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.

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