A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why We Need Open Transit Data

I have a bus route - Route 7, the "Falmouth Flyer" - that can pick me up just two short blocks from my house and drop me off right at the end of the driveway at my workplace. The bus route is a straight shot to Falmouth, without any meandering detours. Better still, I can watch for the bus's approach in the morning through the windows of a coffee shop, and once I'm on board it's a scenic ride with ample views of Casco Bay.

Here are the drawbacks, though - it only runs once an hour, so if I miss it in the morning, I have to take the car, and if I miss it in the evening, I usually have to walk (for an hour) back home. Both of these scenarios have happened several times to me in the past year, even though I only ride the bus 2-3 times a month.

And the bus stop where I have to wait for the return ride leaves a lot to be desired - it's basically a narrow, overgrown strip squeezed between Route 1 traffic and a ditch. I'm working on getting my employer to build a shelter there, but it's going to take a while.

These drawbacks are substantial, and make me opt to ride my bike - so I don't have to worry about the bus schedule - instead on most days. I know that similar concerns and frustrations over missing a bus also keep a lot of other people from riding the bus - except the vast majority of those people drive a car instead of riding a bike.

But here's the thing - Portland's bus system actually has technology installed right now that could let me know exactly when the bus is coming, and how far away it is. For the past year or so, all of Portland and South Portland's METRO buses have had mobile GPS units running and communicating with their central dispatch offices.

So theoretically, instead of waiting in the ditch for ten minutes in the rain, and wondering the whole time if I might have already missed it because it was running unusually ahead of schedule, I could just get a text message on my phone when my bus is coming, and meet it right on time at the stop - even if the bus is running later, or earlier, than scheduled.

Or alternatively, my employer could buy a $100 internet-enabled screen, and use it to display estimated arrival and departure times for Route 7 at our bus stop. Here's a demo of how that could work:

Imagine if we had these gadgets running in the lobbies of downtown office buildings, grocery stores, the ferry terminal and train station. Landlords would jump at the opportunity to install them - if each one just attracted one new transit rider per building, then the savings in parking costs would offset the investment in just a few weeks.

It's also important to note that this hardware and software was developed open-source by volunteers - it didn't cost a cent to the local transit agency.

Unfortunately, we can't do any of this right now because METRO is not sharing its data - there's no way for the public to tap in to their buses' GPS coordinates, and there's no convenient XML format for their bus schedules (the METRO website actually posts its bus schedules as JPG images).

The South Portland and Bangor bus services are a bit ahead of the game - you can actually track where they're running at any given moment on this website - but there, too, it's not clear how an independent software developer could acquire and use the data. I'm not a professional programmer, and I'm sure someone more skilled could hack something by scraping data from this site, but by the same token, the transit agencies and the programmers who put this site together could do a lot of good by making the data more accessible.


Scott said...

Has METRO said why they are not sharing their bus location information?

Corey Templeton said...

Seems like a win-win situation to me. It would help the METRO better serve its riders and it seems like it would come at no extra cost. A lot of other cities already share this data, so it is hopefully just a matter of time before the METRO follows. Being able to see the location of buses would also be great on ridiculously rainy days like today.

Anonymous said...

Been riding the Portland Bus for about a year now, and the scenario you described is the biggest headache. Been hoping for a system like this. Now to find that it doesn't exist is simply because Portland hasn't opened their data actually makes me a little miffed. Need this in a big way. Who do I call?

Jeff Inglis said...

The SoPo bus info is inaccurate and the SoPo bus people have asked them to take down the data.