Instant Transit at Your Finger Tips

When it comes to getting directions it's often as easy as putting the address into Google maps and following the route. Many people use their cell phones for this reason. But what if you could use your phone and Google to get real-time transit data in your local area? This is the latest proposal from the internet giant. From the KUHF NewsLab, Edel Howlin finds out whether we'll be seeing it in Houston.

"I like to take public transit and it was rather frustrating to not find all the information I needed online."

That’s Bibiana McHugh from TriMet transit in Portland, Oregon. Back in 2005 she was eager to find an easier way to access her local transit data, which meant finding a way to combine an online map with her local transit schedule. So she did what anyone working for a transit agency would do.

"So I had contacted several online mapping companies and finally Google responded. I got a hold of someone there called Chris Harrelson who had the same idea. He had started Google Transit just a month or two before."

From here it was up to TriMet to do the rest of the work. McHugh and her team spent months gathering bus and train schedules and making them readable for Google. By December '05 Google Transit for the TriMet area was ready to go live. McHugh says this was the beginning of something big for the transit world.

"It’s pretty interesting because that GTFS data format is how all these agencies worldwide now are able to participate in Google Transit."

GTFS stands for General Transit Feed Spec. McHugh says it’s a means to pull all transit schedule data and make it accessible to the daily commuter. But recently Google wanted to go one step further and make this data available in real-time. Meaning if a bus or train was delayed, a commuter would know that by simply looking at their Google Transit map on their phone. For McHugh and her team with all the other elements in place this was pretty straight forward.

"Our real time data originates really on the bus. Our buses have GPS units and complex computers on board that supply the info back to our dispatch system and our databases. And again it’s a matter of putting that into a standard format that Google transit and other applications can really understand and utilize to their best advantage."

So six years later Portland, Oregon has real-time transit data anybody can access. Where is Houston in this process? Jerome Gray with Metro says it’s on the agenda.


View Larger Map
Example for the Downtown Transit Center, Houston

"Releasing real-transit time is absolutely an important thing to do to be able to allow our patrons to know when the next bus is coming or when the rail is coming. What we’re doing at Metro is taking a look at this. Our system right now is not at the stage where it needs to be to implement this. I would suspect that hopefully within the next several months to a year we’ll have a better idea of where that all stands."

For Houstonians that means it’s not exactly around the corner, but it’s up for consideration and may yet be coming to a phone near you. From the KUHF NewsLab I’m Edel Howlin. 

Bio photo of Edel Howlin

Edel Howlin

Producer, Houston Matters

Edel is a producer on Houston Matters and reporter for PBS’s Newshour Weekend...