Better Trips, Transformational Leadership

There was a flurry of news on Friday, describing TriMet’s new multi-modal trip planner.

There is no question the planner is very cool. The ability to integrate bike and transit trip planning, better pedestrian routing to transit stops, and a myriad a bells and whistles (check out the ‘bike triangle’!) are a great step forward.

But I’d like to focus on how this came to be and what it portends for trip planning more broadly.

This new trip planner is based on the “Open Trip Planner”, an open-source software project conceived of and initiated by TriMet’s Bibiana McHugh. This process is described in a report to Metro (PDF, 2.7M), which provided a seminal grant from its Regional Travel Options program.

McHugh partnered with Open Plans, a firm specializing in open source software development for public sector agencies. The project was put together on a budget of less than $140K. To put this in perspective, the only other multi-modal trip planner developed by a U.S. transit agency (Chicago) required a $1M Federal grant.

In contrast, TriMet pays tens of thousands of dollars annually in license fees for the proprietary trip planner it currently uses. So this project will ultimately not just improve the capabilities for planning trips in our region, but will positively affect TriMet’s cost structure.

How does open source get more for less? Simply, by sharing. Part of this reason this project could be accomplished so economically is that developers around the country were prepared to contribute their efforts without financial compensation, aware that they could benefit from the completed software, which would be open to all. The considerations are well described by this graphic from the report.

And the benefits are already accruing in other cities. Nine other cities on three continents have demonstrated localized versions of the Open Trip Planner.

The “open” benefits don’t stop there. A trip planner is not just a set of algorithms, it requires data, including what’s known as a “routable network” (essentially a street map that includes details like which streets are one-ways and what turning restrictions exist at any corner). TriMet could have licensed that information from a proprietary vendor (for a fee).

Instead, McHugh hired a crew of interns who enhanced the data in the OpenStreetMap project. OpenStreetMap is an open data project under which volunteers and public agencies have contributed data describing street networks around the world. By basing the trip planner on this data set, TriMet not only improves the data available to others, but gains the benefit of additions and improvements made by many others. Again, this changes the nature of the game.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the Open Trip Planner is going to be a highly disruptive project, and that within five years a majority of transit agencies in North America will be using variations of it.

And we’ll have Bibiana McHugh and her visonary leadership to thank for it.

13 Comments

13 Responses to Better Trips, Transformational Leadership

  1. AL M
    October 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm Link

    So who pays for this stuff anyway?

    And from my point of view its highly overrated , the sort of thing a computer geek cares about much more than actual commuters do.

    The passengers on my routes still use schedules, not even the transit tracker.

    I use PDX bus, but the only reason I use that is that my buddy Max C got me into it.

    Before that I used the regular old transit tracker and would still be using it today had it not been for Max.

  2. Thomas Le Ngo
    October 17, 2011 at 2:42 pm Link

    Chris, that was a wonderful write-up.

    Al, from my personal experience, the majority of commuters (who appear to represent all walks of life) I ride with use TransitTracker. You don’t need a smartphone to use it.

    Also, when you call 238-RIDE, guess how Customer Service quickly plans your trip.

  3. Chris Smith
    October 17, 2011 at 4:27 pm Link

    Al, I couldn’t disagree more. The experience of riding the bus (or MAX) starts long before you step on the vehicle. Unless I’m on a route I ride every day, any trip I’m going to take involving a transfer starts with the trip planner.

  4. Jeff F
    October 17, 2011 at 5:31 pm Link

    TriMet gets over 1.5 million calls per month into TransitTracker by Phone, and roughly another 500K via SMS. I don’t have the numbers in front of me but the online trip planner provides well over 100K trips per month.

    They probably aren’t all computer geeks.

  5. Chris Smith
    October 17, 2011 at 6:06 pm Link

    BTW – I want to make sure that credit is shared appropriately. While Bibiana deserves all the credit she’s getting, there was a crew of developers and others who made this happen. Let me take a moment to reprise the acknowledgements from the report:

    TriMet would like to thank the developers from a diversity of organizations and companies that have contributed source to the OpenTripPlanner over the last two years. They include:

    Andrew Byrd
    Brandon Martin-Anderson
    Brian Ferris
    Colin Zwiebel
    David Emory
    David Turner
    Francisco José Peñarrubia
    Frank Purcell
    Laurent Gregoire
    Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock
    Robert Marianski
    Vivien Deparday
    Zsombor Welker

    We would also like to thank the Portland State University Student Interns who worked so arduously on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) Improvement Project. Their contributions to that project and to this document are numerous and we are deeply indebted to their hard work and smarts.

    Betsy Breyer
    Grant Humphries
    Melelani Sax-Barnett
    PJ Houser

    Metro graciously provided us with the funding for both projects: the OTP Project, and the OSM Improvement Project. Without their support, these projects would not have been possible. In particular we would like to thank Dan Kaempff, Mark Bosworth, and many others at Metro, and at the local jurisdictions who provided their data and collaborated with us on the project.

    Special thanks to Jack Newlevant for his help with the local bike network and Paul Cone for his support and many contributions.

    And finally, special thanks to the OSM community for their support, feedback, and continued contributions.

  6. Aaron G
    October 17, 2011 at 6:15 pm Link

    Al, how do you really know what tools your riders were using before they left home and at the stop before your bus got there?

  7. Jason McHuff
    October 17, 2011 at 7:52 pm Link

    I don’t have the numbers in front of me

    The report says 550,000 trips are planned a month.

    Overall, I don’t know what TriMet is paying for the current trip planner, but it seems like this could be profitable, in just the financial sense.

  8. Jeff F
    October 18, 2011 at 8:15 am Link

    Overall, I don’t know what TriMet is paying for the current trip planner, but it seems like this could be profitable, in just the financial sense.

    Not for TriMet, no, if you mean a profit from licensing OTP.

    The report says 550,000 trips are planned a month.

    I knew my memory was withholding something from me, but I haven’t looked at those numbers for quite some time.

    None of these figures includes any third-party applications, by the way. I know that a few of those are extremely popular and well-used.

  9. AL M
    October 18, 2011 at 3:55 pm Link

    I never said the transit tracker was bad!
    That’s a great thing!
    I’m talking about all the other stuff that keeps popping up all over the place.

    The transit tracker is what I used to use, because it is 90% correct with several large flaws, like it won’t tell you if the bus is not showing up at all due to breakdown etc.

    I was referring to the myriad of other stuff that seems to be constantly developed and bragged about as being the greatest invention since sliced bread.

    Every time I turn around there is some other computer application being developed.

    As a driver, and I am not kidding, my people do not even use the transit tracker.

    They don’t even know it exists, believe it or not.

    I am not making that up!

  10. Erik H.
    October 19, 2011 at 8:36 am Link

    The experience of riding the bus (or MAX) starts long before you step on the vehicle.

    And, yet, there is next to ZERO attention being devoted to just that – the experience BEFORE getting on (the bus). Bus stops are deplorable in this city. Sidewalks are missing. Crosswalks are unsafe, unmarked, unsigned, and unsignaled.

    If you ask TriMet, the boilerplate response is “We don’t maintain the crosswalks or sidewalks” (yet TriMet spends millions doing JUST THAT for MAX/WES stops, and spent millions on the ODOT owned, operated, and maintained I-205 bike path that TriMet has nothing to do with.)

    If you ask the local road authority (city, county, state) their boilerplate response is “Transit safety is the responsibility of TriMet.”

    Lots of finger pointing, and the bus rider gets the shaft.

    That’s great we have a new trip planner, but what happens when I get hit by a car on my way to the bus stop because I don’t have a safe path to the stop, or for that matter a safe bus stop to wait at?

    Is THIS a safe bus stop:

    View Larger Map

    It would have cost a lot less than $60,000 to improve this bus stop…it will cost a lot more than $60,000 when just one pedestrian gets hit and sues TriMet, ODOT and the City of Portland for intentionally placing a bus stop in an absolutely unsafe location.

  11. Chris Smith
    October 19, 2011 at 9:33 am Link

    Erik, serving on any number of City advisory committees, I can tell you that the City of Portland takes its responsibility to provide safe access to transit very seriously, and does not point fingers at TriMet on this issue.

    The City is spending $8M on sidewalks on Barbur Blvd. and a big junk of the City’s share of the Metro flexible funds process will go to sidewalks and transit access in East Portland.

    Unfortunately that’s still only a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

  12. Chris I
    October 19, 2011 at 9:55 am Link

    Erik,

    Do you support laws requiring all developers to build sidewalks and crosswalks when they construct new communities? This is typically how these pieces of infrastructure are built.

  13. Jeff F
    October 19, 2011 at 2:09 pm Link

    Do you support laws requiring all developers to build sidewalks and crosswalks when they construct new communities? This is typically how these pieces of infrastructure are built.

    The problem isn’t with new construction, Chris, but with the vast number of streets, including plenty in SE Portland proper, that have never been finished, or were for some unknown reason built without sidewalks. Poke around south of Woodstock, between Chavez and 52nd sometime. That’s not a new neighborhood and there are places where the street is unnavigable because it’s nothing but dirt and holes. Big holes.

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