City-Go-Round Offers Transit Apps, MTA Info Still Not Open

New on the transit tech front, from the creators of Walk Score, is City-Go-Round, a site where you can find and download mobile apps that help out transit riders:

Picture_1.pngOur mission is to help make public transit more convenient. For
example, an app that lets you know when your bus will arrive is way
better than standing outside waiting for 20 minutes.

If we can make public transit more convenient, more people will ride
public transit. More people riding public transit equals less driving.
Less driving equals a healthier planet.

What transit app developers need to do their work, of course, is open data from transit authorities. And one of City-Go-Round’s great services, in the short term, is showing just which agencies provide open data and which don’t. As we’ve noted before, the MTA is keeping a tight hold on its information so far. In fact, five of the top ten large agencies that are holding out are in the tristate area: Three branches of the MTA (NYC Transit, the Long Island Railroad and Metro North); New Jersey Transit; and PATH.

Since the site launched five days ago, Chicago Transit Authority, which was number four on the list of agencies that refused to release data, went ahead and opened the information tap (the CTA has also installed "bus tracker" flat-screen displays in some local businesses).

Any bets on when the MTA and the others will follow suit?

In the meantime, developers are working with what they have. Check out ExitStrategy NYC, by Jonathan and Ashley Wegener, which reveals the arcane secrets of pre-walking to anyone with a smartphone.

  • I don’t quite understand this – what do these agencies gain from refusing to release data?

    Having spent most of my life in North Jersey, in and around Newark and Passaic, (where NJTransit didn’t even provide bus system maps as recently as a few years ago, and for all I know still doesn’t); and now living in Portland, Oregon, where TriMet is one of, if not the, leader(s) in open data in the country… the difference between the two systems is remarkable.

    It’s not a perfect comparison, I realize, in that most of NJTransit is a suburban commuter-style system focused on getting people to and from NYC; whereas TriMet covers a smaller area (our stricter land-use laws also certainly play a part there) and is more urban-focused… but even on local routes in NJ’s dense cities (Newark, Jersey City-Bayonne-Hoboken, Paterson-Passaic), the transit system is miserable.

    I live and work in the inner city here in Portland, and only rarely find myself out in Portland’s suburbs, but it seems to me that Gresham and Hillsboro and Milwaukie (and even Forest Grove and Oregon City and Troutdale , the outskirts of TriMet’s bus system) have better and easier to use transit than Newark and Jersey City do.

    So what’s with the secrets? I’m not quite understanding this…

  • I’m willing to bet the MTA will issue a slew of cease-and-desist orders for the existing apps for NYC that use the subway bullets before they release their data.

  • Sarah, this seems like I-want-it-so-it-must-be-good thinking. The intellectual property contained in the schedule data is worth something to the 1.6 billion annual riders, let’s say 10 cents. That’s $160 million, which is in my opinion worth arguing about.

    Yes, I understand that each of those dimes cannot be directly monetized, but I fail to see why giving the data away for free is obligatory.

  • But if it’s about ‘intellectual property’, and holding out for some kind of payoff… why is it that so many other cities did give away the information for free?

    And why is it that the agencies who are reluctant to do so are mostly concentrated in the NYC area?

    That’s an interesting point, but what leads these particular agencies to believe that there will be some kind of rush to pay them for their data?

  • Jay, with more than 50% of NYC commuters using public transportation and big budget woes, does the MTA really need the extra marketing? I bet that if they took down every single sign, map, mosaic station artwork, and LED strip-map and stopped making station announcements, the share of commuters using public transit would still be twice Portland’s 13.3%.

  • But again, I have to ask… what benefits do they realize from keeping such data secret?

    I’m sorry, but your reply comes off as a rather snide dismissal which also doesn’t seem to recognize the fact that NYC’s work force is also dependent on a very high level of solo auto commuters driving into the city from the suburbs of NY, NJ and CT.

    If you don’t have an answer, it’s okay to admit that.

  • Jay, I agree, it’s a little snide.

    Seriously, though, I don’t think we can make the argument that the licensing of MTA intellectual property is worth nothing. The argument that we can make is that revenues from licensing are less than the savings from no longer having to protect the intellectual-property rights of the MTA plus the additional marginal revenues of increased ridership owing to marketing tie-ins with licensed products.

    Revenues from licensing: clearly the MTA is the no. 1 public transit brand in the USA, in the largest market. So the upper limit for revenues is likely larger than that of other transit authorities.

    Savings from having to protect IP rights: I have no idea how much it costs to ensure that bootleg MTA-subway-map shower curtains don’t get into stores.

    Marginal revenues of increased ridership: probably very little, given the 50%-plus market share of public transportation among NYC commuters.

  • Thanks, Jonathan.

    As I’ve already said, the intellectual property argument is interesting… but honestly, I have to ask what’s the point of holding onto it if they’re not really doing anything with it?

    And here, I’m also questioning NJTransit just as much as MTA. Nobody can claim NJTransit is a premier brand. So what is their excuse not to open up data? They can’t even come up with bus system maps on their own. Back to my original question at the top of the thread, why is this refusal to open up data so highly concentrated in the NYC area?

    I’m not as familiar with MTA NYC Transit as I am with NJTransit, but as far as increased ridership goes? I currently live 30 feet from a TriMet frequent service line bus stop here in Portland. I can call a phone number, enter a 4-digit stop ID number, and within 10 seconds know exactly when the next bus will arrive. I can also check ahead to time any possible connections; as well as look up real-time arrivals on my computer or on one of those fancy cell phones if I had one. That’s a user-friendly transit system doing its job.

    Back in NJ, I once lived only a few blocks from a Northeast Corridor commuter rail line, as well as a couple of bus lines which ran one block away. The only schedule info I had though, was a torn piece of paper listing ‘scheduled arrival times’. Which of course, were off 95% of the time; and way off much more often than not. Little wonder I was one of only a very small handful of transit users (for that matter, I was probably the only transit user in that neighborhood by choice) back in that pretty dense neighborhood, which should have otherwise been a very transit-friendly neighborhood.

    So who are these agencies really serving? What is their purpose, if not to provide transit to the public? Maybe another way to go here, is to ask if the public benefits from tightly-held transit agency data? The answer there, of course, is a clear no. So why are they allowed to do it? Is this just a uniquely American problem?

  • J:Lai

    Jonathan,
    I think your reasoning is a bit off here. Let’s grant your hypothesis that the data owned by the MTA has a significant and realizable monetary value (although I think that is dubious.) Even in that scenario, the proper context would be to look at the COST to the MTA of providing this info to 3rd parties, vs. the BENEFIT to the riders of having this data made available.
    The MTA is not a profit-maximizing private company. It is a public agency which receive significant funding from public revenues (or at least it did until recently, ha!) The MTA should not try to realize the maximum revenue for selling its data, for the same reason as it should not increase fares to the maximum level that the market will pay.
    I could see, maybe, charging application developers a token fee to help defray the cost of formatting and delivering the data, but even that is a bit obnoxious when one considers how much benefit riders would derive from having access to this data. I mean, they could charge for subway maps too, but really . . .

  • Thanks, J:Lai, I was thinking the same thing. But I’ve never lived in NYC, so I couldn’t speak as to specifics.

    “Benefit to riders” is what I’m thinking, too.

    I don’t really understand why NYC-area transit agencies are playing “trolls under the bridge, pay us our tolls”, while the rest of the country is rolling along with open data.

  • Ian Turner

    Jonathan,

    As a public transit system’s riders would be the principal beneficiaries of the transit data, wouldn’t it make more sense to just release the data and make up for it with the fare? Data is much more useful when unencumbered, and it’s the same people paying either way — why complicate things with extra transactions? Fast food restaurants don’t charge customers to view, analyze, or publish nutritional information — the cost of compiling and distributing that information is included in the price of the product.

    Finally, there’s the “public good” argument: Even if it were to cost the agency money to release (which it doesn’t), publishing timetables is one of its responsibilities. Just as nobody complains when the IRS publishes a mountain of free tax advice at taxpayer expense, it is the MTA’s duty to public information regarding its available services.

    Jay,

    The answer to your question is simple: The MTA, and other transit agencies, hope to get paid for releasing this data. They will have a hard time with this, however: All the leading data consumers have stood clear that they will not pay for data. And they have a strong incentive to hold the line: If a Google or a Hopstop pays one transit agency, you can be sure every other agency in the country will soon come begging. And the MTA is so widely hated that nobody in the organization wants to appear to be giving away something of value.

  • Ian, as usual you make very good points. I think the MTA staff is sitting on Madison Avenue, looking at HopStop’s staff and thinking, why should these guys get paid for providing stuff we give away for free? Plenty of good reasons why, as have been elucidated.

    Also, if I recall correctly, the MTA doesn’t have “real time” data about which buses are where along their routes, or which trains are where along their routes. Millions of dollars have been spent on this issue to no effect.

  • Ian Turner

    Jonathan,

    You’re correct regarding real time data. It’s been in the works for decades. Every contractor promises to make it work, then gets stymied by the Manhattan canyon effect, and gives up. Good news is this project hasn’t cost the MTA anything — they always make the trials at contractor expense. Bad news is we still don’t have real time displays. If the latest trial doesn’t pull through, expect to see real time displays throughout the city except in Manhattan below 96th st.

    Cheers,

    –Ian

  • Good news, Ian and Jay! The Feds have weighed in on the side of the “global movement to share public sector data to unleash the creativity of citizens, drive transparency and ensure accountability.” Check out this OMB blog post I now withdraw all my fumblings toward rationalizing why the MTA wouldn’t share public sector data.

  • A correction to your post – the CTA has NOT installed the screens in local businesses. Screens were installed in businesses, but that was an effort accomplished by a neighborhood Special Service Area (SSA), which is part of the Chamber of Commerce. CTA provides the data for Bus Tracker, but an outside developer was used to create the screen system and the SSA paid for it.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

STREETFILMS

The Case for Open Transit Data

|
Ever find yourself waiting for the next bus, not knowing when it will arrive? Think it would be great if you could check a subway countdown clock from the sidewalk? Or get arrival times on your phone? Giving transit riders better information can make riding the bus or the train more convenient and appealing. And […]

MTA Unveils Open Data Policy, Clearing a Path for NYC Transit Apps

|
In a big turnaround, the MTA now touts third-party transit applications on its website. The MTA took an important step toward improving the rider experience today, announcing that the agency will open its route and schedule data to third party software developers. The policy change — a major turnaround — promises to take some of […]

The Case for Open MTA Data: Transparency, Savings, and Easier Riding

|
Transit riders in Portland have dozens of mobile applications at their disposal thanks to Tri-Met’s open data. New York’s ridership dwarfs Portland’s, but the MTA’s data policy stifles similar innovations. Without good information for riders, transit systems don’t work very well. A subway station sans system map or a bus stop lacking a posted schedule […]