How OneBusAway Aims to Improve All Transit Apps

How can we help people navigate the dozens of transit agencies that serve the Washington region? Riders aren’t always aware of their options, and for app developers, getting data from multiple agencies is a challenge.

One solution is OneBusAway, an open-source platform that consolidates transit data from multiple transit agencies. Mobility Lab invites interested people to join us this Saturday for a discussion and workshop. Everyone is welcome. Please RSVP here so we can have a count for lunch.

What is OneBusAway?

OneBusAway is an open-source software package that provides a platform for transit data integration. In other words, OneBusAway aggregates scheduled and real-time information from transit agencies, repackages it into a uniform format, and then distributes it to transit users and to third-party app developers. When OneBusAway is deployed in a region, transit riders have a single source for information, regardless of the agency or mode of transportation — there’s no need to use different apps for different agencies or visit one website for information on some routes and another site for other routes.

Where else has OneBusAway been deployed, and what were the results?

OneBusAway was originally developed by students at the University of Washington, and the original Puget Sound deployment of OneBusAway is still up and running and continues to provide transit information for eight Puget Sound-area agencies. Subsequently, the MTA in New York used OneBusAway as the core of its MTA Bus Time project, bringing real-time arrival information to bus riders in Staten Island, the Bronx, Manhattan, and soon the entire city.

Now, OneBusAway is maintained by a worldwide group of researchers and software developers, centered around the University of Washington, Georgia Tech, and the University of South Florida Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), as well as companies contracted to provide support to transit agencies that have deployed OneBusAway, including Cambridge Systematics. Recently, the research groups at Georgia Tech and CUTR have worked to set up OneBusAway installations in Atlanta and Tampa, respectively. Details on all of the OneBusAway installations can be found from the project’s main homepage.

Being rooted in academic work, there’s a large body of research on the impact of tools like OneBusAway. Summarizing briefly, research has shown that real-time passenger information greatly increases rider satisfaction with mass transit. In addition, OneBusAway’s position as an open-source package built around open infrastructure results in considerable economic benefits for agencies, compared to proprietary alternatives — the MTA found that developing Bus Time on top of OneBusAway resulted in a 70 percent savings over the proprietary alternative.

How does OneBusAway differ from other transit apps?

OneBusAway’s focus is on transit data infrastructure — that is, integrating and unifying many disparate sources of data into a single, unified stream. Right now, app developers building transit apps in a region like D.C., where there are many transit agencies, must get data from each agency individually. Often, particularly with real-time data, the formats vary from agency to agency and are not in line with industry standards. For app developers, this creates a considerable additional burden, having to deal with all of these various disparate data sources, and often leads to a patchwork of apps, each covering a different set of agencies.

With OneBusAway, we can bring all of these data sources together, and then offer them up through a wide variety of channels — desktop and mobile web interfaces, native mobile apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7 and 8, large-format real-time displays (like this), text messaging and IVR, and, perhaps most importantly, open-data interfaces for app developers. Also, despite the name, OneBusAway isn’t just about buses — as long as agencies make their data available, we can provide information on all modes of transit.

Our intent is not to supplant transit apps already on the market, but rather to make it easier for developers to deliver those apps, by providing infrastructure that delivers data for all of the many agencies in the region in a standardized format and through a single feed. There are more than a dozen transit agencies in the D.C. metropolitan area, and even more when you include Baltimore — transit riders shouldn’t have to turn to one app for information on part of their commute, another app for information on another part of their commute, and nor should transit app developers have to waste time aggregating all of these disparate feeds. There’s more detail on the idea of transit data integration in this Mobility Lab blog post.

How does OneBusAway benefit transit riders and transit app developers?

Transit riders of all stripes will find OneBusAway useful — some might access the website on their computer, tablet, or phone to get information on the next bus or train, while others might send a text message to get information. Still others might use customized tools, like software to improve the accessibility of transit to riders with disabilities. Because OneBusAway uses open data standards, tools built to work with OneBusAway can provide information in every city where OneBusAway is used without any additional effort on the part of the app developer. This is a major shift from the common practice today, in which transit app developers often build city-specific apps, or must make significant adaptations to accommodate the different data sources available in different cities.

How can transit riders get the OneBusAway mobile app?

The OneBusAway project has developed apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, which are available in their respective app stores. Right now, those apps provide coverage for the Puget Sound, Tampa, and Atlanta OneBusAway installations. Riders wanting an early preview of OneBusAway in the D.C. area can also manually configure the iOS or Android apps to point to our OneBusAway installation — details are in this blog post.

When will OneBusAway be available in the D.C. area, and what transit systems will it cover?

We’re still in the early stages of this technology pilot. It’s difficult to give an exact timeline, but we’re certainly eager to move forward rapidly. We’re working with some of the local agencies to help them resolve some data quality issues, and to a large extent the quality and availability of data will determine the pace with which we move forward. Our eventual goal is for this installation of OneBusAway to cover all of the public mass-transit systems in the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area.

How can a transit system become part of OneBusAway?

Because OneBusAway is built on open data standards, all we need is for an agency to publicly release its schedule data in the industry-standard GTFS format (the same format used by Google Transit), and, if they have real-time data available, release it as well, preferably using an industry-standard format like GTFS-realtime or SIRI.

Photo by Shinichi Higashi

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