding on transit and, of course, transit Wi-Fi further enhances the quality of the commuter experience.

Importantly, public agencies must have available bus stop name and identification data, stop times, routes, calendar, trips, frequencies, transfers and where possible fare information and detailed route shapes, in order to have a GTFS feed.


In my home country Jamaica, for instance, the publicly operated Jamaica Urban Transit Company Limited now has its bus schedules and routes available through Google Maps Transit. This is just a first step, as opportunities are now open to entrepreneurs to develop transit apps for the commuting public in Jamaica, which will in turn enhance public transit services and commuter trip planning capabilities. So why am I writing all this? I believe that if public transit agencies everywhere provide a GTFS feed, they create direct avenues to public transit improvements, entrepreneurial opportunities for private-sector involvement, and travel benefits to commuters: WIN, WIN, and WIN.

Establishing a GTFS Feed

So, how does a public transit agency establish a GTFS feed? Well, it is pretty easy… If your agency has transit data available including geographical coordinates for bus stops, routes listings, and geographical descriptions and bus schedules — that data can be made available freely on an open data platform such as Google. Then, the agency may for instance, join the Google Transit Partner Program. The benefits of participation as outlined on the site (and I tend to agree) include “…raising awareness of public transportation to attract new riders, helping seasoned riders discover new routes to maximize your infrastructure investment, linking to your agency website to increase rider awareness, connecting neighboring agencies’ data to improve inter-agency connectivity, decreasing traffic congestion and environmental effects while increasing mobility, providing trip planning on both desktop and mobile devices; and doing it all for free - all you have to do is share your data.”

Do this and have a quick win! Barriers to real-time public transit information will be lifted and enjoy an immediate improvement to public transit services in your country at the national, regional, and local levels.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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