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

2/21/12Follow @wroush

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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:

trip_id,arrival_time,departure_time,stop_id,stop_sequence,
stop_headsign,pickup_type,drop_off_type,shape_dist_traveled,
timepoint

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 »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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