FOR FOUR YEARS, Portland's public transit agency has quietly led the world in one small area: making public transit information sleek and accessible online. It is a nerdy pursuit, but not a niche one. Los Angeles, Austin, Japan, and Seattle have all used TriMet's technology to get their own public transit schedules onto iPhones and the internet.
How did Portland become a transit technology pioneer without spending a dime? Firstly, the city is committed to open source data sharing. And it employs a computer science power couple capable of teaching Google a thing or two.
Behind every TriMet bus stop is a mountain of data. TriMet tracks travelers at each of the 8,000 stops on the city's 96 bus lines. Every month, 1.4 million people call into TriMet's TransitTracker service to figure out when the next bus or MAX will arrive.
In 2005, TriMet data and technology managers (and married couple) Bibiana and Tim McHugh decided it should be easier for riders to figure out the transit schedule. The pair advised TriMet to open the doors to its data to any tech-savvy person interested in developing applications for TriMet riders.
Since then, software nerds—some working at Google, some working from their living rooms—have developed 34 applications. iNap sets an alarm to wake you up before your stop, if you enjoy snoozing on the bus. PDX Bus adapts TriMet's schedules for your iPhone. PDXT tracks your bus, and text messages the time you will actually arrive at a certain stop.
"We really just wanted to demonstrate that this open source philosophy is a good idea," says TriMet's Executive Director of Communications Carolyn Young. "Now we're getting rewarded 10 times over because people are developing all these applications that we would never have had the time or resources to develop." While TriMet is cutting bus lines and staff paychecks to bridge a $31 million budget gap, independent developers are keeping TriMet on the cutting edge of technology development.
Bibiana McHugh was giddy the night Google Transit went live in Portland. In June 2005, she contacted Google and pitched the idea of linking up Google Maps with TriMet's transit data. It turned out a programmer named Chris Harrelson was already trying to figure out how to do just that. Tim McHugh wrote up a simple computer program in just a few hours one night at the couple's house and cleanly exported TriMet's massive amount of information about transit stops and bus numbers to Google.
"I thought it should be just as easy to get transit directions as to get driving directions," says Bibiana McHugh, a striking woman who wore bright red lipstick and a crisp gray suit in TriMet's bland Southeast headquarters. "Some of the software that's developed for transit is very proprietary. We really came from the background that open source is good, sharing is good."
At 9 pm on December 7, 2005, the McHughs received an email from Harrelson, the Google programmer. "Google Transit trip planner is live," he announced. For the first time, Portlanders could zoom in on a Google Map of the city and see bus routes and light rail stops. Nine months later, Google used a slightly modified version of McHugh's data-export program to launch Google Transit in Seattle. They are still using the program today. When asked whether the goal of Google Transit is to someday cover every city in the world, Harrelson responded, "Yes, of course."
After Google Transit launched, numerous local software developers created their own applications for iPhones and BlackBerrys using TriMet's data. PDX Bus creator Andrew Wallace dreamed up his program while commuting an hour each way on TriMet to his job as a software engineer.
"Because I commute all the time, I really wanted to know where the next bus was and TriMet's website isn't very optimized for the iPhone," Wallace explains. He launched PDX Bus last August and it is now downloaded about 1,000 times a month.
Jeremy Logan, also a frequent local commuter and computer programmer, developed his Portland Transit app for the Android platform earlier this year at $1.99 a pop. "I probably wouldn't have started working on the project if I had to pay for the data," he says.
"TriMet's Young says the public transit agency does not mind people making money off the agency's free data, though Google has only found 33 cities that openly share their data online in the Google Transit Feed."
"The payback is we get all this work for free," she explains.