1 billion reasons and counting to open up that real-time, transit data

There’s already apps for that so let’s open up that real-time transit data.
Q: Why can’t the bus or train be more like Uber and Lyft?

The other day my friend Katie asked me “why can’t the bus or train be more like Uber and Lyft?”

She thought it would be cool to see exactly where the bus or train is and whether it’s running late. Just like how you can see an Uber or Lyft car arriving on your phone. Katie said this would be great in Richmond, VA where she lives. She finds public transit there pretty confusing.

“Public transportation here in Richmond is like a puzzle with missing pieces. It takes a lot of time and effort to figure out how to use it.”

Simply put — Katie wants a real-time tracking app for public transit. She challenged Nathan and I to make an app for that. I told her there’s already an app for that! There’s already several apps for that actually — Google Maps, Transit App, Moovit and Citymapper to name a few.

But back to Katie’s initial question — “Why can’t the bus or train be more like Uber or Lyft?” Arguably, Google Maps looks the least Uber or Lyft-ish. Transit App, Moovit and Citymapper have more of that look and feel. Visually appealing UI/UXs aside though, there is one other major obstacle to Katie’s question—closed data.

A: Closed transit data restricts real-time info from showing up on 3rd party apps like Google Maps, Transit App and Moovit.

Without open, real-time transit data (GTFS-realtime), these apps may be unable to support real-time tracking. This creates a real-time, information gap for 3rd party app users as well as unnecessary uncertainty and anxiety over their commutes.

Closed, real-time transit data can essentially leave over a billion 3rd party app users (i.e. potential riders) out in the dark with no real-time info.

Nathan and I — as Omni — specialize in GTFS and GTFS-realtime data integration. We are on a mission to close this real-time info app gap and help get transit providers on board with open, real-time data standards.

Google Maps’ 1 billion+ monthly active users (MAU) are a compelling reason alone for transit services to open up their real-time data and resolve any existing real-time info disconnects for riders who use the app.

Currently, some Google Maps users have no idea if their bus is actually five minutes early or 20 minutes late. Other Google Maps users have no clue if their train is really 15 minutes late or on-time. There’s unnecessary stress and confusion for these riders — lots of it. Simply because of this closed, real-time data.

Studies have shown that when riders don’t have access to real-time transit info, they perceive their wait times to be 50% longer than they actually are.

Nathan made the above animation of a recent bus trip I traced with my phone. I was headed from Downtown Orlando to teach a lab at the UCF main campus. We were curious how the bus’ scheduled transit data compared to reality. By the end of the trip, the bus was running 20 minutes late (and I was late to class). The bus did not provide real-time tracking.

Imagine how riders along this route must have felt waiting for a bus running 20 minutes behind schedule without any real-time info. I was lucky since I was already on the bus. At least I didn’t have to struggle with that uncertainty on top of being late.

While transit providers around the world have joined the open data movement (check out TransitFeeds.com and Transit.Land for proof), there is still a lot of restricted data out there. Some transit operations have opted to develop in-house, real-time tracking apps or subscribe to proprietary apps — all with closed transit data.

For example, a few transit services here in Orlando already have real-time tracking. But not a single one of these transit operators has opened up their real-time data to integrate with Google Maps yet. Their static, transit schedules may exist as open data (GTFS) on Google Maps, but their real-time info is inaccessible. Not an uncommon scenario.

So out of Google Maps’ 1 billion users, those who are in Central Florida at any given time including the 60 million+ tourists who visit Orlando annually don’t have access to this real-time tracking info. Even though these transit services have invested in real-time tracking tools for both local and visiting riders to use.

Google Maps is well equipped to share real-time bus and train info a.k.a. GTFS-realtime through its Live Transit Updates service. So are other 3rd party navigation apps. Closed, real-time data is a missed opportunity for transit providers, 3rd party app developers, and, especially, public transit riders who like to use these apps.

Active real-time info on Google Maps: This is what real-time info looks like on Google Maps. HART in the Tampa Bay metro area does share open, real-time transit info with 3rd party app developers.

Why wouldn’t a transit service want to connect with loads of potential riders out there already using Google Maps’ multimodal trip planner to commute via car, public transit, walking, biking, Uber, Lyft, etc. every single day?

At best, Google Maps users don’t have access to the real-time info they need, and, at worst, transit services with closed data are completely invisible to 1 billion+ potential riders.

The good news is that once real-time info is open data, this uncertainty factor for commuters who use Google Maps and other 3rd party apps fades away. There’s no longer a real-time info app gap due to restrictive data. This helps prevent overwhelming or even discouraging riders with misinformation such as invisible service, incorrect bus or train locations, and missing connections between different transit providers.

To recap, real-time tracking for public transit isn’t often available as open data (GTFS-realtime). Having real-time tracking is a great first step but it is not enough. Real-time transit info needs to meet open data standards so it is shareable with 3rd party developers and accessible for all public transit riders.

Open Data = Informed & Empowered Riders :)
Closed Data = Real-Time Info App Gap i.e. Unnecessary Rider Uncertainty & Anxiety :’(

Open data ensures real-time info isn’t limited to just one app or website. Implementing open standards (GTFS-realtime) makes real-time integration available for all the transit-related apps and websites on the market that riders use.

Regional connectivity is a critical part of this. It’s important for MPOs and state DOT district offices to help lead the charge in regional adoption of open, real-time transit data standards across local governments and transit providers. Otherwise, regional, real-time trip planning may not be possible because there can be A LOT of moving parts (i.e. different transit operators) in any given metro area.

Engaging your local transit riders union, the civic tech community ( i.e. your local, Code for America brigades and tech associations), chambers of commerce, visitors bureaus, transit provider staff, city and county staff, and elected officials are some other ways to get the ball rolling.

Public transit doesn’t need to be a puzzle with missing pieces. It doesn’t even need to be a puzzle at all.

Open, real-time transit data (GTFS-realtime) directly connects the day-to-day commuter experience to tech innovation spaces around the world. Open data empowers the 21st century commuter with access to an infinite tool box of innovative, transit tech possibilities. One option is not and should not be enough in today’s SmartPhone app economy. Because not only is there Google Maps but also Transit App, Moovit, Citymapper and so many more.

If ALL of these apps had access to real-time info, my friend Katie might be much more willing to ditch her car for public transit.

Opening up real-time data only further empowers public transit riders to make informed decisions right in the moment when it matters most.

These open standards help riders to not feel puzzled about their public transit experience — to feel more in control of their commutes and more confident that the time they are investing in traveling by public transit from Point A to Point B is time well spent.

So let’s get that real-time transit data opened up ASAP. Omni is here to help make this happen.