Email of the Week: Should Ridership Data Be Online?

A contact at Portland’s TriMet (not anyone I’ve named on the blog) writes with an interesting point:

There is an internal TriMet web site, accessible to all TriMet employees, including drivers and mechanics, that has a wealth of information, such as budgets, ridership, etc. While all of this could potentially be misinterpreted, it seems to me that it should all be available to the public in a section of the public web site. I shouldn’t have to feel sneaky when I provide you with extracts from this material.

It appears Tri-Met’s internal directions to staff do not prohibit releasing data from the internal website unless it’s clearly marked as confidential.  Yet the information is still not available to the public directly.  So, for example, if I want to query the productivity trends of Line 14 on Saturday mornings in the summer, the information is not secret, but I have to ask a TriMet employee to look it up for me.

TriMet is, in contrast, a leader in making schedule data and real-time bus arrival information available over the Internet, for free, and actively encourages people to develop applications based on web services that present this information in novel ways.

Why release information about real-time location — which anyone can use to create databases about on-time performance — and not provide equally easy access to detailed data about ridership?

I think what we’re seeing in the Internet age is that a system that satisfies public curiosity about what it’s achieving gains more goodwill than it loses by letting unfavorable data get out.  After all, the most unfavorable messages are often clear enough in the big-picture data, things like mode share, which have to be reported anyway.  In the US, overall trends in ridership and efficiency are also public via the National Transit Database, regardless of a local agency’s preference.

In any case, the contact asks me:

You might have some perspective on how widely such information is made available by other transit agencies.

I can say that in Australia, where many transit operators are either private companies or “state-owned corporations” designed to act like private companies, a lot of information is shrouded by notions of trade secrecy.  When I need ridership data for my own projects, I sometimes have to sign non-disclosure agreements.  I’ve always felt that the public subsidy that goes into these operations should purchase some public access to information about the resulting benefits, but not everyone sees it that way.

I’d be interested in hearing about how this works in your city.  If I wanted to find out a detail about ridership – say the ridership of a single route in a certain period of day – could I look it up myself on the web?  If not, is it secret?  And why?

6 Responses to Email of the Week: Should Ridership Data Be Online?

  1. Anders February 13, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    I can tell you that in Minneapolis-St. Paul it’s even more difficult to obtain ridership data (and even then, it’s limited to the whole route, rather than route segments). I tried going through both the “front door” contacts at MetroTransit, our provider, and the Metropolitan Council, its parent political body, and ultimately hit dead ends (“I’ll see what I can do” and no contact ever again).
    Fortunately, my contacts had contacts of their own within MetroTransit, so I obtained the data I was looking for (overall ridership from a representative time frame). The numbers were apparently official, too, so I don’t understand why it required jumping through so many hoops to obtain. If I didn’t use my network, I would likely never have seen the data.

  2. John February 13, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    CTA publishes ridership reports online roughly once a month:
    Data are available by route and broken down further by average weekday/Saturday/Sunday. I’m not sure how hard it would be to get data on a segment of a route or during a certain time period. I’ve never tried.

  3. Alon Levy February 13, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    New York City Transit publishes ridership data for every subway station and every bus line, both annual totals and weekday, Saturday, and Sunday averages. There’s no data per segment of bus line that I know of; there’s data broken down by time of day, but it’s not publicly available.
    For commuter rail, the New York Times has data on weekday boardings broken down by station, but it’s not easy to find, and I can’t find this data on the MTA or NJT website.

  4. samussas February 14, 2010 at 4:17 am #

    The STIF, Paris Transit Authority, the RATP and the SNCF all have the necessary numbers but don’t publish them on a regular basis. The last known and easily accessible date is from 2005.
    I didn’t try to ask for them directly so I don’t know the outcome of such inquiry, but I have the feeling the result won’t be positive.

  5. Danny February 14, 2010 at 8:42 am #

    There are only two public transportation agencies in my state…and one is a dial-a-ride, with only 3 buses. The other is fairly large for a city of its size, but they don’t make ANY data available to the public, at least in any way that I have found.
    I agree that private companies shouldn’t have to release their data, but the second they receive an operating subsidy, they should have disclosure requirements.

  6. gmsmc June 29, 2012 at 4:31 am #

    Hi! I’m from Oporto, Portugal, and I can tell you that in my city there are three public plus seven private transit companies. The three public companies operate, respectively, the bus and tram, the light rail, and the rail networks. The private companies all operate bus lines. Some of the private companies don’t even have a website, and none of them, public or private, releases any data besides the annual financial statements, which include general data on total ridership. And that’s all you can get, as far as I know.