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

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consistent way to share their raw schedule data with outside developers, who would in turn repackage it for riders. Before that, each agency had taken its own approach to such data requests, and usually ended up having to reformat its data over and over, depending on the intended use.

“I was providing schedules in different formats to different people,” recalls Timothy Moore, longtime website manager for BART. “I was giving 511 Transit one look. I was giving some guy creating shopping-mall kiosks another look. I was thinking that if I could just release it in one format, it would make my life a lot easier. So when Google released GTFS in 2007 we were, I think, the first ones besides the originators to jump on.” Because BART was an early GTFS adopter, it was the only transit agency with a dedicated iPhone app on the day Apple turned on the iTunes App Store in 2008. (It’s called iBART and was developed by Embark, then known as Pandav.)

In truth, not every transit agency has been equally enthusiastic about standardization. “The default position of a transit agency is to protect its data and not open it up in a way that is accessible for developers,” says Embark co-founder Hodge. In some cases, agencies had relationships with outside vendors who claimed contractual rights to schedule data. In others, agencies didn’t want to give the data away for fear of losing Google Adsense ad revenue on their own websites.

But to Moore, selling or advertising against schedule data is like charging for menus in a restaurant. “I have watched transit agencies try to monetize schedules for years and nobody has been successful,” he says. “Markets like the MTA and the D.C. Metro fought sharing this data for a very long time, and it seems to me that there was a lot of fallout from that with their riders. This is not our data to hoard—that’s my bottom line.”

It took “the power of Google,” in Hodge’s words, to break the logjam. By 2009, so many transit agencies had begun to use GTFS—and the data was turning up in so many places other than Google Maps—that Joe Hughes, a U.K.-based software engineer working on Google Transit, proposed renaming the standard. “Given the wide use of the format…the ‘Google’ in GTFS is increasingly a misnomer, one that makes some potential users shy away from adopting GTFS,” Hughes wrote in a forum post for Google Transit contributors. And he wanted the change to be more than cosmetic: Hughes said it was time to hand ongoing development of the specification over to the larger community of transit agencies and app developers.

The Boys on the Bus

It’s safe to say there’s been more innovation in the world of public-transit trip planning in the last four years than in the previous four decades. Take the example of OneBusAway, a real-time guide to the Seattle-area transit system created by Googler Brian Ferris back when he was a graduate student at the University of Washington.

OneBusAway on the iPhone

In its first, pre-GTFS iteration, OneBusAway was a mere side project for Ferris, something to fill his evenings during a summer research fellowship at Intel. The system used the old-fashioned File Transfer Protocol (FTP) to grab data from servers at King County Metro Transit. Riders could then get bus arrival times by keying in a stop number on their mobile phone.

But once Ferris decided to scale up the system to incorporate data from Sound Transit and other regional systems—and to base his whole PhD dissertation on the project—he needed to standardize. So he followed TriMet’s example. “The first major rewrite of OneBusAway for multi-agency support was to natively support GTFS,” Ferris says. “I didn’t want to have to keep reinventing the wheel.”

The change allowed Ferris to extend the system to the entire Puget Sound area. Today OneBusAway offers real-time bus, light-rail, and ferry arrival information for nine agencies in the region, and is accessible by Web, phone, and SMS, as well as smartphone apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Area commuters use it to plan 50,000 trips per week. While Ferris himself has … 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