Can the open data movement help create better access to high-quality transportation services not just for the urban elite but also for the underserved? That’s what the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is hoping will happen thanks to a new public transit data gathering initiative. In March, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that the agency is seeking to create a national transit map using transit route data from operators across the country.
Many U.S. transit agencies have already joined the open data movement, driven in part by the opportunity to have Google Maps provide users with transit travel options. A 2015 report by the U.S. Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) on the state of open data in public transportation noted that between 2009 and 2012, many of the largest transit agencies in the United States created application programming interfaces (APIs) that third-party software developers can use to access real-time data feeds of bus and train location information. Many transit agencies have developed the GTFS (or General Transit Feed Specification) feeds that Google Maps uses to provide its transit directions.
A new development is combining this data into a single map of transit in the United States. According to the DOT, its National Transit Map will provide a comprehensive, national snapshot of “where transit stops are, how frequent transit service is, and where transit routes go.” Note that this is all static information—this National Transit Map won’t take the place of real-time data used by smart phone app developers for individual transit systems. However, the DOT hopes that researchers and advocates will use the data to show where transit coverage is strong and where it is lacking. This is actually the kind of information that’s been available for years on U.S. roadways through the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The FHWA provides data on over 450,000 miles of U.S. highways that can be used to determine accessibility and usage rates.
The United States is joining just a handful of other countries that have open data on national public transportation services, rather than on a transit system level. The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to introduce a national public transportation database. The National Public Transport Data Repository captures every bus, train, and coach trip that occurs in the same week in October across the country. The repository has data from every year from 2004 to 2011, but has not been updated since 2011. When it was made public, the data was used for, among other things, an analysis of which parts of the country lagged in bus service. Sweden’s TrafikLab provides data on the country’s public transport systems. In Germany, transit data was pulled together by a group of activists, rather than the government.
There is still tremendous untapped potential in the data on transit services available to the wider public. The U.S. effort to collate this data and make it easy to access is an admirable step in this direction. While DOT secretary Foxx has expressly said his goal is to close the transit access gap, unstated is how this would occur. Presumably through encouraging additional investments in traditional public transit systems, but it would be an interesting exercise to overlay the transit coverage to data on shared mobility options. This data is largely held by private companies, however. There have been some initiatives to let cities access ride-hailing data, such as Uber’s partnership with Boston, but it is likely to be very difficult to access most of this information at a larger scale.
Tags: Policy & Regulation, Public Transit, Transporation Systems, Transportation Efficiencies, Urban Mobility
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