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Making Transit Apps Work for All

Planning your commute, deciding which bus to catch, and identifying which service is running late at night can all be done at the touch of a button in your favorite transit app. But there’s a lot of information and work that goes on behind that button. And the more coordinated and consistent that information is, the easier it is for app developers, and the more accurate it is for users.

That’s where the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) comes in. GTFS defines a common format for public transit agencies to publish their transit data—a zip file of transit information including stops, routes, and other data. The GTFS is used by over 1,500 transit agencies worldwide, allowing developers to use that data in transit apps. Different agencies apply the GTFS in idiosyncratic ways. As a result, says Kathleen Baireuther, manager in Rocky Mountain Institute’s mobility practice, “App developers currently devote a significant amount of staff time identifying gaps in data sets and resolving them manually. Often, multiple teams of developers address the same problem in parallel, creating significant drag on the system overall.”

Last February, RMI convened 17 organizations to improve the GTFS format. This working group developed a GTFS Data Best Practices guide and launched Now eight months in, we can see the best practices being adopted and endorsed, making a big difference in how users will experience transit apps.

A clear guide to GTFS best practices provides several benefits for the three main groups that use GTFS data: transit agencies, app developers, and users.

Less Frustration for Transit Agencies

Transit agencies and their vendors can publish data more confidently and with less frustration. The improved clarity in GTFS best practices means there is less guesswork and experimentation involved to get app developers the information they need. Transit agencies can reference the GTFS best practices in requests for proposals for GTFS-producing software to ensure data interoperability and better customer experiences.

In fact, Google, whose Google Maps is used by over 95 million people, recommends its transit partners use the GTFS Best Practices guide. This will drive huge implementation as transportation services in over 18,000 cities make their data available in Google Maps.

Improved Data for App Developers

Established, shared best practices will lead to more consistent transit feeds, making transit app developers’ jobs much easier, and enabling applications to scale more quickly. Mapzen, an open source mapping platform, sponsors Transitland, a service that aggregates transit feeds from around the world. Transitland uses validation software to check the data quality. “Transportation companies and individuals around the world are uploading transit feeds into Transitland,” according to RMI Principal Greg Rucks. “And now that Transitland is incorporating GTFS best practices into its validation report, the quality of that data will be greatly improved.”

A Seamless Experience for You and Me

Everyone who uses transit can benefit from abundant choice of transit applications and accurate, clear transit information. Better data can help provide a simple and seamless user experience. And although GTFS data is static (i.e., scheduled information not real-time data, which is provided in its companion GTFS-realtime data format), mobile app software architect Sean Barbeau explains, “Better GTFS data will also lay a solid foundation for real-time data, which will in turn increase the quality of GTFS-realtime feeds.” In other words, it will be easier to develop apps that tell you not only when the bus is scheduled to come, but also when it is really going to show up.

As the working group that developed GTFS best practices continues to work together, the GTFS best practices can evolve to help even more sectors of society. For example, a blind user recently emailed Transit—developer of Transit App—to ask the company to include a data field that would allow him or her to better find the bus stop. Since Transit is part of the GTFS best practices working group, the data field can eventually get adopted into GTFS best practices, making it available to blind users around the world.

The Interoperable Transit Data Consortium

RMI, in partnership with TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to urban mobility, recently held an Interoperable Transit Data Workshop in New York to facilitate industry-wide collaboration. Through this collaboration we will build a consortium to continue to drive global adoption of common data improvements across travel modes. Ad-hoc collaboration between a handful of interested parties is useful, but it is not enough to maintain momentum and facilitate broad industry support and involvement.

The consortium will help on many levels:

  • Continual improvement of the GTFS and GTFS-realtime formats, training materials, and tools
  • Data specifications for other modes such as taxis, ride-hailing services, rideshare/carpool and vanpool, carshare services, road incidents, and autonomous vehicles
  • Data linkages to improve the traveler experience, including better trip planning, clearer pricing, and seamless payment across modes

Currently no single organization has the incentive, mandate, and resources to take on the tasks of developing, popularizing, and improving data specifications. RMI is incubating the Interoperable Transit Data Consortium to provide an industry-led venue for collaboration—a reusable launch vehicle to support the ongoing development and adoption of data specifications to ensure that transit apps work well for transit agencies, app developers, and users. For more information visit