Tech to solve TTC trip planning puzzle

Planning a trip using public transit is a bit of a crapshoot inmost major cities, and Toronto is no exception.

Which route from point A to B is the quickest at a particulartime of day, or has the least number of transfers, or involves theleast amount of walking? Users have to take their chances becausethis type of nitty-gritty information isn’t typicallyavailable.

But that situation may change soon.

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

Dubbed the Transit Trip Planner, Google completed a pilotproject in December 2005 using data provided by TriMet, the publictransit agency for the city of Portland and nearby border towns inOregon.

The system is the brainchild of a Google employee’s personalproject, which the company encourages to nurture innovativeideas.

The Trip Planner allows transit users to plop in a starting anddestination point, and choose from a number of options: quickestroute, fewest transfers, bus vs. subway, and so on.

“The system can also compare transit costs versus using a carfor that amount of time,” says Megan Quinn, spokesperson forGoogle.

Google’s trip planner is currently only available on PCs, butthe company is eyeing cell phone delivery in the future.

“It makes sense to deliver it on mobiles, and it’s somethingwe’re working on,” says Quinn.

Google plans to expand the system this year with data for othermajor cities, and has been in discussions with several transitagencies, including the TTC.

“This will be a slow rollout,” warns Quinn. “It is a complexprocess, as we are [taking] what has historically been paper chartsand time schedules in many cities, and converting that intostructured data that we can run our algorithms on.”

But no such torturous conversion of data was necessary inPortland’s instance, says Bibiana McHugh, IT manager of geographicinformation systems (GIS) at TriMet.

“All our information is digital, as we have an extensive Oraclerelational database,” says McHugh. “It took perhaps an hour to getGoogle what it needed for the pilot in the file format we agreedon.”

TriMet developed its own Web-based trip planner in 2001, whichthe agency has been refining over the years with relatedinformation such as bus reroutes, rider alerts, and localamenities.

But when Google started offering Google Maps, itoccurred to McHugh that the company might be interested in addingtransit trip planning capability to the product, which offersdriving instructions.

“Why couldn’t people plan transit trips from anywhere in thecountry just as easily as they could get driving instructions? Itwas an obvious next step,” she says.

Serendipity was in the air, as when McHugh called Google to findout if there were any plans to develop that idea, not only did shefind out that a project was already underway, but that Googleneeded real GIS data to test and refine its system.

Many other developers at other companies were also working onsimilar public transit-related projects, and running into that sameroad block.

“They were all screen-scraping instead of using real data. So wemade our data available to them all via a Web service,” saysMcHugh.

Google’s trip planner, she says, fills an important need tocentralize public transit information across North America.

“There is no national trip planner that allows people to plantrips from one city to another. Ours covers off the Portland regiononly, Chicago’s covers its own, and so on. We see Google’s tripplanner as another tool for our customers, especially those whotravel from city to city.”

But should a city without a GIS infrastructure in place at itspublic transit system look to Google’s trip planner instead ofdeveloping its own? As in other IT spheres, control is an importantconsideration.

“We have a responsibility to provide that information to ourcustomers,” says McHugh. “TriMet would be uncomfortable relying onGoogle to take on that responsibility. We have no control over theservice.”

Developing a system similar to Google’s trip planner is just oneof many technology upgrade issues that the Toronto TransitCommission (TTC) is struggling with, says John Cannon, CIO at theTTC.

“We don’t have GIS now. But we have a number of initiatives thatrequire a common GIS/GPS technology base,” he says. For example,the TTC is also considering electronic signpost technology thatprovides real-time information on the timing and arrival of thenext bus.”

“We want to do a geospatial review first to figure out what kindof core infrastructure we need,” says Cannon.

The TTC is in the process of replacing and upgrading a number oflegacy systems, including the scheduling system that would feedinformation into an online trip planner.

“We’re updating that system with GIS technology, but we’ve had afew hiccups because we’re trying to marry new technology with old,”he says.

He says the geospatial review to determine the core GIS/GPSrequirements will be completed before the end of 2006, andupgrading the scheduling and communications system with the newtechnology 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 TTCis mindful of taxpayers’ dollars.

“As soon as GPS came on the market, the number and types ofapplications possible grew exponentially. Your mind startsexpanding 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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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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