Santa Clara, Calif.'s Multimodal Trip Planner Showcases the Power of the Cloud

The city's transportation authority has built an open source trip planning app that can be used by transit riders and cyclists.

by , / April 12, 2016

Navigating from home to work and then to the store before heading back home again is a high-stakes game of connect the dots. Finding the most efficient and convenient route is a complex task, particularly for urbanites doing it by bicycle. That task may soon be solved by an app now under development by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in California’s Bay Area. A Web app scheduled for beta release this month will use real-time public transit data, open source code, and market research to create an intermodal trip planner that showcases the power of the cloud.

The $200,000 project will equip citizens with a tool that evolved from some dot-connecting of its own. Developing the project has largely been a matter of selecting the correct solutions to bridge the organization’s philosophical and technical needs with the cultural needs of the community, said Marshall Ballard, senior transportation planner and GIS coordinator at the VTA. Built on the open source OpenTripPlanner platform, the agency now has a tool that other transportation agencies can adapt and replicate as their own to help citizens commute in an evolving urban landscape.

The agency also customized the trip-planning tool to meet the region’s needs, and that meant integrating needed data. In the summer of 2014, VTA started using AmigoCloud, a mapping and data company, for several of its programs, including storm water management, document digitization, and public transit planning. AmigoCloud used OpenTripPlanner to build a custom product that integrates the city’s real-time route data, such as the locations of about 4,000 bus stops and the locations of about 40 public buses, which is updated every second.

Keeping cyclists in mind was a central driver for the intermodal planner, Ballard said, because there are a lot of people who bike to work in the region. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of bike-commuters in San Francisco is disproportionately high compared to the national average, and on the rise, at 3.4 percent of the working population in 2014 up from 2.0 percent in 2000. Other Northern California commuters share in the trend, with cities like Davis, Palo Alto and Berkeley topping a 2011 bike commuter survey.

“There are no other trip planners out there that enable inter-modal trip planning,” Ballard said. “We’re reaching out into the community to do this market research to really understand what our constituents are using today and what they want to see in a mobile trip planning application, and what other features would enhance it.”

Everything is connected, Ballard said, and as they begin to examine their data, they will learn new things about how their city functions and how they can improve it.

“We’re able to query our data and actually demonstrate where a vehicle is stationary, and we can cross-relate that to stops and understand where the other pinch points are on the network,” Ballard said. “There may be traffic signals around the county where the delay is significant enough where we can then reach out to the cities and work with them on traffic signal timing.”

The agency also got feedback from bicyclists who helped make the app’s bike routes more realistic. In addition to bus, bike, walking and personal vehicle data, the agency also hopes to integrate ride-sharing services into the platform, Ballard said.

“I think the inevitable goal is to integrate as many potential modes and opportunities for people to combine their trip and finish their trip in the most efficient and cost-effective manner,” Ballard said. “I think that’s the direction everything’s headed.”

The trip planner was launched last year by the VTA Innovation Center. Hopefully, other agencies around the country will adopt the app, said Ballard. The agency used an open-source user interface from Arlington County, Virginia and the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. VTA is now seeking grant funding to make the process of adopting its app by other transit agencies as easy as possible.

“What we’re interested in doing is helping break that barrier for smaller or other transit agencies to leverage this technology and not necessarily be dependent on third parties or a proprietary system,” Ballard said. “This would enable them to be owners of their own data and use that data of their route ridership and data collection of trips being planned to enhance their services. … I think for other cities, other transit entities, to implement it, the cost to entry would just be hiring developers to install it and begin running it for them and integrate their own data with it.”

The next major milestone will be to build the app natively for Android and iOS systems, according to Ballard. A beta release is scheduled for this month.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.