The importance of data in the transit experience

Cover of Transit Center report, The Data Transit Riders WantNext time you’re on a bus or train, count the number of your fellow passengers looking down at their phones. If it’s less than 100%, I owe you a dollar.

OK, so maybe that’s an exaggeration – but not an extreme one. A 2017 Google/Phocuswright study found that 70% of travelers in the U.S. said they “always” use their smartphones when traveling. And one of the most common of these uses was looking up navigation directions. What’s behind travelers’ ability to do what would have sounded like magic just a couple of decades ago? A whole bunch of data, not all of which is created equal.

Recognizing this, in 2017 TransitCenter and Rocky Mountain Institute convened a Transit Data Workshop to help improve the state of transit data. The resulting report, The Data Transit Riders Want: A Shared Agenda for Public Agencies and Transit Application Developers (of which Trillium’s Aaron Antrim is a co-author), contains recommendations and guidance for transit agencies, private developers, industry advocates, and journalists.

Image of multiple apps transit agencies use to interface with customers.
                                                   Image taken from Transit Center report

I suggest poring over the document yourself, but for now here’s the gist: a world of current, accurate, and accessible transit data calls for transit providers and technology developers to embrace principles falling under three general themes.

  1. Data Management and Policy. Agencies must prioritize data. Just as dedicating staff and resources is crucial to the success of a large capital project, agency leadership must commit to and invest in the internal infrastructure that will support good data.
  2. Data Quality. No matter the quantity of available data, its usefulness ultimately hinges upon its quality. In other words, more is not necessarily better. The weather app on my phone shows me relative humidity, dew point, visibility, and pressure, but it’s of no use to me if it never accurately predicts the rain in Portland. 
  3. Data Specifications. At the risk of sounding too “kumbaya,” we are all on the same team in the transit data world. That is, we all benefit when data is open and standardized. This enables industry growth and innovation. GTFS is a perfect example.

At Trillium we apply these principles as part of our core mission: making transit easier to use. Our products and services are built on the GTFS foundation, and we are contributors to the development of new (and open) data specifications that expand the possibilities of transit data. We know that even the best-run transit system in the world is doomed unless people know how to navigate it – and they expect that the technology they use every day will enable them to do so.