Sound Transit and Metro announced this week that they are making new real-time data feeds available to developers, covering vehicles from King County Metro, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit and Intercity Transit. While the eyes of the typical transit rider may glaze over at the mere mention of “real-time data feeds”, data like this powers applications, including OneBusAway and others, that are increasingly critical to navigating our transit systems.

Sound Transit has specifically made GTFS-realtime feeds, containing real-time vehicle position and delay information, available on their Developer Resources portal. GTFS-realtime is a common data format increasingly used by transit agencies across the nation and around the world to share real-time transit information with developers. Common formats are critical because they make it easier for developers to write a great tool once and bring it to multiple transit systems. The end result is better tools and more choices for transit riders.

In fact, someone might be working on that next killer app as we speak. Between events like last Saturday’s Seattle Open Data Day 2015 and the City of Seattle’s upcoming Hack The Commute event in March, there is a lot of energy around open transportation data in Seattle these days. While some of us may never be satisfied (as I whisper Link Light Rail real-time!), I commend Sound Transit for their efforts in making new data available to developers. Data is critical for riders and this is a huge step in the right direction.

26 Replies to “New Real-time Transit Data from Sound Transit, Metro”

  1. Like the LAME “the next Southbound/Northbound train will be here in 2 minutes” announcements at LINK stations. Would been nice to have a countdown timer instead. And at the downtown tunnel, info on next buses too. The current stuff is pretty useless to transit users and since there is no cell phone service, can’t really use One Bus Away/Moovit/etc (though they are working on cell phone service in downtown and Beacon Hill tunnel, and I will assume that will include the Capitol Hill tunnel too)..

    1. I wish Metro would just install more real-time displays in more places. Yesterday I was at Convention Place at 6pm and a crowd of people was waiting for northbound buses, several looking at smartphones. Since there were more phones than routes, several people must have been looking up the same route, and the people without phones didn’t get the benefit of the information. That may be how to start an innovation, but it’s an individualistic and perhaps selfish approach if it becomes the permanent solution, and it forces people to use monopolistic cell carriers with ripoff data rates. Whenever I look up a route and other people are also waiting, I try to remember to announce, “5 minutes” (or “11, 6 minutes” if there are multiple routes going to different destinations). I wish more people would do that. But ultimately, it’s not the passengers’ job to do this; it’s the transit agency’s job to propagate the information. So let’s get more real-time signs at bus stops.

      1. At the main UW stops on Campus Parkway (both eastbound and westbound), there are monitors showing the One Bus Away feed. Were those placed by Metro or UW? It would be great if they could be at more stops, especially the tunnel stops that don’t have cell service.

  2. I still can’t figure out those old-fashioned reader boards on bus stops in Rainier Valley. I want to know when the next Rt. 7 bus will come, but the sign then scrolls on to tell me there will also be Rt. 7 buses in 13 minutes, 26 minutes, 39 minutes, etc. Unhelpful at best, confusing at worst.

    1. Reminds me of the “real-time” signs they had in Rochester, NY. For whatever reason they seemed to only show when the next bus that was at least 20 min out would arrive. And not by countdown, time-till-arival style, but just the scheduled arrival time. The bus could be right around the corner and it would read some time a half hour in the future. Completely confusing and useless.

    2. If the bus is right in front of a Safeway, then knowing when the second-next and third-next bus will come is useful. The formatting, not the information, is confusing.

    3. What’s confusing about what you just described? You said you are confused by the reader boards in the RV, but then went on to describe something that isn’t confusing. Please explain.

      1. It’s confusing when all you see is Rt. 7 — 38 min. Because that’s where it’s paused in the scroll. I’m standing there in the rain; I want to know when the *next* bus is coming. All the rest is just clutter.

    4. The London Underground says “Circle Line 6 min; Circle Line 12 min”. It tells you (1) how frequent the train is (good to know for later), (2) whether you have time to get a newspaper, (3) how long if you can’t fit on the first train and have to wait for the second.

  3. You got me! First, glance, all I could think of was that Paul Allen had gotten tired of missing his streetcar!

    But seriously, I think the previous comments make an excellent point: all the app-writing (is that how you make apps?) skill in the world still creates an information system only as smart as the stupidest thing a human told it.

    So maybe we can hit up Paul, and Jeff, and Chris Hansen and those guys for a gift donation that will let us hire and intensively train actual transit passengers to program every app in the system.

    With primary duty to ride transit for seven hours out of every eight hour shift, until they have a mental picture of every single stop in the region and the name all the passengers call it.


    Mark Dublin

  4. ST supports real time trip updates and vehicle positions for the following agencies: KCM, Pierce Transit, InterCity Transit, and Sound Transit.

    Community Transit is the glaring omission despite the fact that 100% of its fleet is equipped to provide real-time data.

    1. Community Transit’s fleet (and the Sound Transit buses it operates) are equipped to provide real-time data, but the data has had glitches. Which is why our BusFinder location product is still in pilot. The good news is that recent testing gave us our best results yet, and we may be ready to launch soon.

      Launching BusFinder is the first step. Community Transit has said all along that once we get our data correct and this web application working, we would then look to stream the data to Google, OneBusAway and other developers. We’re really looking forward to joining the pack!

      1. Why didn’t Community Transit start out by partnering with OneBusAway and sending the live data to the innumerable list of existing services instead of making its own? Having to use two apps in places like Aurora Village TC or anywhere that Everett and Community Transit overlaps is a poor user experience.

      2. Why is CT re-inventing the wheel? At least 4 other agencies have decided to use OneBusAway (and any other app/site that can use GTFS data) rather than developing their own,

        Sure there is the problem of getting the data into GTFS format, but that isn’t rocket science. After all OneBusAway originally used the crusty AVS data Metro had and community developers were able to clean up Baltimore’s data.

  5. Posting and comments need to remember one thing: for a transit system communicating critical information to its passenger any automated mechanism is badly inferior to the words of an informed and clear-headed human being.

    Preferably face to face, where tone and body-language are also carried across. These factors themselves communicate extremely important messages, including relative seriousness of the situation, and priorities in reacting.

    Also, transit systems own policies and choices communicate an enormous amount. Question: “What does the fact that phone information is only available between 6AM and 8PM on weekdays, and unavailable weekends and holidays communicate?”

    Possible answers: “For people without app or ‘net capacity, remember it’s against the law to sleep in stations or shelters.” Or: “The United States is no longer in either the First or Second Worlds.”

    Another non-verbal communication example: For the last several years, DSTT stations have been patrolled by private guards.

    Many of them are able and willing to inform and otherwise assist passengers- with knowledge gained on their own initiative, essentially becoming the station agents the system badly needs. Like the “just do it!” command on the Enterprise goes: “Make it So!”

    But their presence began several years ago, triggered by a moments-long exchange of punches by two evenly-matched and also Golden-Gloved-high school girls on the Westlake southbound platform.

    News footage of the ridiculously over-covered event showed that contact from a single punch from either would have meant TKO for anybody not on the SPD boxing team. Proving what level of enforcement agency is necessary to thoroughly prevent repeats.

    In other words, full volume message that the transit system considers a general feeling of security affordable, but the resources to secure it too expensive. App name for that should be “OMG!” Bids?

    Mark Dublin

  6. Another thing, reroutes. On Monday there was an accident at 15th & 52nd NE and all the buses were on University Way, and I guess the 30 was on 47th and one of them didn’t come. Another time there was something on Pine Street and the westbound buses were rerouted. How are people on 15th supposed to know their bus is on another street? Likewise at Broadway & Pine, I knew about the accident because I had gotten off a bus and the driver had told us about it, but there was a crowd of people at the college stop who didn’t know, so I told them it was stopping around the corner and many of them just started walking. I went into QFC and when I came out I looked again and there was another crowd.

  7. They (the different transit agencies) need to better align their schedules with each other, and focus on getting their services on time per their schedules, not an average of 5 minutes here, and 10 minute there.

    1. + squared, Weasel. But it’s worse than that. Every agency needs to make it clear to its operating people, especially drivers, that passengers who miss connections by half a minute – especially in a dark, cold, and inadvisable place- will get their lifetime of rides with somebody else.

      Worst of all is the apparent attitude of some drivers that refusal to communicate with other agencies’ drivers is something to be proud of. Or at least a definite conviction that a horn-tap or a headlight flash is a waste of their own agencies’ batteries.

      In an age when public transit is fighting for its life, system wide missed connections at long headways are gross misconduct.

      Mark Dubliln

  8. I agree with lakecityrider (Wes). Instead of spending millions on having their own app, still waiting, they should’ve gone with the low-cost option, joining OneBusAway. To inconvenience the rider with having to jump back and forth between apps is not only inconvenient, but unconscionable. To advertise (on the back of their schedule books) that it’s coming, which was about a year ago, and that not yet happening, is embarrassing. Back then, I looked up BusFinder and found that others had that name. I gave up. I wonder how many others wasted their time looking. Finally, whenever I see the reason “glitches,” it tells me that something was botched and they’re unable to own up to it. It would be refreshing to get a straight answer instead, but that would take accountability.

    I also agree with @Weasel (+2). Here, having separate agencies with separate priorities is the problem. This would be fixed by centralizing at least some of the obvious functions, such as scheduling and fares, and/or having a hierarchy with a lead agency and the smaller agencies being subsidiaries.

    1. Baltimore has a similar horror story about how a combination of shortsighted thinking and “not invented here” was keeping real time bus data out of public hands.

      Fortunately some developers said “WTF?” and took data in the format Baltimore had it in and recoded it into GTFS format.

      According to the agency this saved them $600,000 dollars they were going to spend to put data in GTFS and develop their own app.

  9. This is a great leap forward, as finally the Google will – technically – be able to inform transit plans with real-time data. Has ST signed a contract with the Google?

    Why it took this long is a mildly interesting question, and of course the lies that OneBusAway et al tells will also now be told by Maps.

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