Portland, known for its array of public transportation options, also has a special history with open transit data.
The region’s TriMet agency, which runs Portland’s buses and MAX light rail, played an instrumental role in working with Google to develop and spread the General Transit Specification Feed transit data format 10 years ago. As Matthew Roth wrote on StreetsblogSF, before GTFS, many developers had to submit FIOAs or scrape the data from an agency’s website in order to obtain often-outdated transit information. Now, open GTFS data is the standard for transit agencies and an essential foundation of innumerable transportation apps and services.
TriMet’s Bibiana McHugh – who first worked with Google in getting the agency’s data converted to an open format – presented on the importance of open transit data during the Mobility Lab-sponsored Transportation Techies Portland edition earlier this month, part of the Association for Commuter Transportation conference.
TriMet is continuing to improve how riders can plan their trips using TriMet’s data. Open Trip Planner, which uses crowdsourced Open Street Maps, allows for multi-modal trips, an improvement over Google Maps’ trip planner. Accounting for the use of many modes over the course of one trip places a greater importance on finding the appropriate addresses for each segment of the trip. In order to overcome gaps in the correct addresses needed in charting those trips, McHugh announced that TriMet will be working with mapping platform Mapzen to more accurately catch missing address points, better connecting users to where they’re headed.
Even more important than the data, McHugh said, are the developers who make use of it. Mario Guzman, for example, presented his Portland transit app, PDXtransit, which he said seeks to use every possible detail of data that TriMet provides. He’s also integrated a number of iOS features, so that users can see information such as bus-arrival times on their Apple Watches.
Keith Billings and Nathan Upperman took the bus-arrival time information to a new level with a project designed to publicly display when buses will arrive, but at a fraction of the typical $10,000 arrival-time display cost. Their result, a clear sign (above) with route names and lights, uses different light colors to indicate how close or far away a bus is (for example, green for 2 minutes away and blue for 5 to 10 minutes). The entire system, which could be attached to any bus stop pole, would likely run off a combination of solar panel and a battery, negating need for expensive power hookups other bus stops use.
Chris Smith holds up one of his Transit Appliance attachments.
From an indoor approach, Portland Transport’s Chris Smith demonstrated his own display technology, Transit Appliance, which transforms normal TV sets into localized transportation displays. The device itself is really only a phone-sized attachment that straps to the TV’s back. From there, it displays not only nearby TriMet arrival information, but also other transportation options like available carshare. Each attachment is customized with the modes to show, where it will be installed, and in what format to show them.
Ultimately, Guzman, Billings, Upperman, and Smith all hope their apps and displays will help Portlanders move around the city more efficiently and make informed choices about their options. Each application highlights the importance, and end goal, of TriMet’s original open data dream: to foster a system in which knowledge of a city’s many transportation options is easily and quickly accessible.
This post is part one of the coverage of the Transportation Techies: Portland edition meetup. Check back on Monday for the bike-focused part two.
Photo: top, Billings and Upperman demonstrate their bus stop arrival display; bottom, Chris Smith and a demo attachment (M.V. Janzten, Flickr).