A Nonprofit Technology Helps Revolutionize Transit in NYC

Encore: July 26, 2012

Journalist Rick Karr reports on BusTime, the MTA’s new technology that provides New Yorkers with real-time bus arrival information, for “MetroFocus: Transforming Transportation,” premiering on July 24 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21; July 25 10:30 p.m. on NJTV; and July 26 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

The MTA’s new BusTime technology finally brings real-time bus arrival data to New Yorkers, and at a fraction of the cost that big technology firms would have charged for it.

The transit agency had a lot of help from a remarkable nonprofit that’s based in Lower Manhattan. OpenPlans is unique; its aim is to help develop technologies that make cities easier to use. It plays a major role in helping the MTA make BusTime data available to software developers and the public. 

OpenPlans has also helped the NYC Department of Transportation build a better system for feedback on neighborhood planning proposals and has developed a platform that allows New Yorkers to suggest reforms for parking regulations, as well as a website where New York residents can suggest locations for bike-share base stations.

New York isn’t the only city to benefit from OpenPlans’ work. The nonprofit has helped Portland’s transit agency improve its route planner, and has helped build a hyperlocal news system that’s in use in Boston and Columbia, South Carolina. The BusTime system it developed for the MTA is what’s known as “open-source,” which means other cities can use it for free.

“Open” is the key word in what OpenPlans does. The idea, according to hedge-fund mogul and OpenPlans founder Mark Gorton, is to save cities money by allowing them to share software. Instead of a municipal government paying millions for a piece of software to a big tech firm like IBM, which would then turn around and sell the same software to another city for millions more, Gorton thinks cities could save millions by openly sharing software – and by openly sharing improvements to that software. 

The idea isn’t limited to software. OpenPlans also argues that transit agencies should make all of their real-time information openly available to software developers and the public. That way, any software developer with a good idea can develop his or her own app or website that uses the data.

It hasn’t been an easy fight. Even when transit agencies know where all their trains and buses are, they’ve traditionally been pretty closed-lipped about that data. Some officials worry that disclosing the data could compromise security. Others think the agencies could earn a lot of money by charging for the data.

In other cities, contracts with big tech firms locked up the information. The company that built bus trackers for San Francisco’s MTA argued that bus arrival information belonged to it, not to the transit agency. But OpenPlans has taken the lead in changing that culture at the nation’s transit agencies, including the MTA.

Two developments helped. First, the explosion in smartphone ownership has made it much easier for transit riders to find the information they need while they’re on the go. But perhaps more importantly, a few pioneering transit agencies decided to make their real-time data available to the public to see what happened. The result? Not a single reported security breach. Meanwhile, making real-time information actually seems to increase ridership – and rider satisfaction.

UPDATE July 30, 2012: OpenPlans reports that the technology firm Cambridge Systematics helped expand the BusTime system from its test in Brooklyn to Staten Island and the citywide system that’s rolling out now.

Rick Karr is a journalist and educator who reports about the intersection of technology and culture. More of his reporting on OpenPlans can be found his local technology show, NYC 2.0.


MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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