Human Transit: toward aggregated information?

Recently on his blog, humantransit.org, Jarrett Walker suggests that agency-specific online trip planners will become less important:

In the information side, I think the future is for transit agencies and transit providers to have a declining role, and for “aggregators” like Google Transit to take over.  Transit agency trip planning websites, for example, will gradually be supplanted by Google Transit or its successors, whose structure is easily expanded to include intercity as well as intracity trips.  You could even imagine Google Transit coming together with intercity travel websites such as Expedia and Wotif.  Over time, the greater convenience of the aggregators will probably prevail, and I suspect transit agencies will gradually stop investing in trip planning because there’s no point in spending public money to do something that the private sector is doing better.

But I look forward to comment on this, especially from people who are working on these issues. (Email of the Week: Toward Aggregated Information?)

Here are my comments (also posted on Jarrett’s blog).

I agree that travelers will increasingly turn to applications like Google Transit that combine information and plan trips across multiple services.

If we look at the information delivery practices for other travel modes, we see significant roles for 3rd party information providers. Here are a few examples:

  1. Road maps: Imagine, if you will, if you had to consult different maps for city roads, county roads, state highways, and interstate highways (I’m using a US example of jurisdictional divisions) — in short, use a different information source according to the agency responsible for maintaining the roads you are driving on. Probably, if this was reality, driving would not be nearly as popular as it is today. Instead, there are many online mapping sites and paper atlas products available. The limitations that have kept this from occurring with transit are: (a) transit service changes more frequently than the road network (b) there are fewer transit customers than drivers, so there is less economic incentive. However, technology brings down the cost of disseminating and presenting this information, and allows this to happen more quickly, solving the two issues.
  2. Traffic delays: Many states have information systems to disseminate road travel delay information to news media outlets and other systems like traffic-aware navigation units and online map sites.
  3. Air travel: Many travel bookings are made on sites like kayak.com or travelocity.com.

Note also that 3rd party applications are doing a great job of delivering real-time information for systems like TriMet and BART. Two example iPhone applications are PDXBus and iBART.

The extent to which 3rd party “aggregators” like Google Transit and online agency-specific trip planners are implemented and used will depend on the costs and benefits for each approach.

These are the potential benefits of Google Transit and its brethren (like Microsoft’s Bing maps which now offers transit directions):

  1. Less expensive for the agency
  2. Uniform interface benefits travelers who visit other areas and are unfamiliar with local transit and tools
  3. Integration with other information and tools
  4. Greater potential for inter-agency trip planning
  5. Perhaps in the future, multi-modal trip planning
  6. Additional exposure for the agency’s services

These are the benefits of an agency-specific trip planner:

  1. More control over the results (whereas Google’s trip planner code is shared and standardized across their huge data system)
  2. More control over the cartography display: For example, OpenTripPlanner allows agencies to display their own cartography layer in the results if they have a particular system map design customers are used to
  3. Greater ability to capture trip planner query and use data for analysis

Note that many trip planners implemented by agencies also perform inter-agency trip planning. For example, Sacramento Regional Transit’s trip planner provides inter-agency trip itineraries with other agencies in the region.  SacRT also exports General Transit Feed Specification data to Google for these participating agencies.  The General Transit Feed Specification and other specifications will allow for information to be exchanged between trip planning systems more easily.

Currently, when I talk with end-users that know about have both an agency-supplied trip planner and Google Transit available to them, they most often prefer Google Transit. I think this is largely because Google Maps provides transit directions in a more familiar interface, and it conveniently integrates the transit directions features with others, like business search, MyMaps, Street View, and directions for other modes. Integration with other information and features is something I see as a primary benefit of 3rd party trip planners, in addition to inter-agency trip planning.

Aaron is the founding principal of Trillium Solutions, Inc. He brings experience that includes 12 years of web-development with 8 years in public transportation, with knowledge of fixed-route transportation, paratransit, rural transportation, and active transportation modes. Aaron is a recognized expert in developing data standards, web-application design, digital communications, and online marketing strategy. He originally developed Trillium’s GTFS Manager, and has played a key role in the development of the GTFS data specification since 2007.