We live in an age defined by data. People’s needs, preferences, and behaviors generate data as a byproduct that is used to shape the experiences they have as consumers. This information revolution presents exciting opportunities for public transit to modernize their services and systems based on insights that are more available and valuable than ever before. However, there are also major challenges associated with this change.
Transit agencies have long suffered from limited access to real information about the state of their city, their system, and most importantly, their riders. This disconnect has made it difficult for transit agencies and cities to consistently and thoroughly assess the health of their mobility systems and adjust accordingly. Agencies are often left with no choice but to run blindly – operating inefficient routes that drain transit budgets, running service that doesn’t actually serve the public, and making it impossible to provide offerings that compete with personal vehicles or TNCs.
Uber and Lyft have already taken full advantage of the aforementioned data revolution to reinvent mobility in the mold of Silicon Valley. In order for public transit to remain at the heart of the American mobility ecosystem, agencies and cities must be able to leverage the same data and information as these tech giants.
One of the ways transit agencies can make sense of the massive amounts of data they process daily is through the utilization of standardized data specifications like General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). A vital resource for transit agencies looking to modernize, GTFS has allowed public transit agencies to publish transit information in a way that generates greater discoverability, access, and availability of that information across a range of digital platforms. The standardized and open-source nature of GTFS allows anyone to take full advantage of the data provided by the transit operators. However, GTFS feed creation and ongoing management can be an overwhelming task, and a majority of transit agencies are a long way away from being data-driven, with many cities still not able to collect, standardize or use their GTFS data.
In response to this challenge, companies like TransLoc are supporting the philosophy of open data, and creating tools that are enabling public transit entities not only to maintain their own GTFS, but also to get it into the hands of millions of people every day.
When it comes down to it, utilizing GTFS data helps agencies fulfill their biggest goal: serving the mobility needs of their population. Most riders today have endless options when it comes to selecting transit services – from third party transportation apps to larger mapping and trip planning tools, each of which are able to consume GTFS to express the current and accurate state of the transit system. Using standard, available information like GTFS gives transit agencies the power to reach their riders where they are. When transportation data is accessible, open and shared, all stakeholders benefit by being able to better understand the state of the transit ecosystem, including service availability and ridership trends. This information is critical to operating a transit system that is effective, sustainable and equitable.
It’s not just about the numbers
The benefits of GTFS are not limited to transit operators. Transportation planners can use GTFS to analyze issues such as transit deserts, gaps in service, and accessibility limitations. GTFS data gives transit officials a comprehensive look at the system as a whole and enables a much deeper understanding of whether or not services are providing equal access to important locations like supermarkets, medical offices, jobs, restaurants, and much more.
Researchers at the University of Utah published a study that used GTFS data to identify food deserts on a block-by-block basis and evaluate how the size of those food deserts would change depending on the time of day. This detailed assessment showcases who is served by transit and who isn’t, thereby affording planners the opportunity to identify how to better provide for all riders: regardless of where they live, their socioeconomic level, or any other factors. This ability to analyze the accessibility and equity of transit service offerings is a key tool in the toolbox of planners and operators across the transit industry.
The bottom line: data matters, but it’s what you do with it that counts
Like it or not, the data revolution is already here. Luckily, transit agencies and cities are positioned to take full advantage, just like technology companies like Uber and Lyft. The ability to freely manage and share essential information about transit service is critical to better serving the population while gaining a more comprehensive understanding into the transit needs of a community. GTFS is critical to providing transit planners and operations managers with the data-backed insights they need to ensure public transportation meets riders where they are and continues to fulfill its lofty mission.