Google Transit: How (and Why) the Search Giant is Remapping Public Transportation

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12 transit systems in nine metropolitan areas, including London. “After BART we tried to make this something we could scale to other cities, and without a foundation based on standards that would have been pretty hard,” says David Hodge, Embark’s co-founder and CEO. “I don’t imagine anyone else [but Google] could have set a standard.”

The rise of GTFS has also helped to spur a larger “open government data” movement that cuts across areas like healthcare, energy, and education. And at transit agencies that were initially slow to publish their route and schedule information in digital form, including New York City’s MTA and Washington, D.C.’s Metro system, it has created irresistible pressure to open the data vaults and cooperate with outside developers.

But the most interesting thing about Google Transit—the company’s catch-all name for its transit agency data feeds—may be what it says about the company’s politics. Simply put, Google thinks people should drive less. That’s why it has its own bus fleet for shuttling San Francisco-based employees to the Googleplex in Mountain View every day; that’s why it’s researching robot cars; and that’s why driving directions on Google Maps are now supplemented by walking and biking directions as well as public-transit schedules.

If Google engineers could manage it, they’d probably try to undo the last seven decades of urban sprawl. Short of that, they think making mass transportation more efficient is one of the best ways to curb traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

“The biggest thing holding us back in the U.S. is land use patterns,” says Brian Ferris, a Google Transit engineer based in Zurich, Switzerland. “European cities are more compact, so public transportation dollars go a lot farther. In the U.S., huge parts of our cities were built after the automobile came to prominence. But we can’t change American cities tomorrow. What we can do is flip it around and ask how we can use information to make better decisions about where to live and how to commute.”

The Dream Is Alive in Portland

For the first three years of its life, GTFS stood for Google Transit Feed Specification. In 2009, Google proposed changing the name so that the G would henceforth stand for General—a sign of either magnanimity or pride, depending on your point of view. In any case, the creation of the standard, and the un-Googling of the name, make an interesting story.

Like so many current Google products, Google Transit emerged from “20 percent time,” the company’s way of encouraging employees to work on side projects that might bear unexpected fruit. The 20-percenter in this case was Chris Harrelson, a software engineer who’d joined Google Research after finishing a PhD at UC Berkeley on routing problems in public transportation systems. In mid-2005, Harrelson was monkeying with ways to incorporate transit data into Google Maps. That was when he heard from Tim and Bibiana McHugh, married IT managers at TriMet, the transit agency for Portland, OR. The McHughs were big believers in open data, and they wanted to partner with Google to make planning a trip around Portland by public transit as easy as planning a drive.

Harrelson was game, and he worked with Tim McHugh to write a program to export TriMet’s data into a file that could easily be fed into Google’s geospatial database. In December 2005, Google turned on Google Transit, with Portland as the first city providing bus and light-rail schedules within Google Maps. Harrelson added data for Seattle’s transit system in 2006, using the same data-dump format McHugh had devised. In 2007, Google published the format as the Google Transit Feed Specification.

There was nothing particularly complex about GTFS. Agencies willing to share their schedules simply needed to create about a dozen text files full of comma-delimited data showing the latitudes and longitudes of each stop on their system, the times buses and trains were supposed to arrive at each stop, and a few other details. Here are the first four lines from the stop-times file for TriMet:


2666662,08:53:00,08:53:00,13170,1,45th Ave,0,0,0.0,1
2666662,08:54:26,08:54:26,7631,2,45th Ave,0,0,877.4,0
2666662,08:56:31,08:56:31,7625,3,45th Ave,0,0,2163.1,0

The entire GTFS feed for TriMet adds up to only 169 megabytes. “Portland deserves a lot of credit in this space,” says Google’s Ferris. “What I like about GTFS is that it is, at the end of the day, just the raw data. You can build almost anything with that.”

In the public-transit world—not a community historically known for rapid innovation—the impact of GTFS was immediate and electrifying. Transit agencies that had been casting about for more efficient ways to get route information and advisories to their customers suddenly had a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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33 responses to “Google Transit: A Search Giant Remaps Public Transportation”

  1. Helen says:

    Google Maps really helps people when they visit or move to a new city. You can find out how to take the bus before you go. Now we just need to get more small towns on it.

  2. prev says:

    Well look at the situation with internet traffic and specifically email spam traffic (they say 90% of email is spam). Also the situation of bogus website. If you run a search most of the sites are just plain bogus useless nonsense.

    Wonder what google can do about this?

  3. Jason says:

    The article paints Google as this nice company out to help the average guy but then near the end the statement, “You have to use Android to get it.” basically shows it’s self promoting.

    If the APIs aren’t provided for iOS or Microsoft Mobile also, than although a terrific feature, we see the real motives.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with them developing and keeping this feature for themselves, but we don’t need an article suggesting it’s a goodwill project from Google.

  4. Mike says:

    Hopefully Google Maps will continue to innovate and offer valuable services to people looking to use public transit From having worked in the business world that sells software to transit agencies I can say that the business model is broken. The transit industry still lives in the old enterprise software model where the software costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for clunky, difficult to use software that takes months if not years to implement. Google can help to move the transit software industry in the right direction.

  5. tookie says:

    Jason, it’s available on the desktop version of Maps as well. Put it this way, if you’re a developer working for Apple, would you make apps that support iOS first, or Android first? If you answered iOS, you already answered your question. If you answered Android, you’re lying.

    It does not make sense for Google to leave its Android user base with sub-par app, and make the app for other platforms fantastic. It’ll be shooting themselves in the foot, and driving users away from their own platform. This, obviously, makes no sense. Why do you think Microsoft puts Internet Explorer instead of Mozilla Firefox in their OS distributions?

  6. Richard says:

    If only Google could allow you to change the font size and the colors to white text on black background in its transit schedules, then low-vision people who depend on transit could read them.

  7. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Jason: You don’t have to use an Android device to get Google Transit data. The APIs are pretty open, as far as I know, and the schedules (and the live updates, where available) can be viewed on all mobile platforms — it just takes a few extra clicks or taps if you’re using an iPhone or another non-Android device. On Android devices, Google has outfitted Google Maps with the extra nifty features I mentioned, like clickable icons at transit stops, and turn-by-turn and stop-by-stop navigation.

  8. Ray says:

    Glad to see Dan Gildea and Mikael Shiekh get the BATIP shoutout. I helped them collect the data for the small Bay Area agencies, and I feel having all this information available helped MTC take notice and eventually take over their work.

  9. David says:

    Iam developng realtime vehicleclient applications..
    Right now I am testing my android app which interacts with 1000 taxis in real time …its harder than you think.. my hope is to create system/api which will be transferable to other cities within one month saving money and time of implementations for other taxi companies… and that is similar whats GOOGLE is doing for public transport… and that can save lot of money for all of us.. if we try.. try to push our boundaries and see beyond what sharing can bring for your company and others. I see definitely markets where they differ in magnitude of their business protectionism. From my experience… give them small piece…show them that they can profit from it and only then show them even bigger picture and they will truely understand advantages of investment and opening data for others.. (gtfs->gtfs-realtime)

  10. “One natural extension of Google Transit, Ferris suggests, would be a software tool that shows people hunting for a house or an apartment how long their commute to work would be by bus or car”

    This exists as Walk Score Apartment Search:

  11. Google Maps has done great things for bicycling as well. The bicycle is an essential partner with public transportation in sprawling cities like those found in the U.S. with inadequate train and bus service.

    Here’s a radio story from Marketplace about what Google and others are doing on that:

  12. I am still using an old cell phone and wanted to get an iphone, but after reading your very interesting article, I believe I will look into one of the Samsung androids from Google with 16 GB internal memory (SD Card). Google is the big elephant in the room. I like to drive and can not commute on public trans where I live. Good things come from big companies (Google Maps etc.) but invariably they may end up inflicting their views on us all.

  13. Neil Henry says:

    Is there a technical path to using aggregated user data (last transit query + GPS stream) to produce a more accurate Transit RealTime result? I recognize that there are both privacy and technical issues to address. If presented well to users, many would be willing to contribute GPS data (and a bounded amount of upstream bandwidth/$) to get to a refined real-time transit awareness. Note, this is a different approach to the one used by

  14. Khushi_Kumari says:

    Google map has done very nice job!!

    transportation company