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?