Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The open-source project Transitland makes reliable agency data more accessible to developers—and that’s great for riders.
Most transit apps are pretty straightforward: punch in your desired location and they’ll give you some route options, the next times buses or trains are coming, and maybe a couple of tidbits on service interruptions.
But savvy riders want more than directions to navigate transit services. Which neighborhoods have the most regular service? Where are the wheelchair-accessible stops? How strong is bus service relative to metro?
Transit apps could give us this information just as easily as they spit out routes, if developers had easier access to the digital data feeds most transit agencies generate (and continually update). Despite being public information, these feeds aren’t always easy to come by, and the legal terms by which to use them can be opaque.
Transitland, a new project from the open-source map developers and transit experts at Mapzen, aims to fix that. It’s a repository of authoritative data feeds from public transit agencies, stocked with tools that let engineers—be they civic-minded hackers or workers at start-ups and local organizations—use the information under clear legal conditions. The result, in time, could be far better transit apps.
“We’re making the raw ingredients of transit data a bit more accessible for direct access,” says Drew Dara-Abrams, head of transit and urban design at Mapzen.
From a non-developer standpoint, raw numbers and code don’t necessarily mean much. But the less tech-minded among us can explore Transitland’s “playground” feature for a grasp on what data is available to mess around with. Choose either San Francisco or New York City (more cities coming soon), and use the drop-down menus to explore routes, stops, and transit operators in either map or list view.
Beyond serving as a data playground, Transitland has a wealth of possible applications. One example is shown below: a transit intensity map of San Francisco and Oakland that shows service during peak morning commute hours. The stronger the red, the more frequent service is between stops on a given line.
Dara-Abrams says conventional transit apps typically don’t give riders a sense of where the most dependable service is. But an app made with Transitland could help show riders where they “can just show up and get on, rather than always take them on the quickest but hardest to navigate set of transfers,” he says.
Eventually, this kind of information could help riders better understand their transit system holistically, so they’re actually less dependent on apps and maps and directions in the long run. It could also help groups advocate for stronger service in different areas.
And that’s just one use example using one set of data. Transitland expects to expand as more agencies send in their feeds. Like the fastest bus, a better transit app could be around the corner.