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National Transit Map Seeks to Close the Transit Data Gap

Transit data has been standardized, but not for everyone.

In bringing together the first ever map illustrating the nation’s transit system, the U.S. Department of Transportation isn’t just making data more accessible — it’s also aiming to modernize data collection and dissemination for many of the country’s transit agencies.

With more than 10,000 routes and 98,000 stops represented, the National Transit Map is already enormous. But Dan Morgan, chief data officer of the department, says it’s not enough. When measuring vehicles operated in maximum service — a metric illustrating peak service at a transit agency — the National Transit Map captures only about half of all transit in the U.S.

“Not all of these transit agencies have this data available," Morgan said, "so this is an ongoing project to really close the transit data gap."

Which is why, in the process of building out the map, the DOT is working with transit agencies to make their data available.

On the whole, transit data is easier to collect and process than a lot of transportation data because many agencies have adopted a standard called General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) that applies to schedule-related data. That’s what made the National Transit Map an easy candidate for completion, Morgan said.

But as popular as GTFS has become, many agencies — especially smaller ones — haven’t been able to use it. The tools to convert to GTFS come with a learning curve.

“It’s really a matter of priority and availability of resources,” he said.

Bringing those agencies into the mainstream is important to achieving the goals of the map. In the map, Morgan said he sees an opportunity to achieve a new level of clarity where it has never existed before.

That’s because transit has long suffered from difficulty in seeing its own history. Transit officials can describe their systems as they exist, but looking at how they got there is trickier.

“There’s no archive," Morgan said, "there’s no picture of how transit changes over time."

And that’s a problem for assessing what works and what doesn’t, for understanding why the system operates the way it does and how it responds to changes. 

It goes further than that. The DOT has made a concerted effort to start thinking about transportation as a means of improving people’s lives versus simply as the means of getting from point A to point B. And U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has repeatedly called on transportation officials to think of the systems they manage as “ladders of opportunity;” to think about how access to transportation can affect a family’s health and their ability to work. Others have emphasized the importance of transportation in social interactions, entertainment and education — virtually every aspect of American life.

Simply put, data is the language government can speak when discussing those things.

But, Morgan said, “We’re not able to have a conversation about that without having access to data about where transit service is."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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