Announcing the flexible transit trip planner

The trip planner revolution

Trip planners based off GTFS data have revolutionized public transit in the United States. Just 12 years ago, the only trip planners were expensive, proprietary, poorly functioning, and designed for individual systems. Now, a “Google Trip Planner” widget is ubiquitous on the websites of larger agencies and common even for systems with just a few routes. GTFS data is universally funded and publicly shared by at least three states.

…A revolution that left out flexible transit

Trip planners describe fixed-route transit. Especially in rural areas, but in communities of all types across the United States, many transportation agencies provide flexible services that do not fit the GTFS model. GTFS assumes there are defined stops at certain geographical points. A large percentage of transit service does not operate that way, even at transit agencies that provide primarily fixed-route service.

Screenshot showing Denver's flexible transit information
Denver RTD’s flexible services provide a good example of urban/suburban Demand-Responsive Transit

Transit often takes flexible forms such as:

  • Hail-and-ride (or flag/request stops): there may be no or very few defined stops along a route, with most passengers “hailing” or “flagging” the driver from the side of the road along the standard route alignment.
  • Deviated-fixed: while much of a route and certain stops may be predefined, some transit vehicles may deviate from that route as necessary to pick up or drop off riders at locations off the standard route alignment.
  • Dial-a-ride: elderly residents and those with disabilities often have access to door-to-door transit offered by local public agencies. Sometimes these services are available to the general public as well.

This means trip planners built for fixed-route transit do not present all the options that transit riders have. And these flexible modes of transit are not only for rural areas. They are also common models to provide extra service to persons with disabilities, even in urban areas. Some private business models have also sought to bring flexible transit services, such as Bridj or Ollie, to larger cities to provide trips more efficiently than public transit, and cheaper than taxis.

Screenshot from Google Maps showing sub-par rider information.
Actually, Google, the rider could just flag down the bus on the way out of town.

Demand-Responsive Transit services such as those above remain invisible to common trip planning applications.

A new trip planner is coming

That’s why earlier this year, Trillium worked with the Vermont Agency of Transportation to submit a MOD Sandbox grant application, seeking funding to adapt OpenTripPlanner to read GTFS-flex. OpenTripPlanner (OTP) is an open-source trip planner developed by TriMet (the agency that originally defined GTFS). GTFS-flex is an extension of the GTFS specification that is both backwards compatible and defines flexible features of transit systems, like the flag stops, deviated, and dial-a-ride services mentioned above.

We’re thrilled to announce that VTrans has been awarded that grant, and over the next two years, Trillium will be working with them and our partners at Cambridge Systematics on creating the first state-wide, fixed and flexible transit trip planner.

There’s a lot to be excited about in this project—improving technology for rural transit, breaking down the information silos between different types of transportation, working closely with community partners to define a tool that is tailored to their needs. The most exciting part for us is identifying the problems that rural transit agencies face today, and creating solutions to those problems so they can serve their riders better.

We’d love to hear from you what barriers exist for your agency, and what solutions you’ve thought of that you’d like to see us provide. Have an idea for how to create a user-friendly flexible trip planner, or just want to stay in touch about the project? Use the form below to put yourself on our contact list so you receive key updates about the project.