Email of the Week: Toward Aggregated Information?

A reader who works for a North American transit professional organization writes:

Often transit centers only provide access to one provider and exclude others, or only provide access to local providers but not to regional providers. That silo system carries over to the information that transit agencies manage or make available to their customers in most cases. Do you have some good examples where services and customer information is more regional ie all the options in the region whether public or private.

My response:  On the information side, I think the future is for transit agencies and transit providers to have a declining role, and for “aggregators” like Google Transit to take over.  Transit agency trip planning websites, for example, will gradually be supplanted by Google Transit or its successors, whose structure is easily expanded to include intercity as well as intracity trips.  You could even imagine Google Transit coming together with intercity travel websites such as Expedia and Wotif.  Over time, the greater convenience of the aggregators will probably prevail; I suspect transit agencies will gradually stop investing in trip planning because there’s no point in spending public money to do something that the private sector is doing better.

But I look forward to comments on this, especially from people who are working on these issues.

UPDATE:  Interesting feedback from John Downs, Planning Manager for the Fresno Council of Governments in California:

Although [Fresno’s main transit system] FAX has been on Google Transit for a couple of years, we are in the final stages of setting up a regional trip planning service using software from Ontira Communications.  This web-based software provides features that exceed those of Google Transit including Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) and the ability to send a text message requesting schedule information for a specific bus stop.  In our case, that will provide real time bus arrival information from our AVL/GPS system.

The program also allows our paratransit customers to schedule trips without the assistance of a customer service agent.  The system will automatically call them to remind them of their schedule as well as call them to let them know when their bus has arrived to pick them up.  These are great features for our customers, but they also reduce the demand on our customer service agents which means a cost savings for our system.

We will continue use Google Transit, but, at least for now, there are some significant features that other trip planning programs offer that make them valuable to transit operators and their customers.

23 Responses to Email of the Week: Toward Aggregated Information?

  1. James December 9, 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    I’ll take a stab at the infrastructure side: There’s some interesting examples in Ontario of shared public/private transit centers. Ottawa allows Greyhound and other private buses to use its Transitway (dedicated roads + transit stations). Some smaller communities (e.g. Kitchener/Waterloo and St. Catharines) have a shared long-distance and local transit terminal, with a single ticket counter to buy Greyhound or local tickets/passes. Guelph takes it one step further with a shared Greyhound, GO Transit and VIA Rail terminal, with the main intra-city bus hub across the street.

  2. ant6n December 9, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    Another more generally useful way is to persuade transit agencies to form large transit assocations. One example is the Verkehrsverbund Berlin Brandenburg. It is an association of all transit agencies within the state of Berlin, and the surrounding state of Brandenburg within Germany, covering an area of like 10% of Germany, and includes 6 million people.
    Not only do they provide a route planner, they also do revenue sharing across the whole board. You can get tickets covering different geographical areas (for example all of Berlin, or Berlin+15km more out, or a set of wafers) — and within the area, you can basically take any form of transit.
    This gets even more interesting if you consider that the S-Bahn (which is sort of commuter rail) and the Regional Rail (“Regionalbahn” – is also sort of like commuter rail), and the Regional Express Trains (which are akin to regional services in the states – except they come every 60/120 minutes) can be taken with those tickets.
    New York, for example, can not offer this – all three commuter rails are distinct from one another and the subway system in their ticketing — and you can’t even transfer between bus and subway with a 2 hour ticket.
    For Berlin the revenue sharing means that if you get a train ticket to/from another town, you can use public transit within some area to connect anywhere downtown. I think this should also relate to the whole transfer debate, and maybe bring it to another level. 😉

  3. Alon Levy December 9, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    In Japan, where they’re not good about forming transport associations, you can find a nationwide trip planner on Hyperdia. All trains, planes, and connecting airport buses are included, and you can find daily schedules on each line. You can specify parameters like “no Shinkansen” or “JR only” or “minimum transferring” and get the best route. It’s better than the official railroad websites, which don’t always post schedules on commuter trains in English.

  4. Jonathon December 9, 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    In many of Toronto’s suburbs, the regional (intercity) transit service, GO Transit, was responsible for providing local service on the trunk route through that community (Yonge Street through York Region, for example.) In some cases (Kingston Road through Durham) it still does. In all of these places, terminals are shared between the local transit service and GO transit, who generally provides express service to points in Toronto proper. Greyhound and Intercity services also use many of GO Transit’s terminals.

  5. Daniel December 9, 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    The whole question of integration is huge. Fare integration, signage, coordinated timetables, shared infrastructure. One would hope that most players know that by working together and offering passengers ALL the options, they can better grow the transit mode share pie.
    Some illustrations from Melbourne (where we have integrated ticketing and some shared infrastructure):
    Ten years ago, one train operator went to the extent of excluding stations their trains went through from their maps, because those stations were managed by another operator.
    After a shakeup of operators, they learnt from their mistakes, and nowadays signage generally specifically talks about other operators (though system maps are lagging behind).
    However there’s still a mass of different organisations involved, great confusion about who you talk to for problem X, and little coordination between modes, or overall network planning.
    This became a political issue at the state election just gone, with the winning Coalition government promising to reform the governance arrangements to break down the silos, though there are no details yet of what precisely will happen.

  6. rhywun December 9, 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    I’m wary of revenue-sharing across such a large region. Sure, all agencies do it within their own jurisdiction, but it seems to me that the bigger a jurisdiction gets, the greater the distortion between fares and true cost. Inevitably, the longest trips wind up with the greatest subsidy, which has all kinds of side-effects as one could imagine.

  7. Joseph December 9, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    Montreal does an excellent job at integrating all its many agencies. Most agencies (all except the outermost suburbs) are part of the AMT which offers a TRAM pass valid on all buses, trains, and metro within a certain concentric zone. This means that for multi-agency trips, commuter trains are on the same fare structure as buses. Also, it means huge discounts compared to buying regular passes at each agency. This contributes to a much higher suburban ridership than other North American cities.
    The AMT’s role as a metropolitan transit agency is to operate commuter trains and bus termini (transit centers) which are used by buses from many different agencies. However, the AMT site does not acknowledge the existence the dozen or so agencies far-out enough not to want to be a part of the system, which is a significant loss.
    Unfortunately, we lack a comprehensive regional transit planner. (Google does not handle multi-agency trips well at all) On long distance trips, I consistently beat Google by 15-20 minutes, which is, of course, very significant. Google’s times are consistently wrong on many of the suburban networks and Google does not include taxi collectifs, ferries, or the agencies not part of the AMT.
    Now, while Greater Montreal’s network itself is regional, the individual suburban agencies generally do a pathetic job at linking themselves to one another. All’s good for travel from a suburb to Montreal or within a single region, but interregional circumferential travel is difficult.

  8. Chris Smith December 9, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    I’m working on a project to make it cheap and easy to put up displays of real-time arrival info at places like coffee shops and bars, on anything ranging from a counter-top display to a flat-screen on the wall. We’re initially starting with TriMet in Portland, but it’s all being built open-source and I hope to spread it to other agencies (and allow displays to mix info from multiple agencies) very soon.

  9. Rob F December 9, 2010 at 10:14 pm #

    Jarrett, I think you’re right that private aggregators or application developers will do a better job providing information from multiple agencies that meet specific users’ needs. But several barriers need to be attended to. For one, public agencies need to provide data feeds, or hooks into their databases. For another, the data formats need to be standardized, so application developers don’t need to create separate applications for each city or property.
    Here in Seattle I was encouraged to attend a meeting Seattle Metro Transit convened for local application developers to help them get access to and understand their data sources. Developers were given a CD with data descriptions, and could subscribe to updates. The room was full – there are plenty of developers anxious to find ways to repackage transit data in a unique way that meets their customers’ varied needs. I think that’s the right approach – but some national data standards would result in more robust applications that could be used all over the country.

  10. Ryan Gluesing December 9, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    I have to agree with the idea that sites like Google do an excellent job of providing details across multiple transit systems. In fact, when traveling and using (or attempting to use) local/regional transit, I turn first to Google. And I continue to do so in the San Francisco bay area. However, combines what seems to be even better and more-thorough inter-agency planning.
    I know that in some cases, was able to get me from A to B, where Google wasn’t (mainly in the north bay). Also, 511 provides the ability to choose methods or agencies, which comes in handy (frequently Google will recommend BART as part of a trip for some areas of SF, but it’s cheaper and only slightly slower to just use SFMTA buses or MUNI).
    Beyond information, the whole region has finally adopted the “Clipper” card, which is very useful for people who use multiple agencies for transit. Discounts/transfers between agencies are usually available, and except for the logos, it’s essentially one giant system with several smaller clusters serving each municipality. BART and Caltrain work as regional rail/rapid transit linking these municipalities together.

  11. Corey Burger December 9, 2010 at 11:40 pm #

    Google is wonderful, but beware lock-in. Transit agencies absolutely need to be investing in transit planning websites because they are critical parts of their infrastructure and letting such critical parts out of their control without a contract/SLA is a recipe for disaster.

  12. ant6n December 10, 2010 at 12:14 am #

    Maybe within North America, Montreal is doing pretty well, but there are some issues with how everything is set up.
    Firstly, despite the area being very large, you can only buy tickets for either one of the local agencies or a zoned pass. These zones are basically concentric circles around the CBD – so if you want to go from one location to another outside of Montreal, you still have to pay for a ticket that includes a huge area; the AMT basically assumes that if you cross the border of a transit agency, your trip goes or comes from downtown.
    For the commuter rail, you always pay as if going downtown. And just like in Paris, you have the situation where the commuter rail is more expensive than other transit – the Island proper is zone 0, but the commuter rail goes up to Zone 3. It seems they also have a revenue sharing model that seems to encourage parallel bus service to commuter rail – so rich people take the train often using park and ride, whereas poorer people take the bus.
    And the Opus card has all sorts of glitches, not giving you the ability to all sorts of different tickets on it. It’s so bad that some people buy multiple cards to put incompatible tickets on it that they use for their daily uses.
    No issue with vendor lock-in. The google transit feed spec (gtfs) is open, and fairly easy to use (it’s a bunch of text files in a zip). There are open source projects to work with gtfs data. The only problem are transit agencies who work with google direclty without publishing their gtfs feed (..damn Montreal, damn Berlin).

  13. Tom West December 10, 2010 at 6:42 am #

    The problem is not so much sharing faacilites (which is common) as sharing information (which is rare).
    For example, Union Station Toronto has rail service provided by both VIA rail (inter-city) and GO Transit (regional) – but the information screens telling you about the next train are seperate!
    Similarly, I can think of many examples where two different bus providers have service along a route, but you never get a single timetable showing both.

  14. David Oleesky December 10, 2010 at 9:57 am #

    While lack of ticket inter-availability between operators is a major issue in the UK, facilities (e.g. bus/rail stations) are usually shared, and there are good publicly run internet sites providing integrated public transport information.
    A national journey planner (with a car route planner as well) is available at:
    The Traveline portal provides access to regional public transport journey planners at:
    An example of a good county council run public transport website is:
    However, websites and printed information provided by transport operators themselves often do not give details of rival services, which can be a particular problem when different companies provide the service on a route at different times of the day/week.

  15. anonymouse December 10, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    Google transit already does include intercity trips: the Amtrak Capitol Corridor is on there, as is, I believe, the Coast Starlight. The problem with using Google for everything is that effective trip planning does require some local knowledge (for example: how long does it take to make a transfer at any given place between two given modes?) and that’s hard for Google to do, or even really care about. But I think ultimately the integration issue will only be solved once we let go of the unproductive attitude that the only way to get two bureaucracies to cooperate is to create a third bureaucracy to subordinate the others to. That just breeds ever more useless bureaucracy, and then you end up with disasters like Clipper (due to be finished in 2001!)

  16. rhywun December 10, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    “the integration issue will only be solved once we let go of the unproductive attitude that the only way to get two bureaucracies to cooperate is to create a third bureaucracy to subordinate the others to”

    Agencies should let go of their “pride” and recognize that certain co-operative efforts (such as sharing info, and co-ordinating their schedules) can only increase revenue for all participants in the long run.

  17. Kathy December 11, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    Great Falls Montana where I live has a good transit center considering how small our city is and how sparsely populated are the surrounding hundreds of miles of rural areas which Great Falls serves. They refurbished the old, unused Greyhound station (which used to be a smelly dive where derelicts hung out, but is now nice and clean) and use it as a city bus transfer hub but all the regional buses use it too. The North Central Montana transit which travels through very sparsely populated areas to two Indian reservations (Rocky Boy and Fort Belknap – both to the north and east) uses it and another agency runs buses through Shelby to another Indian reservation (Blackfeet -north and west). Rimrock trailways also uses the bus terminal and there may be other bus lines I don’t know about.
    Public transit in Montana is very limited due to our small and spread out population but as you can see there is some and they try to make it efficient.
    The buses through the rural areas to the north would not exist if they did not have the federal funding to serve the reservations.
    Just thought as most of you are big city transit users or professionals you might like to see how a very small city and a frontier rural area do this.

  18. Kathy December 11, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    I was wrong about the bus going to the Blackfoot rez. It only goes as far as Shelby where is can connect with Amtrak

  19. rhywun December 11, 2010 at 8:55 pm #

    Yeah, it’s pretty common for agencies to share a terminal, but beyond that there’s little or no effort put into helping users navigate all the choices. Like our bus station here in NYC serves a dozen or so companies, local and national, but as far as I know there’s no way to figure out where they all go except to visit each one in turn (though some – not all – do partner with each other).
    I agree with Jarrett that Google or some other private entity will best fill this need – eventually.

  20. JJJ December 11, 2010 at 11:36 pm #

    Thats why Im a fan of giant regional agencies.
    One brand, one fare, one website.
    Behind the scenes I dont care if every hamlet runs their own service, but the customer should only see one brand. The division of revenue should happen behind the scenes.

  21. Nicholas Barnard December 12, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    King County Metro in Seattle does a good job hosting the region wide trip planner. They manage to provide trip planning information for the agencies in the region. I find they actually do a better job than Google does in providing logical and usable directions.

  22. P December 17, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

    have you seen the new bing transit in their iphone app? Real time updates in seattle!

  23. Aaron Antrim December 19, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    I agree that travelers will increasingly turn to applications like Google Transit that combine information and plan trips across multiple services.
    If we look at the information delivery practices for other travel modes, we see significant roles for 3rd party information providers. Here are a few examples:
    1.) Road maps: Imagine, if you will, if you had to consult different maps for city roads, county roads, state highways, and interstate highways (I’m using a US example of jurisdictional divisions) — in short, use a different information source according to the agency responsible for maintaining the roads you are driving on. Probably, if this was reality, driving would not be nearly as popular as it is today. Instead, there are many online mapping sites and paper atlas products available. The limitations that have kept this from occurring with transit are: (a) transit service changes more frequently than the road network (b) there are fewer transit customers than drivers, so there is less economic incentive. However, technology brings down the cost of disseminating and presenting this information, and allows this to happen more quickly, solving the two issues.
    2.) Traffic delays: Many states have information systems to disseminate road travel delay information to news media outlets and other systems like traffic-aware navigation units and online map sites.
    3.) Air travel: Many travel bookings are made on sites like or
    Note also that 3rd party applications are doing a great job of delivering real-time information for systems like TriMet and BART. Two example iPhone applications are PDXBus and iBART.
    The extent to which 3rd party “aggregators” like Google Transit and online agency-specific trip planners are implemented and used will depend on the costs and benefits for each approach.
    These are the potential benefits of Google Transit and its brethren (like Microsoft’s Bing maps which now offers transit directions):
    1.) Less expensive for the agency
    2.) Uniform interface benefits travelers who visit other areas and are unfamiliar with local transit and tools
    3.) Integration with other information and tools
    4.) Greater potential for inter-agency trip planning
    5.) Perhaps in the future, multi-modal trip planning
    6.) Additional exposure for the agency’s services
    These are the benefits of an agency-specific trip planner:
    1.) More control over the results (whereas Google’s trip planner code is shared and standardized across their huge data system)
    2.) More control over the cartography display: For example, OpenTripPlanner allows agencies to display their own cartography layer in the results if they have a particular system map design customers are used to
    3.) Greater ability to capture trip planner query and use data for analysis
    Note that many trip planners implemented by agencies also perform inter-agency trip planning. For example, Sacramento Regional Transit’s trip planner provides inter-agency trip itineraries with other agencies in the region. SacRT also exports General Transit Feed Specification data to Google for these participating agencies.
    Currently, when I talk with end-users that know about have both an agency-supplied trip planner and Google Transit available to them, they most often prefer Google Transit. I think this is largely because Google Maps provides transit directions in a more familiar interface, and it conveniently integrates the transit directions features with others, like business search, MyMaps, Street View, and directions for other modes. Integration with other information and features is something I see as a primary benefit of 3rd party trip planners, in addition to inter-agency trip planning.