David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and technology.
Most U.S. cities share their transit information freely, which helps trip-planning services and boosts ridership. But most German cities don’t. Should they?
As the hometown of Daimler and Porsche, the German city of Stuttgart has a powerful car culture. The city also has—perhaps unsurprisingly—an acute problem with air pollution. Last year the air quality in Stuttgart was so bad that the mayor implored residents to leave their cars at home and use the city’s many transit options, which include subways, commuter trains, streetcars, and buses.
Unfortunately, residents could not turn to many of the technology solutions that American commuters might use when plotting their trip on public transport, such as Apple Maps, Bing Maps, or a startup like CityMapper. None of those are available in Stuttgart—or in almost any other German city.
The reason? Stuttgart’s VVS public transport system is one of many cities around the world that doesn’t share transit data with startups or mapping companies. As a result, commuters cannot access trip-planning tools that many in the United States take for granted. That’s holding down transit ridership, increasing vehicle emissions, and stifling economic innovation.
By way of disclosure, I have a direct stake in this issue: My employer, 1776, is an investor in TransitScreen, a startup that displays up-to-the-second information for multiple modes of transportation, from both public and private providers. The idea is, if you live in a city, you might decide at the spur of the moment how to get from point A to point B; depending on price and convenience—you might drive, take a bus or subway, flag a taxi, or grab a bike-share cycle. Further complicating these decisions is the emergence of private transportation providers like Uber, Lyft, and Bridj, which seldom coordinate with public transit agency websites or apps.
To take a step back, it’s worth considering where trip-planning apps came from and how are able to tell you when the next train or bus will arrive. These services rely on Application Program Interfaces (APIs) from a transit agency that shares schedules and information about train positioning, arrival projections, and accidents. Transit agencies make this information available through their websites (like this one), with data feeds that keep the information current. Every time you open an app or use Google Maps to plan your bus ride, you’re relying on these APIs.
Transit apps are able to expand easily into new cities because many transit agencies share their data through a standard language called General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), which originated because of a collaboration in 2005 between Google and TriMet, the regional rail system of Portland, Oregon. Bibiana McHugh, the TriMet employee who initially approached Google, says she did so out of frustration that Google Maps and MapQuest made it easy to plan a car trip but were largely useless for transit. Google used the GTFS data to launch Google Transit (now part of Google Maps); within four years, 25 transit apps had emerged in Portland to offer their own way of guiding local travelers.
Such third-party tools also rely on information shared from private transportation providers like Uber and Lyft, who deserve credit for making some of their APIs public—though not for the exclusivity requirements that prevent a company accessing their real-time data to do the same with loosely-defined “competitors.”
Soon after Portland’s experience, transit systems like BART in the Bay Area and MARTA in Atlanta also adopted GTFS, opening their data to third-party developers. “We’ve put SFMTA in front of customers in so many places that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own,” Timothy Moore of San Francisco’s MTA noted.
Some other American cities, however, pushed back. In Washington, D.C., WMATA halted an initial move toward GTFS by claiming that making data available to Google and transit startups “was not in our best interest from a business perspective.” WMATA never explained how it might profit from its data, and it wasn’t clear whether it could even do so legally since transit schedules are public information. Under pressure from transportation advocates and entrepreneurs, WMATA relented and ultimately embraced GTFS.
Today, a map of the United States today shows that virtually every transit agency makes its data available through GTFS. It is also the most common standard abroad, used by almost 800 transit agencies around the world. Though a few holdouts, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, still don’t share data, in the 11 years since GTFS’s emergence, I have not found a single example of a transit agency making money from keeping their data private.
But the story is very different in places where transit agencies continue to resist opening their data. Germany is a particularly egregious example. There are only three cities in the country that currently utilize GTFS: Berlin, Mannheim, and Ulm. Other German cities use their own national transit data standard called VDV 452, which was born in the 1980s. Even then, companies have to ask permission to get access to the VDV 452 data; there is no transit open data portal in cities like Stuttgart. Google, with its $73 billion war chest, can invest in accessing Stuttgart’s data and converting it into Google Maps, but other services, like TransitScreen or even Apple Maps, won’t bother. In a country like Germany that is committed to reducing pollution and combating climate change, easier trip planning should be a no-brainer.
Why the German resistance? One researcher exploring the reluctance of these cities to part with their transit data cited agencies’ desires to provide a single “official” mapping tool, rather than open the door to transit apps of varying quality (though America’s experience suggests that the market can sort itself out pretty well). I recently had a chance to raise this question with Alexander Dobrindt, Germany’s Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. He acknowledged that German cities are lagging in open data, and he mentioned a fear of missing out on potential revenue—an echo of what was voiced in some American cities seven years ago. “We have to move away from the principle of data minimization and towards a creative and secure wealth of data,” he told me. “Public data is open data.”
Minister Dobrindt has his work cut out for him: A recent study of Stuttgart’s real-time transit planning celebrated the app provided by the government’s Travel and Transport Association, but made no mention of attracting trip planning companies through adopting the GTFS standard.
That’s a missed opportunity—as American cities learned years ago, transit agencies harm themselves and their passengers by shackling their data.