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In August 2020, the California Department of Transportation is updating the Draft California Minimum General Transit Feed Specifications (GTFS) Guidelines developed as part of the California Integrated Travel Program (Cal-ITP) to help ensure that data for transit operators in California meets the needs of the travelers as well as planners and system managers to manage and operate the transportation network.

The common GTFS format allows uniform data exchange between agencies, so that they can share schedules and geographical information. GTFS Realtime details the real-time layer of transit operations, which changes most frequently. It provides trip updates including delays, cancellations, and changed routes; service alerts when stops move or unforeseen events affect a station, route, or the entire network; and vehicle position updates on location and congestion level.

Cal-ITP was created by the California State Transportation Agency and its partners to facilitate easy and accessible travel planning and payments across the state and recommends that transit agencies implement GTFS in the real-time mode to provide more frequent updates to train and bus schedules.

The problem

Many GTFS static data feeds do not integrate fare pricing, which is optional, and not all agencies update their GTFS in real time. For example, in California, some transit agencies provide real-time information, and others do not even provide fixed data. According to the Cal-ITP Feasibility Study in April 2020 (Table 1 on page 10), 102 transit agencies provide static GTFS data, 24 provide real-time and static data, and 89 provide no GTFS. Some agencies that provide static GTFS data only update their information every six months to every hour, which passengers can receive on their mobile phone, laptop, computer, or other devices. The study says, “Infrequent riders and visitors of California will not choose transit as their preferred travel option as long as additional effort is necessary to obtain basic information such as trip price and payment options.”

Another issue is poor data quality from the transit agencies’ feeds. The data that riders receive is often inaccurate and incomplete, which makes it difficult for riders to plan their trips and have the peace of mind of knowing exactly when their bus or train will arrive.

Additionally, due to the coronavirus pandemic, transit ridership in the U.S. has declined more than 90% in some areas of the country. Agencies are facing huge shortfalls from disappearing fare revenue. According to Skip Descant in his article “As Transit Reopens, Long-Term Impacts of COVID-19 Unknown,” “Given the challenges to a full restart of transit, agencies seem to be taking seriously the need to regain trust and rebuild ridership.”

The solution

More transit agencies need to provide complete and accurate GTFS Realtime data with fare pricing to rebuild ridership. They can leverage their existing hardware and format automatic vehicle locator data into the GTFS structure, so that the initial set-up costs associated with implementing the technology are minimal and include the cost of software development to push the data to a trip planner website or app that allows for multi-agency transit fare purchase. Agencies can include various fare types in their feeds, such as pricing for adults, youth, and seniors; single trip, monthly pass, and yearly pass pricing; and congestion management pricing that changes during peak travel times or stays consistent during peak times due to ridership that does not reach the transit vehicles’ capacity.

Having trip route, travel times and cost information in one place reduces planning time and makes travel easier for riders. It also simplifies mode integration and transfers and could allow one payment for use of several modes. As travel becomes more convenient on transit, agencies will see an increasing number of riders. No additional major equipment beyond automatic vehicle locators is needed to implement this technology, just the software developer to assist the agencies in developing the real-time feeds that will be produced and consumed programmatically.

Additional resources for transit agencies

A professional consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay Area is working closely with local transit agencies on a proof-of-concept pilot app that showcases the benefits of integrating fare information with GTFS data. As part of the app, the developers have researched the use of open source GTFS standards in California and are creating a protocol to integrate fare cost data into transit agencies’ GTFS Realtime data. The goal of the prototype app is to encourage more agencies to provide GTFS with fare costs. This project facilitates the Cal-ITP dedication to making travel simpler and cost-effective for all. It also supports Mobility as a Service, which will reduce congestion and pollution.

Walter Allen is president and CEO of Acumen Building Enterprise Inc. Tamara Halbritter is a technical writer who specializes in transportation and green technology.

**For more information on how your agency can integrate fares into GTFS, see the GTFS Realtime Overview for developers on Google. If your agency is located in California, see the California Minimum GTFS Guidelines and contact Acumen if you are interested in testing/developing the prototype app.