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

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Turin and you click on the Google Maps icon for a public transit stop, you’ll see live departure times—meaning, the predicted time the next bus or train will leave, based on real-time location data for vehicles traversing the system.

If there are service alerts, detours, or system-wide delays, you’ll see those too. “No more waiting on the corner wondering when the bus is coming,” says Martha Welsh, a strategic partner development manager on the Google Transit team. “Having that information gives people a little bit more control over their lives.”

The real-time updates do make Google Transit far more useful. But there’s a reason Google hasn’t announced any new partners in the Live Transit Updates program since it was introduced eight months ago: the technology behind it is much more complex and expensive to implement. Observers say they doubt that the revolution Google sparked when it introduced GTFS will have a sequel in the realm of real-time data—or if it does, it will be much more gradual.

For starters, transit agencies that want to provide live updates need to collect live data—i.e., the latitude and longitude of every bus and train, logged at the most frequent possible intervals. This usually means installing a GPS device on every vehicle and wirelessly transmitting the data back to a control center. Agencies must then condense this data into files full of locations and timestamps, publish the files to the Internet, and republish them as soon as there’s new data, so that Google can crunch the numbers and continuously update its predicted arrival times.

To enable all that, Google introduced a new standard in 2011 called GTFS-realtime. It builds on GTFS, but is a different animal, since it includes new feed types for trip updates, service alerts, and vehicle positions, as well as provisions for constantly refreshing this data throughout the day. In an advisory to agencies, Google puts it this way: “Because GTFS-realtime allows you to present the actual status of your fleet, the feed needs to be updated regularly—preferably whenever new data comes in from your Automatic Vehicle Location system.”

That bland statement contains a world of hurt. “It takes a lot more to create and maintain a GTFS-realtime feed than it does for a GTFS feed,” says BART’s Moore. “It’s frankly a little complicated. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how agencies adapt to that standard.”

To get technical for a moment, GTFS-realtime is based on “protocol buffers,” a method for updating records in a dataset by sending short messages. Google engineers invented protocol buffers because they needed something faster and more streamlined than XML, the usual language for exchanging data on the Web. The problem is that it takes a real programmer to master the concept. A transit agency may be lucky enough to have a spreadsheet jockey like Tim McHugh who can generate GTFS files, but it probably doesn’t have developers trained in Google’s peculiar database philosophy.

On top of that challenge, many agencies outsource the problem of automatically determining vehicle locations and generating arrival-time predictions to commercial vendors. While they might be able to figure out GTFS-realtime, these vendors aren’t always eager to feed their data straight to Google. “In many cases, there are sticky contractual arrangements about who owns the data and the predictions,” says Moore.

When it comes to the future of GTFS-realtime, “the jury is still out,” says Embark’s Hodge. “There are expectations baked into it that would require transit authorities to track their vehicles in ways that most of them don’t, and to make predictions in ways that most of them can’t. I like the idea of a real-time data standard. I just think GTFS-realtime is too ahead of its time to be truly adoptable.”

The main concern that Hodge, Moore, and others seem to be expressing is that Google designed GTFS-realtime to suit its own ambitions, rather than the needs or capabilities of the transit agencies. It’s the first sign of friction in what, since the release GTFS in 2007, has been a virtual lovefest.

Ferris, the creator of OneBusAway, is now one of the lead engineers at Google responsible for maintaining and extending GTFS and GTFS-realtime. He says Google is doing its best to respect the limitations of transit agencies while still leaving room for future innovation. “Realtime is a whole order of magnitude more complex than static scheduling—there is just no way around it,” he says. “We wanted to push the envelope in what we support. We wanted something more complex in terms of using a protocol buffer definition optimized for streaming, which gets us a lot more data. But it’s always a tension. We don’t want the spec to be this massive thing that could take five weeks just to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • 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.

  • prev

    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?

  • Jason

    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.

  • Mike

    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.

  • tookie

    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?

  • Richard

    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.

  • 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.

  • Ray

    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.

  • 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)

  • “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: http://www.walkscore.com/apartments/

  • 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:

    http://www.marketplace.org/topics/tech/transportation-nation/techies-cutting-edge-bike-commuting#comment-55946

  • 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. truckersgpssystems.com
    Al

  • Neil Henry

    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 511.org

  • Khushi_Kumari

    Google map has done very nice job!!

    transportation company