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Why Developing Cities Should Standardize and Open Their Transit Data

To improve user experiences and make transit more efficient, transit agencies in developing countries should standardize their data and open it to the public. (Photo: Mariana Gil/ WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities)

Wondering if it would be faster to bike, take the bus or metro to work?

A simple search on Google Maps or your preferred transit app can give you this information almost instantly, thanks to transit agencies that provide their data to developers. But that same app can also give you travel information for more than one hundred cities worldwide, since they have made their data openly available.

Access to transit data has not always been so streamlined. Originally, only some transit agencies had journey planners available for public use, while others provided little information on routes, stops and times to users. Moreover, the methods for organizing internal transit data into a shareable format varied greatly—making it difficult for any developer to build a journey planner that integrated data from various cities. Then in 2005, the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) came along (developed jointly by Google and Trimet) which standardized the data, creating an open and well documented format for organizing transit data. In this format, transit data is universally understood and easily integrated into online applications. Using GTFS means using a common language for transit data that is shareable.

While journey planners like Google Maps rely on GTFS feeds, many cities—particularly those in the Global South—make little to no transit information available to the public. As a result, many residents in developing cities struggle to access credible information on local transit. This demarcates the data divide between cities in developed and developing countries, but it’s a gap that can be bridged much faster than the current infrastructure disparity—and potentially leapfrogged. Developing cities can and should begin investing in open GTFS feeds so that users can access the information they need, both improving the transit experience and making transport systems more efficient.

Open GTFS Feeds Improve Efficiency, but Face Barriers

While the impacts of online trip planners have not been thoroughly studied, it’s clear that they make taking transit easier and less expensive by simplifying access to information—which is especially helpful in large cities with complex transport systems. The graphic below, for example, streamlines information on various routes within Mexico City. If the process of planning a trip by transit is too complex, users will find other options, like private cars. On the other hand, this information is particularly helpful for low-income users who are dependent on transit. Indeed, these individuals often lack access to transport information and are forced to make travel choices that may lead to longer or more expensive commutes. For example, low-income residents in Mexico City spend 36 percent of their monthly income on transport, yet their average commute time is 78 minutes per trip.

Making GTFS feeds open is a way to provide people with the information they need, but there are often three main barriers to doing so: (1) transit agencies frequently prioritize expanding infrastructure and services over allocating resources to improve the quality of the user experience; (2) developing cities’ transport systems often rely on informal transit services which integrate poorly with GTFS; (3) some cities are reluctant to develop and open their GTFS feeds out of fear of public scrutiny.

As a result, only roughly 5 percent of cities in developing nations have created and opened GTFS feeds. Instead, many cities have closed GTFS feeds, which is a feed that only a specific journey planner has access to, usually under an agreement with the transit agency. For example, Rio de Janeiro’s GTFS feed is ran by Rio’s bus syndicate, rather than by Rio’s State government who overlooks and regulates metropolitan transport services. In Colombia, several cities have their GTFS on major journey planners, but none of them are open. Restricted access and ownership of GTFS feeds often affect the accuracy of the information they provide.

Learning from Sao Paulo, Mexico City, and Nairobi

While the move towards open data remains a struggle, some developing cities have opened their GTFS with positive results. For example, Sao Paulo has had a functioning GTFS since 2009, but chose to make it public in 2013 when they opened it to developers. Shortly after, several transit apps entered the market, such as Moovit, which claims to have 400,000 users in Sao Paulo. Another example is Mexico City, which developed and opened their GTFS feed in 2013, covering all publicly operated modes (Metro, RTP buses, STE, Metrobus, Tren Suburbano). However, despite its extensive coverage, Mexico City’s data does not contain information on the approximately 30,000 microbuses that carry a bulk of the demand (8.7 million trips a day). This was not a matter of oversight—collecting collecting data from informal modes like microbuses is not an easy task.

Nairobi has managed to leapfrog this process, and was one of the first cities to successfully upload data from an informal transit system into Google (resulting in journey planners, such as the one shown left). Kenya’s capital achieved this through Digital Matatus, a collaborative project which brought together research institutions and a design firm from the US and Kenya to collect data from the Matatus network (a system of privately owned minivans). These cities share a common goal of improving the user experience, while simultaneously allowing local developers to enter and compete in the local transit app market.

Small Steps Forward

A feasible first step forward is to concentrate on the low-hanging fruit—similar to what Mexico City did—by first developing GTFS for formal transit, which takes considerably less work than informal transit. Doing so can demonstrate the value of open data for citizens and build both the momentum and political will needed for creating an institutional framework that allows for the development, opening and maintenance of GTFS feeds.

In addition, cities developing their own GTFS should take a utilitarian approach. GTFS data can be used for other applications that improve transit performance, analyze gaps in transit accessibility and measure how new transit lines impact mobility. With new applications (many open-source) making it easier to develop and maintain GTFS feeds, the time is now for cities to prioritize standardized, open data.


All graphics by Diego Canales.

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  • sibusiso ngoma

    Hi Diego, interesting read. How can I get in touch with you for more communication. I’m carrying out a similar project in my country.

  • Leonardo Cañón

    Diego, fantastic article. Next stop: GTFS realtime.

  • Diagger

    There are not that many options, since collecting data is time and resource intensive, bu there are tools out there that can help speed the process. Transitwand is one of them. Some researchers from MIT mapped Nairobi’s routes with volunteers using a similar app, http://www.digitalmatatus.com/intro_lite.html.
    There are other apps which have started collecting data crowdsourcing it through their own costumers, namely, Moovit and Ally, but in the end collecting data this way may not be enough for a whole city

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  • Eduardo Canale

    Diego, what other ways are there to collect data that can be used when GTFS is unavailable, how are people going around these issue?