The future of transportation is in open data, not centralized control

I’ve seen this rolling around social media: the Helsinki plan to create a centralized transportation network offering truly mutli-modal trip planning and a unified payment system, accessible through a standardized smartphone application. It’s a really impressive vision.

Helsinki’s plan, I think, is developed in recognition that to offer the same flexibility as single-occupancy vehicle travel, we need a “multi-modal supernetwork”: one with great public transportation, car-sharing choices, convenient taxis (like Uber), rideshare, bikeshare, and a good bike lane network. But a transportation network with so many options becomes complicated to navigate, so Helsinki has also included information systems to make this network easily accessible from a single customer interface.

But what about a place where centralized management of the entire transportation system is not possible, or is not seen as desirable? There is a potentially an even better, cheaper, and more effective way to make this ease of mobility a reality worldwide.

The plan in Helsinki appears to be to focus on bringing discrete operators onto a central, controlled platform. Alternatively, through the use of open data standards, publicly available APIs, and independent app developers utilizing and combining data from many sources, the transportation system can be presented in a more unified (and customized) way. A multi-modal transportation network with some centralized control and management, but which also allows for some adaptability and organic growth and formation (facilitated by open data), is ultimately more resilient and supportive of innovation.

Trillium may focus its work on public transit, but our mission is larger: our mission is human mobility. This means working towards finding ways of helping all people—no matter where they are, no matter what their reason, no matter what their abilities, needs, and preferences—get where they’re going, as easily as possible and with the lowest possible negative impact on their environment. Our work in public transit is one small piece of that puzzle. We work with other organizations in other transportation industries, creating interconnections between modes of transportation to work towards a multi-modal super network that can get anyone anywhere.

That vision is too complex to be centralized and too big to be controlled. Open data offers a way to create a world where information is easy-to-find not because it is centralized, but because it is distributed: accessible through any platform that speaks the right ‘languages’ and to anyone who needs to move.

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.