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Around 500 or so transit systems are scrambling to get in compliance with the new standard, which the Federal Transit Administration and planners will use to improve service.
In the initial days of the coronavirus outbreak, officials from transit systems across the country dialed into a conference call with the Federal Transit Administration looking for advice in the event they might have to shut down service. But the agency had little to offer beyond where officials could find sanitation guidance.
K. Jane Williams, acting administrator of the FTA at the time, told the more than 1,000 participants on the call that the agency was carefully “monitoring the situation, we have not issued any directives or guidance on system shutdowns.”
In the days, weeks and months that followed, the agency “realized it didn’t have sufficiently current and accurate data on transit ridership or transit service levels to inform federal, state, and local decision-makers during a swiftly shifting crisis situation.”
To remedy that, the FTA is requiring transit agencies across the U.S. to adhere to a new federal data reporting standard that will help the agency stay on top of current trends and evolve in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But some transit agencies are in a race against time to be compliant.
Transit systems that offer fixed transportation routes have until later this year or early next, depending on an authority’s fiscal year, to start submitting General Transit Feed Specification, or GTFS, data to the National Transit Database, a submission that had previously been voluntary. The new mandate comes under the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Originally pioneered by a Google employee in 2005, GTFS offers information about transit stops and stations, as well as routes and standardized timetables. In many areas, it offers real-time arrival information. The open source data standard was originally designed as a way to integrate public transportation information into Google Maps and similar mapping services, but has since become popular and widely used internationally.
In a 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office found that of the 31 large and medium urban transit agencies officials surveyed, 28 used GTFS, while 12 of those used GTFS’ real-time offering. Data from GitHub shows that 803 of the nation’s more than 1,300 transit agencies that offer fixed route service use GTFS.
Planners use the information to better understand where transit exists, who can access it and how well connected it is. The standardized data is also interoperable, which is helpful when agencies implement new software systems for planning and scheduling service, providing real-time information and other technologies.
According to a fact sheet distributed by the American Public Transportation Association, most agencies will report data to the FTA once a year. Under the new reporting standard, some agencies will be asked to provide a week’s worth of sampling data once a month. The agency will use this data to more quickly forecast national ridership trends.
In the meantime, around 500 or so transit agencies are scrambling to get in compliance with the new data standard before the federal deadline. And transportation planning software company Optibus and its subsidiary Trillium have a few ideas on how agencies can prepare.
In a recent white paper, the company advised authorities to first ensure they are ready to report GTFS data to the FTA, and know whether a specific department would be responsible for it—as is the case for large systems—or if the data would be prepared by a regional planning agency or state department of transportation, which typically happens for small and mid-sized agencies.
Next, agencies can export GTFS data from various scheduling or real-time information systems, which then will need to be edited to ensure it complies with FTA requirements before it is published and reported.
Trillium Founder and CEO Aaron Antrim said for agencies to be compliant, it will be critical to make sure staff and any contractors they employ have internal process checklists in place to help with the transition to providing GTFS data to the FTA. Agencies also will need to ensure that they incorporate service information from other channels, like paper, social media and their website, as GTFS ingests all that data as well.
While compliance may be daunting, Antrim said, its positives outweigh any drawbacks.
“This is very possible for transit systems to do,” he said, “and is of demonstrated value.”