The Promise of Real-Time, Open Transit Data in Austin

The look of someone wondering where their bus is

The look of someone wondering where their bus is

How many times have you waited at the bus stop wondering when your bus is going to show up? For me, there is nothing more frustrating than having to guess whether my bus has already passed my stop or is only a few minutes away from arriving. Luckily for Austin transit riders, CapMetro is about to take that guessing game out of our commute.

On February 25th—after years of anticipation—CapMetro will release real-time arrival info to their entire bus fleet. If implemented successfully, this initiative could be THE Austin transit story of 2015. Real-time, open transit data has the potential to increase ridership, provide better tools for analyzing system performance, and create opportunities for public and private innovation.

What Is Real-Time, Open Transit Data?
Before discussing how this will benefit Austin’s transit system, let’s talk about what exactly real-time, open transit data is. Open transit data is transit operations information that is free and accessible for the public to use. Previously, local transit apps like Dadnab and Instabus (formerly known as MetroRappid) that wanted to use CapMetro’s information essentially had to hack CapMetro’s semi-public API to provide information to their users. Going forward, though, CapMetro will not only begin presenting real-time bus information on their own website and apps, but will also be delivering the data to the public in a standardized API format.

To learn more about real-time, open transit data, watch this great explainer by Streetflims:

Real-Time Data Could Increase Transit Ridership
We all know that current transit riders would love to know when their bus is going to arrive, but what about people that don’t use transit on a regular basis? In my experience talking to people over the past four years about why they don’t use transit in Austin, many respond that they do not like the uncertainty of waiting on the bus to show up. Apart from the service characteristics themselves, that uncertainty is one of CapMetro’s biggest barriers in attracting new riders. Showing people when the next bus is going to arrive—even if it is late—removes that uncertainty and encourages ridership.

Research conducted by Thakuriah & Tang shows that the psychological benefits of real-time data has a significant effect on increasing ridership. The report also finds that real-time data launches provide transit agencies with good opportunities to encourage behavior change of current transit non-users through additional programs, including outreach and advertisements of software applications. CapMetro, in collaboration with groups like Movability and the Austin Chamber of Commerce, should take advantage of this unique opportunity to increase Austin’s transit mode share, which currently stands at around 4%, with educational transit ridership campaigns.

Did the bus wave back? You bet it did!

Did the bus wave back? You bet it did!

Better Transit Tools for Agency & Advocates
One reason why Austin’s transit system lags behind other cities is because we—agency and advocates—don’t have quality data on our system’s performance . With this lack of quality data to base our decisions on, it is no wonder why we sometimes make bad decisions of where to allocate scarce transit resources. Even when I served on CapMetro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee, we did not have information on bus route performance or the number and type of complaints the agency received!

Real-time, open transit data will change this by giving people more information than ever before on how Austin’s transit system is performing. Having more information will not only help CapMetro make better and faster decisions, but will also make transit advocates more informed on where their efforts may have the highest impact.

What Do Better Transit Tools Look Like?
Apart from an application that simply tells you when the next bus is arriving, what else could we use this data for? Many tools have already been built using real-time transit data in places like Boston, San Francisco, New York City, and London. Below are a few examples:


Imagine that we wanted to know how Austin’s transit priority lanes were affecting bus speeds. We could plan a project where we manually count how long it takes buses to travel through the transit priority lanes, as a group of AURA members recently did, but that requires at least a handful of dedicated transit advocates to take time out of their day to do the counting. Even then, the sample size will remain relatively small. On the other hand, we could use CapMetro’s real-time GPS data to develop a program that calculates bus locations and speeds. A beautiful tool was created by Bostonography that does this for MBTA. See a live version here.


Or say that we wanted to see systemwide bus operations trends. We could take the location data of each bus and display it on a map. With this we could, among other things, make better system planning decisions. Matthew Somerville built a tool to do this for the London Underground, which you can find here.


My favorite use of real-time transit data comes from Mike Barry and Brian Card of Boston, who were able to gain a number of fascinating insights by looking at MBTA data during the entire month of February 2014. By analyzing the data, they were able to see “how the [MBTA] system operates on a daily basis, how people use the system, how that affects the trains and also how this ties back to your daily commute.” You can see their beautifully designed Visualizing MBTA Data report for that month here and find a live version of their Current MBTA Delays app here.

CapMetro’s launch of real-time transit data will give transit advocates and local developers the ability to create a myriad of useful tools. Did you catch that? This is a way for CapMetro to put useful tools in the hands of current and potential riders without having to do anything but present their real-time data in an open, easily accessible format.

Are you interested in helping create useful tools like the ones described above using CapMetro’s data? Join me at OpenAustin’s Civic Hack Summit on Saturday, February 28th, where we will be developing ideas for civic technology projects.