Why Google’s “million transit stops” belong to you

Help support open transit data and technology by funding our Kickstarter campaign to put transit back on the iPhone. 

This week Google announced a refresh of their transit service, touting expanded data coverage with over one million transit stops from around the world and a new version of its Android map client.

Google is smartly using transit as a differentiator between Android and the iOS platform. And they are in a unique competitive position in part because a number of transit providers have chosen to give them exclusive access to schedule data.

Google has one million transit stops. And implied, though just as clear, Apple does not.

But transit data, just like transit infrastructure itself, is a public good. We all own, and have the right to use and speak about transit.

We’re fortunate in the U.S. that many cities and transit operators are abandoning exclusive distribution through Google in favor of freely sharing their data, but outside the U.S. public transit data is still rare.

Even within the U.S. where local governments and transit operators are taking individual initiative to share there is still a lack clarity about what constitutes public data. And there is no framework for collecting or distributing the data that’s already public.

The U.S. and many other countries have failed to articulate a strategy for transit data. In this vacuum Google has stepped forward to provide data standards and public facing transit information services that use this data. As a result we’ve allowed a public good to become a bargaining chip between two companies vying for mobile phone customers.

Now when the U.S. Federal Transit Administration wants to help you find transit service they recommend you visit Google. In fact there’s a logo and link to Google Transit on every page of the FTA website.

Despite providing $22 billion in FY12 transit funding, the FTA collects less data about transit than Google. The FTA staff themselves couldn’t tell you about service schedules or stop locations — stops their funding has helped pay for — without using public tools like Google Transit.

We’re also missing an opportunity.  Transit data isn’t just useful to riders, it’s a fundamental input to planning and policymaking.

While visiting DC last spring Jarrett Walker wrote a fantastic post describing a future where transit data helps inform transit policy. This future is powered by the same GTFS data that is used in rider-facing applications. My colleagues at OpenPlans are already working on the analysis tools and methods described by Walker and there are other groups like us doing the same.

There is another path for how we mange public data — one that doesn’t require benevolent (or not so) investment in data collection by private entities. For only a few million dollars a year, a tiny fraction of what we spend providing transit services, we could fund the creation and public dissemination of data.

This investment would pay for itself almost instantly through improved planning outcomes and smarter investments in infrastructure. And we’d be ensuring that the public always has access to the data they need to use this infrastructure once it’s built.

In the U.S. this could begin today if the FTA articulated a clear policy about public distribution of GTFS data for federally funded transit projects.

As I’ve written before, the way we move though cities is changing and there are tremendous opportunities for innovation. And much of this possibility depends on data.

Let’s build a future where everyone has equal access to this data and an opportunity to contribute.