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Posts about Ride On


Montgomery County will build bus rapid transit in four years

After nearly a decade of debate, Montgomery County wants to build a bus rapid transit line in four years, for 20% of the originally estimated cost. While it'll be a better bus service, it may not be so rapid.

Montgomery County could get this, sort of. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Last month, the county announced its plan to build a 14-mile BRT line along Route 29 (also known as Colesville Road and Columbia Pike) from the Silver Spring Transit Center to Burtonsville. It's part of a larger, 80-mile system that's been studied since 2008 and was officially approved in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett wants to have this line up and running by the end of 2019, an ambitious timeline. The county also says they can do it for $67.2 million, compared to the $350 million county planners previously predicted.

How? Most bus rapid transit systems, like the new Metroway in Northern Virginia, have a separate roadway for buses that gets them out of traffic and provides a shorter, more reliable travel time.

On Route 29, the county envisions running buses on the shoulder between Burtonsville and Tech Road, where it's basically a highway. Further south, as Route 29 becomes more of a main street, the county would turn existing travel lanes into HOV-2 lanes for buses and carpools. For about three miles closer to downtown Silver Spring, buses would run in mixed traffic. This setup allows the county to build the line without widening the road anywhere, which saves on land and construction costs.

Map from Montgomery County.

The line would have other features that can reduce travel time and improve the current bus riding experience. Each of the 17 stations would feel more like a train station, with covered waiting areas, real-time travel info, and fare machines so riders can pay before getting on. At some stoplights, buses would get the green light before other vehicles. Buses would come every six minutes during rush hour, and every 10 minutes the rest of the time.

County officials estimate that 17,000 people will use the service each day by 2020 and 23,000 people will ride it each day in 2040. The line, which would be part of the county's Ride On bus system, would replace express Metrobus routes along Route 29, though existing local bus routes would remain.

Montgomery County would cover half the cost of building the line, while the other half would come from the US Department of Transportation's TIGER grant program for small-scale transportation projects. In addition, the grant would include money for sidewalks, bike lanes, covered bike parking at stations, and 10 bikesharing stations along the corridor. The county will find out if it's won the grant money this fall.

The project could give Montgomery County somewhat better transit now

This plan could bring better bus service to East County, which has been waiting for rapid transit since it was first proposed in 1981. The Metrobus Z-line along Route 29 is one of the region's busiest, with over 11,000 boardings each day, but riders face delays and long waits.

East County lacks the investment that more affluent parts of the county enjoy, and so residents must travel long distances for jobs, shopping, or other amenities. Residents suffer from poor access to economic opportunities: according to the county's grant application, 30% of the area's 47,000 households are "very low income." County officials hope that better transit could support big plans to redevelop White Oak and Burtonsville.

While not having dedicated transit lanes makes this project easy to build, it also makes it hard to provide a fast, reliable transit trip. Enforcing the HOV lanes will be hard, especially south of New Hampshire Avenue where the blocks are short and drivers are constantly turning onto Route 29 from side streets. And without dedicated lanes in congested Four Corners, buses will simply get stuck in traffic with everyone else, discouraging people from riding them.

The route also includes two spurs along Lockwood Drive and Briggs Chaney Road, each of which serves large concentrations of apartments where many transit riders live, but would force buses on huge, time-consuming detours. One possibility is that some buses could go straight up Route 29 while others take the scenic route. But that's basically how the existing bus service on the corridor already works.

This could make the case for rapid transit

This might be a temporary solution. The county and state of Maryland will continue planning a "real" bus rapid transit line that might have its own transitway, but that could take several years.

In the meantime, the county needs to build support for better transit. BRT has broad support across the county, but many residents are still skeptical. Supporters and opponents alike have been confused and frustrated by the lack of information on the county's progress in recent months.

By getting something on the ground now, Montgomery County can show everyone how BRT really works sooner, rather than later. Despite the shorter timeframe, it's important to make sure this service actually improves transit, and that residents actually know what's going on.


Here's why the DC region has so many bus systems

There are more than 20 separate bus agencies in the Washington area. Why not run them all as part of WMATA? Some run outside WMATA's geography, but the bigger reason is money: It costs less to run a local bus than a WMATA bus, translating to better service for less money on local lines.

Photos by the author.

With a few exceptions, essentially every county-level local government in the Washington region runs its own bus system, on top of WMATA's Metrobus. DC has Circulator, Montgomery County has Ride-On, Alexandria has DASH, etc ad nauseam. There are more than 20 in the region, not even including myriad private commuter buses, destination-specific shuttles, and app-based startups.

Our region is a smorgasbord of overlaying transit networks, with little in common except, thankfully, the Smartrip card.


Three reasons, but mostly it's all about money

Some of the non-WMATA bus systems can't be part of Metro simply because buses go to places that aren't part of the WMATA geography. Since Prince William County is outside WMATA's service area, Prince William County needs its own system. Thus, OmniRide is born. Hypothetically WMATA could expand its boundaries, but at some point 20 or 40 or 60 miles out from DC, that stops making sense.

Another reason for the transit hodgepodge is control. Locals obviously have more direct control over local systems. That's an incentive to manage buses close to home.

But the biggest reason is money. Specifically, operating costs.

To calculate how much it costs to operate a bus line, transit agencies use a formula called "cost per revenue hour." That means, simply, how much it costs to keep a bus in service and carrying passengers for one hour. It includes the cost of the driver's salary, fuel for the bus, and other back-end administrative costs.

Here are the costs per hour for some of the DC-region's bus systems, according to VDOT:

  • WMATA Metrobus: $142/hour
  • Fairfax County Connector: $104/hour
  • OmniRide: $133/hour
  • Arlington County ART: $72/hour
Not only is WMATA the highest, it's much higher than other local buses like Fairfax Connector and ART. OmniRide is nearly as high because long-distance commuter buses are generally more expensive to operate than local lines, but even it's less than Metrobus.

This means the local systems can either run the same quality service as WMATA for less cost, or they can run more buses more often for the same cost.

At the extreme end of the scale, Arlington can run 2 ART buses for every 1 Metrobus, and spend the same amount of money.

In those terms, it's no wonder counties are increasingly pumping more money into local buses. Where the difference is extreme, like in Arlington, officials are channeling the vast majority of growth into local buses instead of WMATA ones, and even converting Metrobus lines to local lines.

Why is Metrobus so expensive to run?

Partly, Metrobus is expensive because longer bus lines are more expensive to run than shorter ones, so locals can siphon off the short intra-jurisdiction lines for themselves and leave the longer multi-jurisdiction ones to WMATA.

Another reason is labor. WMATA has a strong union, which drives up wages. The local systems have unions too, but they're smaller and balkanized, and thus have less leverage.

Finally, a major part of the difference is simply accounting. WMATA's operating figures include back-end administrative costs like the WMATA police force, plus capital costs like new Metro bus yards, whereas local services don't count those costs as part of transit operating.

Montgomery County has a police department of course, and bus planners, and its own bus yards, but they're funded separately and thus not included in Ride-On's operating costs.

So part of the difference is real and part is imaginary. It doesn't actually cost twice as much to run a Metrobus as an ART bus. But for local transit officials trying to put out the best service they can under constant budget constraints, all the differences matter.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


The Silver Spring Transit Center is finally open

After years of delay and budget overruns, the Silver Spring Transit Center finally opened yesterday.

Photo by Dan Malouff.

The three-story complex, located next to the Silver Spring Metro station, brings together Metro, MARC commuter rail, local and intercity buses, and a kiss-and-ride. The future Purple Line will also stop there. First proposed in 1996, construction started in 2008.

The transit center was supposed to open in 2012 before officials found serious structural defects. A report found that the county, the designers, and the builders were all at fault, and WMATA refused to take over the building. The county brought in a new structural engineer to organize repairs, which began last fall. Right now, Montgomery County and WMATA are suing the builder and designer.

Photo by Dan Malouff.

But now, the transit center is up and running after a low-key opening Sunday morning. The first bus, a Metrobus 70 headed to Archives, pulled out at 4:08 am. Later in the morning, the Action Committee for Transit announced the winner of its contest to guess the transit center's opening date: Garth Burleyson of Colesville, who'd picked October 26.

Goofing off in the transit center before it opens. Photo by the author.

Fences surrounding the transit center finally came down Saturday afternoon. When I stopped by Saturday night, curious onlookers were wandering around the empty structure, snapping funny photos and taking in the building for the first time.

Looking from the transit center into downtown Silver Spring. Photo by Dan Malouff.

The views of the Metro station and downtown Silver Spring are pretty dramatic.

Photo by the author.

The first two floors have stops for Metrobus and Ride On, and intercity buses, while a third floor has a taxi stand, bike parking, and a kiss-and-ride. Signs point to where riders can catch each bus, while digital displays give real-time arrival info.

Riders catch the Z8 on the street one last time.

For bus riders, the transit center will require some getting used to. For seven years, buses stopped along nearby streets. Stops for dozens of routes will move into the transit center.

Now that the Transit Center is done, one big question is what will happen to the space around it. Plans to build apartments, offices, and hotels next to the complex fell through last year, and the county's suing Foulger Pratt, the developer who sought to build them.

This is one of the most valuable development sites not just in Silver Spring, but the region, situated next to one of its biggest transit hubs. With the core of downtown Silver Spring three blocks away, there's a big opportunity to capture all of the people walking there from the Metro. Hopefully, this won't sit empty for long.

Check out my photos and Dan Malouff's photos from opening day.


Metro's bus system faces its own financial crunch

Metro's rail service isn't the only arm of the organization that's having financial problems. Its bus arm, Metrobus, is struggling too. Increased competition from other bus services and slower travel speeds are the big reasons why.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

This information comes from a recent post on PlanItMetro, the WMATA's planning blog.

Riders have more options

While Metrobus is the region's most common for taking the bus, there are a number of localized services as well. These "local operators" are mostly county-run systems that fill Metrobus' "gaps" by different providing routes and service times. Examples include Ride On in Montgomery or Fairfax Connector in Fairfax.

These systems' growth is a challenge for Metrobus, which is adding service routes of its own but not as rapidly. With local routes providing more and more options for commuters, it's not surprising that they're becoming a more popular way to travel.

Metrobus has seen its share of passenger trips fall nearly 10% over the past 15 years, and competing services are undoubtedly a factor in that drop.

Graphic by PlanItMetro. Click for a larger version.

Metrobus service is slower

Local buses also often get riders to their destination faster than Metrobus—2.5 miles faster on average, to be exact. Metrobus' slower operating speeds have two consequences. First, they throws off schedules, requiring more buses to continue operating on the same timetable.

The second consequence is largely rooted in perception. When riders can notice a differece in speed from one service to another, they're likely to favor the one that gets them there quicker in the future. In this case, the faster trips are the ones on localized buses.

Graphic by PlanItMetro. Click for larger version.

It's no secret that WMATA is having a tough time lately. Metrobus has had fewer close calls with danger than Metro does, but there are certainly signs of trouble that warrant being addressed.


Meet Ride-On Plus, the every-10-minute bus that may run on Route 355

Montgomery County is hoping a federal grant will jump-start its proposed BRT network with a new bus line on the county's biggest main street, Route 355. If the grant comes through, the new "Ride-On Plus" won't be full BRT, but will rather be a limited-stop route akin to WMATA's MetroExtra.

Ride-On Plus route map. Image from Montgomery County.

Last month, Montgomery County submitted a grant request to the federal government for approximately $20 million to add a new bus line along busy Route 355. The line would run from Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg south to downtown Bethesda, making stops at key locations along the way in Gaithersburg, Rockville, and North Bethesda.

Buses would come every ten minutes at peak times, and would only make a total of nine stops over the course of the 11-mile route. By stopping so infrequently, buses would travel the route significantly faster than existing Ride-On buses.

Although Ride-On Plus will not qualify as bus rapid transit—it won't have dedicated lanes—it will include some BRT-like upgrades: Traffic signals will stay green a few seconds longer if a bus is about to pass, and bus stops will have premium features like real-time arrival screens.

The grant is a long shot

Unfortunately, Ride-On Plus may never happen. County officials hope a federal TIGER grant will cover $18.5 million out of the project's total $23 million price tag. But TIGER grants are extremely hard to come by; the federal TIGER budget is $500 million nationwide, and there are usually tens of billions of dollars in requests. Most grant requests never get money.

But if this grant comes through, Ride-On Plus could provide a nice first-step towards an eventual bona fide BRT line, helping to build ridership and make the case that there's a market for better transit in Montgomery County.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Events roundup: Georgetown and Fairfax

How can communities change while preserving what's important? Learn about these challenges in historic Georgetown and developing Route 1 in Fairfax. Also, learn about transportation financing, water and equity, and Ride On service at upcoming events around the region.

Photo by terratrekking on Flickr.

Change in Georgetown: Moving historic neighbor­hoods into the future can be difficult. Georgetown is trying to do that with its "Georgetown 2028" plan. On Tuesday, November 4, Georgetown BID transportation director Will Handsfield will discuss how the area can continue to develop a thriving commercial district and preserve its historic flair. That's at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.

Growth and stormwater: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's next tour takes you to Route 1 in Fairfax, where growth will affect the local watersheds. Experts will talk about how Fairfax can add housing, stores, and jobs while preserving water quality. You need to RSVP for the tour, which is 10 am to noon this Saturday, November 1.

Public-private transportation: Curious about how the nation will finance transportation infrastructure? Tonight, Tuesday, October 28, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is hosting David Connolly and Ward McCarragher, both from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to discuss a new report about how public-private partnerships can fund transportation. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5 pm and the presentation will be 5:30-6:30 at 1666 K Street, NW, 11th floor. Please RSVP.

Ride On more: Montgomery County is planning to increase service on six routes, and will discuss the changes at a public forum Wednesday, October 29, starting at 6:30 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

Social equity and water: Georgetown's Urban and Regional Planning program's weekly lecture series is talking about "big investments in big cities." On Monday, November 3 at 5:30 pm, George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, will discuss how infrastructure also affects social equity. The talk is at Georgetown's SCS building at 640 Massachusetts Ave, NW. RSVP here.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at


Montgomery County added 100,000 residents since 2002, but driving didn't increase

Montgomery County has 100,000 more residents than 10 years ago, but the amount of driving in the county has actually stayed the same, says a new study on how people get around. Meanwhile, more people are walking and biking inside the Beltway, and bus ridership is growing well outside it.

Montgomery County's population has grown, but the amount of driving miles hasn't.
Graph from the Planning Department.

Drivers traveled about 7.3 million miles on state roads in the county in 2012. It's a slight decrease from 2011, but about the same as in 2002, when the county had just over 900,000 residents, compared to 1.005 million residents today. It's in line with both regional and national trends, and suggests that people didn't stop driving simply because of the Great Recession.

The results come from the Mobility Assessment Report, which the Planning Department conducts every few years to identify Montgomery County's biggest transportation needs. County planners measured pedestrian, bicycle, and car traffic throughout the area, in addition to looking at transit ridership.

Silver Spring has more foot traffic, Bethesda has more cyclists

Planners counted the number of pedestrians at 171 locations and the number of cyclists at 25 locations across the county, and plan to do more detailed studies in the future. Not surprisingly, the most walkers and bikers can be found in the county's urban centers, including Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Wheaton, as well as White Flint.

9,500 people use the intersection of Georgia and Colesville each day. All photos by the author unless noted.

The county's busiest pedestrian intersection is Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring, with 9,500 pedestrians each day. (By comparison, the intersection of 7th and H streets NW in the District sees 29,764 pedestrians daily.) All of the county's busiest intersections for cyclists were in Bethesda; number 1 is Woodmont Avenue and Montgomery Lane, with 163 bikes during the morning and evening rush hours.

More bus riders in the Upcounty

Montgomery's busiest Metro stations are inside the Beltway, including Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Friendship Heights, as well as Shady Grove, a major park-and-ride station. The most-used Metrobus routes are also closer in, like the C2/C4, which serves Langley Park, Wheaton, and Twinbrook and serves over 11,000 people each day, and the J line, which serves Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Surprisingly, the county's busiest Ride On routes are now in the Upcounty: the 55, which runs along Route 355 between Rockville and Germantown, and the 59, which serves Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Montgomery Village. These routes all carry between 3,000 and 4,000 riders each day; the 55 is one of the county's most frequent bus routes, running every 10 minutes during most of the day.

A Ride On bus in Germantown.

That said, transit use in the county has fluctuated in recent years. After decreasing during the recession, daily Metrorail ridership has remained stable since 2009 and fell slightly from 28,504 riders between July 2012 and July 2013 to 27,360 during the following year. About 57,000 people rode Metrobus each day over the past year, a decrease of 6,000 from the previous year.

Most transit riders in the county take Ride On, which carried 88,370 people between July 2012 and July 2013. While it's a slight increase from the year before, it's still 7,000 fewer riders than in 2008, when the county made significant service cuts that were never restored.

More people are using the ICC, but fewer than expected

Meanwhile, more people are using the Intercounty Connector, the highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel north of the Beltway that opened in 2012 and will finish construction this year. An average of 30,000 vehicles used the toll road each weekday in 2012, while traffic rates have increased about 3% each month.

But traffic on the ICC is still much lower than state officials' estimates, raising the question if it was worth the $2.4 billion cost. It does appear to have taken cars off of parallel roads, like Route 108, Route 198, and Norbeck Road, where traffic has fallen by up to 16.9% since the highway opened.

Some roads are always busy

Planners noted several roads that have consistently high congestion, like Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Road, and Colesville Road. It's no coincidence that these are four of the corridors where both the county and the State of Maryland are studying the potential for Bus Rapid Transit.

There isn't a lot of room to widen these roads or build more interchanges, meaning we have to find new ways to add capacity. Trends suggest that Montgomery County residents are driving less and using transit more, at least when it's frequent and reliable. And as the county continues to grow, we'll have to provide more alternatives to driving if we want to offer a way out of traffic.


Montgomery's proposed budget takes transit funding and gives it to wealthy homeowners

Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett unveiled his proposed budget, and it has no good news for transit riders. Ride On will get more state aid and hike fares, but it will not run any more buses. Instead, transit revenue will be used to cut real estate taxes.

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

The cost of running Ride On, as shown in the budget will go up $3.5 million, from $98 million to $101.6 million. Meanwhile, the county will receive $7 million in new revenues, double the cost increase. $5 million in new state aid will come from the gas tax increase passed last year. And fares will rise $2 million, likely a result of matching Metro's fare increase.

Where will this money go? The county's "mass transit tax," a component of the real estate tax, will drop by $5 million. Bus riders, many of whom have low incomes or are renters, will pay more while a tax cut disproportionately benefits the county's wealthiest homeowners.

When Maryland discussed a gas tax increase last year, many groups complained about "raids" on the state's transportation trust fund, including county governments, legislators, conservatives, and the highway lobby. It will be interesting to see how these groups react to this diversion of trust fund money to non-transportation purposes.

Ride On could put the new money it is getting from the state and its riders to good use. The system lacks relief buses, or vehicles on standby, stationed around the county to fill in when other buses break down.

The county counts all late buses equally when it tracks Ride On's performance, but for a rider, there's a vast difference between a replacement bus that comes late and a bus that doesn't come at all. If there's no replacement, the next bus half an hour later might be so full that you can't get on.

Other needed upgrades include restoring the connection to Frederick County buses in Urbana, straightening out the tangle of bus routes around downtown Bethesda, and better weekend service. Funding is also needed for Metrobus's Priority Corridor Initiative, which would improve service on several of the county's highest-ridership routes.

The budget now goes to the County Council for approval. Hopefully, bus riders will find friends there.


What's up with NextBus, part 3: Where Ride On is the leader

Which Washington-area bus system was the first to offer its bus position data in an open standard? Would you believe it's Ride On?

In part 2, we talked about how there are many different APIsapplication programming interfaces, the way one computer system, like an app, gets data from to another, like bus positions from a transit agency. The fact that there are so many APIs means many apps don't include all of the types of buses in the region that have real-time positions and predictions.

Prince George's The Bus, Fairfax City CUE and the DC Circulator are available using NextBus, Inc.'s API, which is one of the most common because many agencies contract with NextBus, Inc. WMATA also contracts with NextBus, Inc. but doesn't use its API; WMATA built its own. ART has a different one entirely.

Since NextBus is most common, some residents asked Montgomery County officials why RideOn is not part of NextBus, too. One was Evan Glass, who tweeted last May:

Why is MoCo's Ride On bus system not accessible on the #NextBus app when all other jurisdiction are? #14bus cc @hansriemer (@EvanMGlass)

Note that Glass was talking about the "NextBus DC" app, the one that died this past December and, people discovered, actually wasn't from the same company as the one that provides bus prediction services to many transit agencies.

Councilmember Hans Riemer passed the question on to Ride On officials. Carolyn Biggins replied:

Recently, our staff met with a representative of NextBus to discuss products and costs. Although NextBus has not yet given Montgomery County a firm price quote, they offered a ballpark figure of approximately $55,000 per year for operating costs. This would cover a barebones system which would only have their mobile and desktop web site along with a suite of management tools. There are also undetermined setup fees, probably starting around $15,000 but possibly much higher. ...

At this point the inclusion of NextBus into the Ride On Real Time customer information product line is actively open for discussion. Feedback from our customers and industry critics point us in various directions and toward various apps; and, interestingly, NextBus is not at the top of our customer's request list.

Besides our Eastbanc/Nerds Ride On Real Time App (available for iPhone and android) which, by the way, includes integrated real time data from Metrobus, Metrorail and several Northern Virginia jurisdictions, our customers have asked us to integrate into the "DC Metro Transit App" and "OneBusAway."

We have been working with developers for DC Metro Transit App who recently responded to us with a very encouraging post about our open data: "This seems well thought out and documented. It is also nice that you can get the data in both JSON or XML [the 2 most popular formats for getting data from APIs] in a restful service [basically, a way of making APIs easier for the app developer to use]. I'll give it a try in the app and let you know if I have any questions. You guys are ahead of the curve compared to other agencies."

As you mentioned in your recent e-letter, Open Data and public/private initiatives, such as 3rd party app development, is the wave of the future—to "disrupt and create." 3rd party app development not only unleashes the initiative of the private sector but also provides varied choices for our citizens: the delivery of information in many different formats to suit different consumers with varied needs and tastes.

In developing our Ride On Real Time system, Transit Services has taken this approach, both through internal product development but also by providing its data in as many different formats as possible while trying to maintain fiscal responsibility. We will continue to work with NextBus and other vendors to try and provide Montgomery County citizens the very best in transit information and customer service.

(Notes in brackets added.)

Biggins is right. The solution to the problem of Ride On not being part of many existing apps is not to work with any particular vendor, but to provide open data in more formats.

It's particularly good to hear this from Ride On, because at first they did it wrong, and contracted with a software developer just to build them a website where people can track buses, but with no way for 3rd party app developers (in other words, people who aren't the agency or one of its contractors) to access the data.

Following prodding from Kurt Raschke, us, and others, Ride On started offering an API, and even fairly quickly improved it based on feedback from Raschke and other developers.

Why doesn't everyone just use GTFS?

In the area of transit schedules, one standard has largely emerged as the most common, and one all transit agencies ought to offer: the General Transit Feed Specification, or GTFS. GTFS is basically a set of big files that contain every single stop location and all of the schedules for the transit system. You can download it, write code to analyze it, and then do whatever you want.

There's an analogue of GTFS for real-time buses, called GTFS-realtime. However, real-time is not the same as schedules. With schedules, you can download the whole thing once and it basically won't change except every few months. With real-time bus tracking, the positions change every minute.

GTFS-realtime lets you download the entire set of bus positions as they constantly change. It's a huge amount of data. For some applications, like if you're making a live map showing buses, that's what you want. For the typical smartphone app, where you just want one bus position at a time, it's too much. That much data would overtax the user's data plan and burden the phone trying to deal with it all.

Other APIs, like the NextBus and WMATA APIs, work differently. For those, an app sends it only the very specific question it wants answered, like asking for next arrivals at a particular bus stop.

Twitter, as an analogy, has both types of APIs. For most uses, you use a more transactional API. You ask Twitter for a list of recent tweets matching a hashtag, or ask it to post a specific tweet. But Twitter also offers a "firehose" API where certain users, who have to be approved ahead of time, can get the entire stream of all tweets, everywhere.

We need GTFS-realtime AND a transactional API

Ultimately, for transit, there needs to be both. If you're building a smartphone app, it's too hard to get the firehose of all bus positions, and easier to ask one simple question. But if you're designing a real-time screen, it's a burden to ask for each possible bus and bus stop every minute; you'd rather just get all the data at once.

WMATA's API also goes through another service, called Mashery, which limits how many of these API questions you can ask in a set period of time. The intent is to keep someone from overwhelming WMATA's systems and crashing them. But when Eric Fidler was building the real-time screen demos, he found that just asking for a few bus lines at nearby bus stops every minute, his system quickly hit the limit.

Plus, since one server was running many screens at once, the more screens, the quicker you hit the limit. We kept asking WMATA to increase the limit, and they did, but for many applications these limits will quickly become untenable.

Every transit agency ought to provide GTFS-realtime feeds for those that need them. ART's vendor, Connexionz, now also offers it, making 2 area agencies that do. Others should join Ride On and ART and offer this feed as well. Often it will be the agency's API contractor that offers it; agencies that pay NextBus for bus tracking services should require NextBus to offer a GTFS-realtime feed.

What's the common transactional API?

At the same time, we need a transactional API, ideally a common one. If everyone used the same API, it would be really easy for app developers to support all of the region's (or the nation's or world's) bus systems.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus here, unlike with GTFS. Most APIs are nonstandard ones an agency's IT staff or its contractor devised. New York uses the European standard SIRI, but had to make some changes of its own, and few US agencies use that. NextBus's is pretty widespread since that company serves a lot of agencies.

What to do? There are a few solutions.

First of all, everyone could get together and try to coalesce around an existing standard. It doesn't really matter which. It doesn't have to be the best one. Most standards are pretty imperfect; we type on QWERTY keyboards, which are one of the least efficient keyboard layouts you could devise, but any effort to come up with something else has failed. There's a strong lock-in, but to some extent, it doesn't really matter; we manage to type fine.

We could use SIRI; Europe does. Or NextBus could make their API a standard. Google did this with GTFS. Google initially created GTFS, but then they stopped controlling it and let the community of developers and agencies take control. They changed the "G" to stand for "General" instead of "Google." Many standards in computing started out as some company's property, but they transferred it to some national or international committee to shepherd.

If NextBus wanted to do this, they would probably want to give it a different trademark, so an agency offering the API wouldn't be saying they offer "NextBus" (we've had enough problems with NextBus trademark confusion already). And they would need to let other agencies and developers make changes, through some process, without the company having control.

Another approach would be to not worry about this at all. It's not all that hard to write some code to interact with multiple APIs, as long as they have a few features that you need to make them interoperable, like common identifiers. In the next part, we'll talk about this.

Some other company or entity could also set up an intermediary computer system that takes in all of the data on one end, and lets app developers connect to it. It would have to get the "firehose" style data from the agencies, and can then even offer 5, 10, or 50 different styles of APIs on the other.

What has to happen for that to be possible? For one, someone has to maintain it and pay for the bandwidth. An organization like COG, or a partnership of the DC, Maryland, and Virginia state DOTs, could do it. Or, to go national, a group like APTA or a federal agency could provide it. Or, perhaps some private entity would find it worthwhile, though the amount of revenue they could make is probably limited.

But for that to happen, the agencies have to offer the "firehose" of GTFS-realtime. For that reason, while there isn't consensus around all of the APIs, our region's transit agencies can and should take one step now, to offer GTFS-realtime, as Ride On and ART now do.

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