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AllTransit: Making Transportation Data Public with Breadth and Depth

The AllTransit database delivers routes and times for bus, rail and ferry services delivered by over 500 city agencies, then cross-references this against demographic data, jobs information, housing, parking and a range of other critical metrics.

When is a bus route more than just a bus route? When it is a driver for economic development.

“Transit data comes with economic and social benefits,” said Linda Young. “Someone might be evaluating different sites for building housing. Now for the first time you can see how many jobs you can get to from that location. It’s not longer just asking: Are we in a busy place? We can see exactly how many jobs you can access on transit.”

As director of research at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), Young makes those kinds of connections through the AllTransit Database, recently singled out by Planetizen as one of the “Top Websites of 2016” for planning, land use and urban design.

AllTransit makes transportation data public with breadth and depth. It delivers routes and times for bus, rail and ferry services delivered by over 500 city agencies, then cross-references this against demographic data, jobs information, housing, parking and a range of other critical metrics. The AllTransit team also undertakes research work to help cities determine how best to organize their assets based on transit need and availability.

Armed with such information, municipalities can add transit to the mix when making key planning decisions. Civic leaders can use it to determine whether low-income residents will be able to get to work, for example. Digging deeper, transit can impact less obvious areas, such as public health.

“There has been a lot of research showing that people walk and bike more when those activities are supported by public transit,” Young said. “So public health advocates want to know where the transit is, where it links up with the bike paths, where it connects with the people who are walking to work.”

Transit data also can drive deep discussions about equity. “Previously anyone could say, ‘Yes, there is transit in this neighborhood.’ But we can measure the quality, including frequency information," Young said. "Transit that runs every hour is not the same as transit that runs every eight minutes or runs at night."

Planetizen commended the site for the depth of analysis it enables and its ability to score cities against their peers. “AllTransit informs us that our office has access to 9,363 transit trips per week within a half-mile, 17 transit routes within a half-mile, and 982,791 jobs within a half-hour transit trip,” the editors note. The AllTransit interface generates a map comparing the office’s transit availability to the rest of the country and the rest of Los Angeles.

And when experts at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research used AllTransit to analyze the transportation landscape in Houston, they found that city has 208,269 jobs accessible within a 30-minute transit commute on average for households.

“That’s fewer than Atlanta, which has almost one-fifth the population of Houston, and Orlando, which is one-eighth the size of Houston," they noted. "The data suggests transit isn’t always an easy option for Houstonians trying to get to work."

Getting to this point has been a gradual process since the Chicago-based CNT launched the effort three years ago.

At that time only 40 to 50 agencies had readily accessible data, mostly published in what was then known as Google Transit Specification Feed format. The “G” now stands for General, and as the standard has gained wider acceptance, many more cities have signed on.

Still, transit data is far from universally available. In addition to the data it can harvest from 500 agencies with relative ease, AllTransit also has manually compiled data from some 300 agencies that still make routes and stops available only in PDF format.

Young said CNT initially brought in seven workers on contract to build the AllTransit platform. A handful of employees keep the site current today, including project managers, application developers, data analysts and a Web developer.

Even with all these hands on the project, it is still a massive undertaking to keep the records current. “Not everything you are looking at is going to be the most recent information,” she said. “It may not be in there if it occurred less than six months ago, but we will catch it in the next round.”

While economic and social issues make up the big picture for CNT, the site’s most immediate beneficiaries have been the transit agencies themselves. “They have really learned about and taken advantage of this data,” Young said. “They are using it to track buses and trains. They are using it to communicate to riders when the next train will arrive. They are using it to avoid ‘bus bunching’ — to disperse the buses and make them more efficient.”

Looking ahead, Young said the site is gearing up to take a close look at "transit deserts," areas where residents have no ready access to public transportation.

“We want to be able to show the places where people want and need transit, so that people can start to think about adding transit, making transit more efficient,” she said. “People have a transportation need that isn’t being met, and we want to reveal that.”