Trillium Blog

News and commentary about transit and online information from Trillium

Rural and intercity transit—the wheels are turning

Aaron and I both attended the 21st National Rural & Intercity Bus Transportation Conference October 26 to 29 in Monterey, CA. For both Aaron, who’s been in this industry for now over 7 years, and for myself, being new to public transit last year, this conference was monumental. We were invigorated by the work being done across the country by agencies and departments large and small to bring greater mobility to the residents of the United States. We were also excited by centrality that technology, accessibility, and rider-centricity were given by all conference participants. These three themes were put front-and-center by a number of presenters, and the dialogue around them revealed just how hard rural transit operators are working to provide the best services they can with often limited resources.

Expanding service

Three state DOT leaders spoke at the Getting Here from There session to talk about the programs they’ve put forth in recent years to expand intercity networks on a state level. Dave Pelletier of Vermont demonstrated the need of thorough study and planning in order to highlight the missing links in current service and discover the opportunities that they offer, as well as the necessity of public commitment to supporting those services. Kyle Emge of Massachusetts showed how thinking beyond administrative borders to consider regional travel-sheds produces a more rider-centric transit experience. Shaun Morrell of Minnesota spoke to the directions that rural and intercity transit can move once a wide net has been set to provide transit to most residents. All three speakers at the session revealed the degree to which public-private partnerships can be used to leverage limited public resources to the greatest public benefit. Through creative—and competitive—financing, all three states have shown that there is a strong undercurrent of demand for intercity transit.

Transit for all

Rural and intercity transit often provides unique challenges for communities th– on public transit the most—disabled Americans. Bennett Powell and Jason Quan of KFH Group, Inc. gave an enlightening presentation detailing the struggles of examining bus stop accessibility. They highlighted in particular that a bus stop must not be an island, but rather a port. To have an accessible bus stop with no access to the residences or businesses it is meant to serve does little to provide mobility to disabled community members. Polly Chapman of Trinity Transit in California gave a related perspective in the same session, Through the Front Door. She reminded us that stop accessibility along some rural routes is not as easy as writing state administrative rules. Bus stop upgrades can be expensive and, unless done strategically, might not provide any substantial service improvement. There is a risk of building “bus stops to nowhere” which must be mitigated in order to maximize the return on funds.

Rider-centric technology

Riders are coming to expect transit agencies to be responsive not only to their needs, but responsive their their preferences. Riders want to be met on their own terms, and to be able to find transit information through the media on which they are most comfortable. As more rural residents and intercity travelers come online not only at home, but through mobile devices, rural and intercity carriers have learned quickly in the last few years that transit technology provides as many advantages for rural systems as it does for urban ones. Aaron moderated the session Changes in On-Board Communication Technology in which we learned of the impressive progress made by Richard Tree at Porterville Transit by adapting new technologies like the Google Transit trip planner and real-time vehicle location technologies. In all, four other sessions included the word technology in their title: the entire national rural and intercity transit network is awash in dialogue about how to use technology to provide better and more efficient services.

We’re excited to see where all those discussions lead—the possibilities are just beginning to be elaborated.

Go to post

Invest in transit, and riders will come

Attitudes toward public transit have been changing in the US for some time, but there’s been more evidence recently that the Millennials (previously known as “Gen Y”) continue to be a driving force of that change.

A new report from USPIRG compiles the research from a number of studies over the last decade, including one we highlighted on our blog a couple years ago. Younger Americans are driving less and using alternative transportation modes—like walking, biking, and public transportation—more than previous generations. Some reasons are temporary: the recession of 2008-2009 cause some people to resort to public transit due to cost, or not commuting at all because of unemployment. However, many of the reasons are due to cultural shifts that imply a change of values which might last longer: Millennials show an increased preference for urban living, they are more familiar with mobile devices which make transit more convenient to use, and are more likely to take actions to protect the environment, even though they’re less likely to label themselves “environmentalists”.

This has major implications, USPIRG argues, for the needs of transportation investment. The country must refocus its attention on providing quality public transit infrastructure, in order to capture the potential riders that are waiting for new capacity. This echoes an indication of the recent nationwide survey by TransitCenter, which found that topping the list of all requests by current and potential public transit riders was increased frequency and service hours. That survey also found a divergence between Millennials and other generations.

The takeaway here is that demographics are on the side of public transit. As younger Americans build long-term habits, and become a larger proportion of the American workforce, public transit ridership will increase. The question is will US governments—local, state, and federal—invest in order to service this increased demand, or will we continue to rely on the outdated metrics that have put American public transit in a state of disrepair?

Go to post

Location, location, location: more important than ever

The Economist had two articles earlier this month on how street address names are receiving increased scrutiny, due to the rising value of physical location in the digital age.

Let’s repeat that, because it’s a fundamental thought that can easily be overlooked. The subtitle of the article “Getting on the map” reads.

Physical location is becoming even more important in the digital world.

The internet and related technologies have not lessened the importance of location by making things available everywhere. Rather, they’ve increased human ability to quickly and reliably take advantage of location information, assuming that information is machine-readable. One of the results is the work that now needs to be done to standardize address systems within countries. But there is much more that governments (and everyone else) will need to be thinking about as the new value of location is unpacked in coming years.

The first article above mentions the comment of a Danish minister that in the past “Addresses were treated as a mere add-on to other data” and thus never centralized. This is of course in America still the case. While the US address system has numerous effective features, addresses are certainly treated as ancillary: a recent project here at Trillium, which required the geocoding of 2500 addresses directly from a federal government database, resulted in fewer than half being properly associated with a location automatically.

The process of making GTFS data often involves such geocoding. We take a list of bus stops from an agency and use a series of tools to connect the stop names to lat/lon coordinates. Bus stop names aren’t quite addresses, but they’re essentially the public transportation equivalent. Prior to having GTFS or other GIS data, the stop name itself is the data in which location is stored, and the quality of that data makes a big difference in how easy the GTFS implementation process is.

Transit agencies can help increase the value of the stop name locational data they publish through accuracy, precision, and consistency:

  • accurate stop names use the official names of landmarks and streets
  • precise names include not only intersections but, for example, specific sides of streets
  • consistency in form of stop names allows easier adjustment and maintenance of data

The critical step to publishing the best information, though, is creating GTFS data. GTFS allows the connection of this description information with a GPS location (as well as your timetables and fares), presenting your riders with even more accurate, precise, and consistent information. The data can be read by endless online trip planners and mobile apps that your riders are already using to find their way around. Give Trillium a call if you’d like to start the process of making GTFS data today.

Go to post

The future of transportation is in open data, not centralized control

I’ve seen this rolling around social media: the Helsinki plan to create a centralized transportation network offering truly mutli-modal trip planning and a unified payment system, accessible through a standardized smartphone application. It’s a really impressive vision.

Helsinki’s plan, I think, is developed in recognition that to offer the same flexibility as single-occupancy vehicle travel, we need a “multi-modal supernetwork”: one with great public transportation, car-sharing choices, convenient taxis (like Uber), rideshare, bikeshare, and a good bike lane network. But a transportation network with so many options becomes complicated to navigate, so Helsinki has also included information systems to make this network easily accessible from a single customer interface.

But what about a place where centralized management of the entire transportation system is not possible, or is not seen as desirable? There is a potentially an even better, cheaper, and more effective way to make this ease of mobility a reality worldwide.

The plan in Helsinki appears to be to focus on bringing discrete operators onto a central, controlled platform. Alternatively, through the use of open data standards, publicly available APIs, and independent app developers utilizing and combining data from many sources, the transportation system can be presented in a more unified (and customized) way. A multi-modal transportation network with some centralized control and management, but which also allows for some adaptability and organic growth and formation (facilitated by open data), is ultimately more resilient and supportive of innovation.

Trillium may focus its work on public transit, but our mission is larger: our mission is human mobility. This means working towards finding ways of helping all people—no matter where they are, no matter what their reason, no matter what their abilities, needs, and preferences—get where they’re going, as easily as possible and with the lowest possible negative impact on their environment. Our work in public transit is one small piece of that puzzle. We work with other organizations in other transportation industries, creating interconnections between modes of transportation to work towards a multi-modal super network that can get anyone anywhere.

That vision is too complex to be centralized and too big to be controlled. Open data offers a way to create a world where information is easy-to-find not because it is centralized, but because it is distributed: accessible through any platform that speaks the right ‘languages’ and to anyone who needs to move.

Go to post