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Transit


WMATA might offer open data for all regional transit

WMATA planners helped STLTransit create an animation of transit across the entire Washington region. That's possible because WMATA has a single data file with all regional agencies' schedules. They hope to make that file public; that would fuel even more tools that aid the entire region.


Click full screen and HD to see the most detail.

One of the obstacles for people who want to build trip planners, analyze what areas are accessible by transit, design visualizations, or create mobile apps is that our region has a great many transit agencies, each with their own separate data files.

Want to build a tool that integrates Metrobus, Fairfax Connector, and Ride On? You have to chase down a number of separate files from different agencies in a number of different places, and not all agencies offer open data at all.

The effect is that many tool builders, especially those outside the region, don't bother to include all of our regional systems. For example, the fun tool Mapnificent, which shows you everywhere you can reach in a set time from one point by transit, only includes WMATA, DC Circulator, and ART services. That means it just won't know about some places you can reach in Fairfax, Alexandria, Montgomery, or Prince George's.

Sites like this can show data for many cities all across the world without the site's author having to do a bunch of custom work in every city, because many transit agencies release their schedules in an open file format called the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). Software developer Matt Caywood has been maintaining a list of which local agencies offer GTFS files as well as open real-time data.

We've made some progress. Fairfax Connector, for example, recently started offering its own GTFS feed. But while DASH has one, you have to email them for it, and there's none for Prince George's The Bus.

The best way to foster more neat tools and apps would be to have a single GTFS file that includes all systems. As it turns out, there is such a beast. WMATA already has all of the schedules for all regional systems for its own trip planner. It even creates a single GTFS file now.

Michael Eichler wrote on PlanItMetro that they give this file to the regional Transportation Planning Board for its modeling, and offered it to STLTransit, who have been making animations showing all transit in a region across a single day.

This is one of many useful ways people could use the file. How about letting others get it? Eichler writes, "We are working to make this file publicly available."

Based on the STLTransit video, WMATA's file apparently includes 5 agencies that Caywood's list says have no public GTFS files: PG's TheBus, PRTC OmniLink and OmniRide, Fairfax CUE, Frederick TransIT, and Loudoun County Transit. It also covers Laurel Connect-a-Ride, Reston LINK, Howard Transit, the UM Shuttle, and Annapolis Transit, which aren't even on that list and which most software developers might not even think to look for even if they did have available files.

Last I heard, the obstacles to the file being public included WMATA getting permission from the regional transit agencies, and some trepidation by folks inside the agency about whether they should take on the extra work to do this or would get criticized if the file has any errors.

Let's hope they can make this file public as soon as possible. Since it already exists, it should be a no-brainer. If any regional agencies or folks at WMATA don't understand why this is good for transit, a look at this video should bring it into clear focus.

Transit


Which DC-area transit agencies offer open data?

Projects like the Mobility Lab's real-time screens and Transit Near Me can help riders and boost transit usage, but they can only show information for agencies which provide open data. How do our region's agencies stack up?


Photo by rllayman on Flickr.

The table below lists the many transit agencies in the Washington region and their open data progress. In a nutshell, there are 2 kinds of open data: schedule data and real-time arrival data.

General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) files list schedules and the locations of stops and routes, powering applications like making maps or trip planners. Real-time arrival data lets applications tell riders how far away the bus actually is, for tools like smartphone apps or digital screens.

Schedule data Real-time data
Public GTFS Shapes in GTFS On Google Tracking Tracking API
Metrorail
Here

and Bing

Custom
Metrobus Most1
and Bing

Custom
Circulator (DC)
WMATA2

WMATA2

Nextbus
ART (Arlington)
Here

In process

Connexionz
DASH (Alexandria) Via email only3
Ride On (Montgomery)
Old?4

More info
The Bus (Prince George's)
Nextbus
MTA (Maryland) commuter bus
Here
MARC
Confusingly5

Here
Fairfax (County) Connector
CUE
(Fairfax City)

Nextbus
Loudoun County Transit
Text/email alerts
PRTC
VRE
Unofficial6
Mix of GPS & manual7
1 WMATA's GTFS file contains most Metrobus routes, but some paths cut diagonally across the grid over some long sections such as freeway or bridge segments of routes.

2 Circulator route and schedule data is included as part of the WMATA GTFS feed. However, there are some quality issues such as route names.

3 DASH feed is not publicly available, but officials can provide it via email.

4 Ride On's feed no longer appears to be on their website. GTFS Data Exchange has cached a version from December 2010 which was apparently posted in a news release.

5 MARC lines are listed in the MTA Maryland feed as lines 300, 301, and 302, which doesn't very easily differentiate them for someone unfamiliar with their GTFS feed.

6 Someone not affiliated with VRE created a GTFS file in 2009, but it hasn't been updated since and VRE does not offer an official one.

7 VRE has a page with train status which lists some trains' positions through GPS and some from manual reports from the conductor.

What the columns mean

Creating public GTFS feeds (the 1st column) allows someone who's written an app to easily incorporate schedule and route data for a transit agency. GTFS has emerged as a national standard for representing transit feeds, and there's tremendous value in having as many agencies as possible support the same standard. That way, if someone writes an app in Chicago, they can make it work in Denver, Albany, or Miami at the same time.

Most of the transit agencies' feeds including the paths that the vehicles take, but some do not, like DASH. The 2nd column shows this information. Feeds without paths are still usable, but apps that visualize routes, like Transit Near Me, end up showing unsightly diagonal lines cutting across city blocks.

Agencies can also sign a contract with Google to have their routes and schedules on Google Maps. The 3rd column shows agencies which have done this. Some agencies put out their data files, but aren't willing to sign this contract because of indemnification or other clauses which Google unfortunately insists upon. On the flip side, some agencies sign up with Google but then don't publish the GTFS feed publicly.

The agency might provide it to those who ask, or might not, but this dissuades app creators from including this agency, and makes it harder for them to get regular updates. Every agency should strive to host a public and up-to-date GTFS feed on their site so that anyone building apps can easily incorporate that agency's services into the tool.

The other type of open data is real-time locations or predictions. To make this possible, agencies first have to deploy AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location) technology on their buses or trains (the 4th column). The main obstacle is that this is somewhat expensive; a physical device has to go into each vehicle, and those devices then need some amount of maintenance over time.

Once an agency has tracking, it's relatively simple to offer a computer interface for apps to access and tell riders about this information (the 5th column). Most of the agencies with tracking offer such an interface, but while Ride On, MARC, and Loudoun Transit all have public tracking sites that provide some services to riders, but no way for other apps to tap into the information those sites contain.

What agencies can do

Agencies with red X's on this chart can start thinking about how to provide schedule and/or real-time open data. Creating GTFS files isn't extremely difficult, though it does require some staff time to actually do it. For agencies that use scheduling software, the manufacturers of that software often offer modules to export data as GTFS as well.

Some GTFS feeds could benefit from quality fixes. For example, WMATA's Metrorail GTFS file doesn't show the specific paths trains take, and paths are missing for a few bus routes. The "Transparent Metro Data Sets" Application Programming Interface (API), a special interface WMATA created to offer access to much of its data, does include the correct paths. But many people develop apps to access GTFS files for multiple cities. It's much less likely they will put in extra development effort to specifically pull just these route shapes from this unique API.

The Circulator's routes are part of the WMATA GTFS feed, which makes things even easier for apps than having to download a separate feed. One problem is that the route names are all cryptic: there's "DCDGR" for the Dupont-Georgetown-Rosslyn Circulator, or "DC98" for the route which replaced the former 98 bus. Those are fine for internal systems inside the agencies, but they aren't very clear to riders.

Agencies which have provided their data to Google but don't offer the feeds publicly (like DASH, Ride On, and MARC) should post those feeds on their websites and publicly link to the feeds. They are already creating the GTFS files for Google, so it's a trivial step to also let others download the same files.

WMATA also has much of the route data for other local bus systems in the region as well, which it uses in its trip planner. Agencies which don't have GTFS files can give WMATA permission to include their data in its GTFS feed, as the Circulator does.

Agencies with AVL systems already on their vehicles should set up APIs to give apps access to the locations or predictions, and agencies without AVL can work toward getting the budget necessary to deploy AVL.

What others can do

Transit industry associations and vendors which sell technology to transit agencies can all encourage open data to be part of any contract. Vendors can encourage agencies to open their data and provide services to do so, and associations can encourage agencies to ask their vendors for these services.

The industry can also help move toward a clear standard for bus tracking. GTFS has become a standard for schedule and route data because large numbers of agencies went ahead and offered GTFS files. But there is not yet a consensus around what format to use to offer real-time predictions.

WMATA built its own API which provides the data in a certain format. Circulator, The Bus, and CUE all use Nextbus for tracking, which has its own API. ART uses another service, Connexionz. This unfortunately means that anyone building a real-time application and wants to incorporate multiple services has to support at least 3 different APIs.

There are efforts to create such standards, like GTFS-Realtime, but this hasn't realized the same widespread adoption as GTFS, nor has any other standard.

It's still possible to build apps without a standard, and the Mobility Lab's real-time screen project does connect to all 3 different systems in our region. But that requires extra work, not just for the Mobility Lab but for every other app creator who wants to offer predictions for multiple transit agencies.

The easier we make it to build apps, the more we'll get. Ultimately, it would be great for one standard to emerge, and for the various vendors like Nextbus to agree to all offer data to apps in that same standard format.

Update: Commenter intermodal commuter pointed out the real-time status page for VRE. It combines some train positions from GPS and some from manual reports from conductors. There is not an API to access the data. I've corrected the chart.

Update 2: Commenter Adam noted that MARC is actually contained in the MTA Maryland GTFS file, but listed only as routes 300, 301, and 302, which we didn't realize were not commuter buses upon examining the feed. But you can see the MARC lines on Transit Near Me (for example, center around Union Station).

Also, ACCS Web Manager Joe Chapline posted a status update about ART's efforts to get into Google Transit; according to Chapline, this was delayed for a time due to contract issues, and now is awaiting action by the Google legal department, which I know from past personal experience is often understaffed and backlogged.

Bicycling


NPS, Secret Service close to approving 15th Street bike lane

DDOT could start extending the 15th Street bike lane as early as Friday, DCist reported yesterday. By the time construction gets down to the White House area, DDOT believes they will have final approvals from the Park Service and Secret Service for the segments around Lafayette Park and the White House.


Image from Google Street View.

The new lanes will extend the current 15th Street bike lane south to E Street, and a future phase will add a section north to Euclid. The lane will also become two-way and wider, and the yellow bollards will be replaced by white ones spaced farther apart to improve the aesthetics for residents.

15th Street and Vermont Avenue switch places at McPherson Square, meaning the lane has to turn at some point. DDOT wanted to have southbound cyclists continue on Vermont to Madison Place (which runs alongside Lafayette Park) to the closed portion of Pennsylvania Avenue and then return to 15th.

When we last reported on the lanes, NCPC had held off on approving that section until DDOT could work out any issues with the Secret Service and the Park Service. DDOT bike head Jim Sebastian said that they are still finalizing approvals with those agencies, but they are confident they will be able to resolve any remaining questions.

They were confident enough to finish the engineering drawings for the lanes to include this route. Those plans, which could still change call for small curb ramps for cyclists to surmount the curb at the guardhouse at Madison Place and H Street.

The Park Service asked DDOT not to use any signs or pavement markings directing cyclists along Lafayette Park, based on a feeling that the area is a "historic resource" without signs. DDOT officials pointed out, however, that there are existing "no littering" signs, and security measures have had no trouble modifying the historic appearance. A small sign or two or a marking on the roadway showing cyclists where to turn between Madison and Pennsylvania shouldn't disturb the historic feel of Lafayette Park.

DDOT is also working with the Secret Service to address traffic around the E Street entrance to the White House secure area. Today, many cars and trucks waiting to go through security queue up in the rightmost travel lane on 15th, even though that's a general travel lane.

Some cyclists have expressed concern that the 2-way lane will get too crowded and that drivers will become more hostile to them riding in regular traffic lanes. Cyclists are still free to ride like vehicles, in a general-purpose lane and in the direction of traffic. For experienced cyclists, this is often the best approach as long as they follow the same rules as cars (including stopping at traffic lights) and take the entire lane instead of squeezing to the right.

Drivers need to respect cyclists' right to choose either mode of operation. DDOT will remove the current sharrows and signs reminding drivers cyclists can use the full lane, but sharrows and signs aren't necessary since cyclists have those rights on any roadway. Sebastian said DDOT will keep an eye on whether drivers start to act belligerently toward cyclists riding legally.

Sluggers who travel the I-95/395 corridor and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) have also been talking with DDOT to figure out the best places for sluggers to wait for shared rides and commuter buses to pick up riders. Riders want PRTC commuter bus stops in the same area so they can choose between slugging and the bus.

Some options included moving the slugs and bus stops to 15th, but unless they can fit into the area between McPherson Square and Pennsylvania Avenue, this lane likely makes that impossible. Hopefully DDOT can find a suitable location back on 14th or elsewhere, since slugging is a valuable element of our region's transportation as well.

This lane will give cyclists a safe and, more importantly, safe-feeling route between neighborhoods in the 14th Street corridor and downtown. Many people say they'd be interested in cycling to work but don't because of the harrowing feel of riding on downtown streets. This lane should give those commuters and other residents even more choices for getting downtown.

Pedestrians


VDOT was supposed to install signal where pedestrian killed

A traffic signal and crosswalk was already planned for Virginia Route 234 at the very spot a man was killed yesterday. The signal had been promised for spring 2010, but hasn't yet been installed.


Image from Google Street View.

The man was crossing between a McDonald's and a commuter bus lot near Route 1 in Dumfries where Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) buses travel to the Pentagon and downtown DC.

The pedestrian danger there is nothing new. According to TBD, people often cross here on foot. It's not just people eating at the McDonald's; this is the main way to enter the lot as a pedestrian, including when transferring from other buses.

There are no crosswalks at the intersection of 234 and Route 1, and along the side of 234 adjacent to the lot, there was not even a sidewalk until recently. As part of a large expansion of the lot, Prince William County and VDOT planned a new sidewalk along the edge and a signal at the McDonalds/commuter lot entrance on 237.


Image from Google Street View.

The lot has since been expended and the sidewalk added (the bright white line in the above picture), but not the light. According to information obtained by GGW, Prince William officials said in December that VDOT was scheduled to install the signal by the spring. However, installation was subsequently stalled waiting for parts.

WTOP reports that VDOT is now promising the signal by "mid-November." If they had gotten it done within even six months of the promised date, however, Mr. Zelaya-Jovel would probably be alive today. And if a crash were to happen in that spot, Prince William police wouldn't so cavalierly dismiss the issue.

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