Tech to solve TTC trip planning puzzle


Planning a trip using public transit is a bit of a crapshoot in most major cities, and Toronto is no exception. Which route from point A to B is the quickest at a particular time of day, or has the least number of transfers, or involves the least amount of walking? Users have to take their chances because this type of nitty-gritty information isn’t typically available. The Transit Trip Planner is the brainchild of a Google employee’s personal project.Text

But that situation may change soon.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is considering development of an online trip planner, and is eyeing a free new service offered by Google, the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine giant.

Dubbed the Transit Trip Planner, Google completed a pilot project in December 2005 using data provided by TriMet, the public transit agency for the city of Portland and nearby border towns in Oregon. The system is the brainchild of a Google employee’s personal project, which the company encourages to nurture innovative ideas.

The Trip Planner allows transit users to plop in a starting and destination point, and choose from a number of options: quickest route, fewest transfers, bus vs. subway, and so on. “The system can also compare transit costs versus using a car for that amount of time,” says Megan Quinn, spokesperson for Google.

Google’s trip planner is currently only available on PCs, but the company is eyeing cell phone delivery in the future. “It makes sense to deliver it on mobiles, and it’s something we’re working on,” says Quinn.

Google plans to expand the system this year with data for other major cities, and has been in discussions with several transit agencies, including the TTC. “This will be a slow rollout,” warns Quinn. “It is a complex process, as we are [taking] what has historically been paper charts and time schedules in many cities, and converting that into structured data that we can run our algorithms on.”

But no such torturous conversion of data was necessary in Portland’s instance, says Bibiana McHugh, IT manager of geographic information systems (GIS) at TriMet. “All our information is digital, as we have an extensive Oracle relational database,” says McHugh. “It took perhaps an hour to get Google what it needed for the pilot in the file format we agreed on.”

TriMet developed its own Web-based trip planner in 2001, which the agency has been refining over the years with related information such as bus reroutes, rider alerts, and local amenities. But when Google started offering Google Maps, it occurred to McHugh that the company might be interested in adding transit trip planning capability to the product, which offers driving instructions. “Why couldn’t people plan transit trips from anywhere in the country just as easily as they could get driving instructions? It was an obvious next step,” she says.

Serendipity was in the air, as when McHugh called Google to find out if there were any plans to develop that idea, not only did she find out that a project was already underway, but that Google needed real GIS data to test and refine its system. Many other developers at other companies were also working on similar public transit-related projects, and running into that same road block. “They were all screen-scraping instead of using real data. So we made our data available to them all via a Web service,” says McHugh.

Google’s trip planner, she says, fills an important need to centralize public transit information across North America. “There is no national trip planner that allows people to plan trips from one city to another. Ours covers off the Portland region only, Chicago’s covers its own, and so on. We see Google’s trip planner as another tool for our customers, especially those who travel from city to city.”

But should a city without a GIS infrastructure in place at its public transit system look to Google’s trip planner instead of developing its own? As in other IT spheres, control is an important consideration. “We have a responsibility to provide that information to our customers,” says McHugh. “TriMet would be uncomfortable relying on Google to take on that responsibility. We have no control over the service.”

Developing a system similar to Google’s trip planner is just one of many technology upgrade issues that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is struggling with, says John Cannon, CIO at the TTC. “We don’t have GIS now. But we have a number of initiatives that require a common GIS/GPS technology base,” he says. For example, the TTC is also considering electronic signpost technology that provides real-time information on the timing and arrival of the next bus.

“We want to do a geospatial review first to figure out what kind of core infrastructure we need,” says Cannon. The TTC is in the process of replacing and upgrading a number of legacy systems, including the scheduling system that would feed information into an online trip planner. “We’re updating that system with GIS technology, but we’ve had a few hiccups because we’re trying to marry new technology with old,” he says.

He says the geospatial review to determine the core GIS/GPS requirements will be completed before the end of 2006, and upgrading the scheduling and communications system with the new technology is slated for completion in 2008.

“Our Commission is anxious to move on this,” said Cannon. The possibilities of GPS technology are tantalizing, but the TTC is mindful of taxpayers’ dollars. “As soon as GPS came on the market, the number and types of applications possible grew exponentially. Your mind starts expanding with these things, but the TTC’s infrastructure is old. We don’t want to go too far until we’ve understood what it entails. If you make a mistake, it can be very expensive.”

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