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Bay Area Public-Private Partners Explore Transit Data Mashup

Interline and the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission are working to create a single platform where people can find all the information they need to travel seamlessly using multiple transit operators.

In California’s Bay Area, there are more than 30 public transit operators serving small communities and big cities, such as San Francisco and Oakland. As a result, residents who use public transit to commute or get around on the weekend can often find themselves using three or four different transit operators.

This can create information challenges for everyone, sometimes forcing riders to consult several different resources to figure out the best option for travel, whether there are any delays and how much they can expect to pay in fares. A project from this year’s Startup in Residence (STiR) cohort, however, wants to change that.

STiR, which is managed by the San Francisco-based nonprofit City Innovate, works to bridge gaps between the public and private sectors with partnerships aimed at creating tech solutions for governmental challenges. Ultimately, the partnerships produce public-sector benefits while private companies get a chance to work within the complex government technology market. The partnership aimed at streamlining public transit info in the Bay Area includes Interline, a transportation software firm, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional transit authority that oversees the disparate public transportation operators in the Bay Area.

Nearly all of these agencies provide open data in a format called GTFS, according to Nisar Ahmed, a senior program coordinator with MTC. GTFS data is already used by many companies and developers in popular apps such as Google or Apple maps. The idea is for Interline to help MTC create a platform to improve and make more efficient its regional transit data access.

“We are hoping if we can produce one regional GTFS feed, we can pull in additional data that can help riders who are transferring from service to service with better information," said Ahmed.

Interline has some experience with this type of work, said Drew Dara-Abrams, the firm's co-founder. One of Interline's foundational products is a platform called Transitland, which currently aggregates GTFS feeds from roughly 2,500 transit operators globally. So far, Transitland users have been primarily private companies.

Dara-Abrams said the company has recently worked to repurpose Transitland and other components for better use by government agencies. This project is part of that effort, with an intense focus on the needs of MTC. The STiR project also gives both stakeholders an opportunity to examine some other facets of public transportation with the potential to make more improvements.

“The challenging and exciting part of this project is automating these systems and providing one single transit feed for the entire Bay Area," Dara-Abrams said. "We’re working through a lot of these questions with our government partner, not just questions of how to do it but the way that fares and transfers should be handled."

The ultimate goal is to help MTC — as well as other regional transit authorities in the country with a similarly complex network of operators — set up a cloud-hosted system that aggregates and improves upon all of the transit feeds in its region.   

“We’d love to find a pattern that works here in the Bay Area that we could take to other places,” Dara-Abrams said. “There’s always going to be some amount of customizations necessary, but there are other regions around the world and in the U.S. that have a different amount of transit providers.”

That’s really one of the main incentives for a startup to participate in STiR. Government agencies share problems, and a product that a company builds for one, can generally be tweaked and scaled to fit another, eventually providing solutions for public-sector agencies across the nation.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.