Portland Mass Transit creates geospatial maps and apps for commuters

Punch a button to find out precisely how long you'll wait for a train or bus

Emerging technology is taking some of the angst out of using mass transit. Downloadable applications permit travelers to know exactly when a bus or commuter train will arrive at a given stop, or even track the vehicle’s movement in real time. Other tools allow users to plan trips on the fly.

Portland Oregon’s TriMet public transportation agency has developed a variety of applications and tools to help its customers get around town. These tools and the agency’s interactive Web page are built around an open-source technology that allows developers to quickly write and add new services.

TriMet’s use of open-source information technology began several years ago as the agency sought to meet customer requests for a more flexible and interactive travel planning and mapping capability. Bibiana McHugh, TriMet’s IT manager for geospatial information systems and location-based services, said that in late 2006 she began an analysis comparing various applications and tools. Of these, she chose OpenGeo, an open-source GIS mapping application. A pilot was launched in early 2007 and quickly followed by a beta in April 2008. McHugh said that it took less than a year to move from a small pilot to a product launch.


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Trimet’s GIS-based maps allow visitors to plan trips across the city. Links along the borders of the page provide information about routes, real-time trip information and street views. Selecting icons will provide real-time vehicle locations. The TriMet map site is designed to provide customers with as much information as possible in one location, which allows them to feel comfortable with the system and become familiar with it.

Although the mapping applications came together quickly, McHugh noted that it took longer than expected to develop an interface for TriMet’s proprietary trip planner. This process took about three months—longer than the time to develop the GIS mapping site. “But we were very pleased with the results,” she said.

After the site was launched, OpenGeo’s capabilities allowed TriMet to quickly add new applications. McHugh said that she wanted some cartography-related improvements added to the site. These modifications included a Measure Distance tool, which tells customers their distance from the nearest bus stop, and a cartographic feature that made street names follow the curve of a street, enhancing their legibility. This feature did not exist in OpenGeo, but TriMet was able to work with the company’s lead developers to quickly design the application. “Once we have the infrastructure down, its very easy for us to create new applications,” she said.

Since the map page went live, the agency has replaced all of its map objects and GIS infrastructure with OpenGeo’s GeoServer technology, she said.

Besides the publicly available mapping applications, TriMet also maintains a map tool to determine if proposed routes are within the city’s jurisdiction. Another internal resource is a real-time vehicle tracking application that allows operations and customer service to locate and contact specific vehicles in the field. Other applications include a transit mapper available on all desktops throughout the agency and an accident and incident reporting tool.

TriMet has made its Web services available to the public and outside developers. For example, the agency’s applications page features nearly 40 applications designed for iPhone and Android phones. McHugh notes that all of these applications were developed by third parties with TriMet’s open data. There are links on the page that developers can access to learn how to use the open Web services.

McHugh said that in many of the wireless applications, such as PDX Bus and PDX Transit, users do not even need to know their stop locations or intersections. “All you have to do is hit a button and it locates the stop nearest you, and gives you the next arrival time,” she said.

The Trip Planner function has an interface on it that allows users to plan trips in the field and have it displayed on Google Maps. TriMet is also working on a new project, the open-source multimodal trip planner. McHugh explains that the current trip planner is only single mode; it only plans transit trips. Other applications such as Google Maps will plan transit trips or bike trips, but not a combination of them.

The project is months ahead of schedule. McHugh explained that she did not expect to see a prototype of the multimodal trip planner until early 2011, but it was up and running in nine months. She noted that versions of the trip planner are currently running on transit agency Web sites in Poland, Spain, New York and Portland. TriMet’s multimodal trip planner project just celebrated its one year anniversary this month. “We’re putting our efforts into this new multimodal trip planner, because planning biking and transit trips are very important to our customers, and it is in that project that we will be developing a mobile application for the Geo Source technologies,” she said. The mobile application is scheduled for the next phase of the program, she said.

The idea behind the trip planning application was to make it simple to use, but to provide additional tools and capabilities for sophisticated users. McHugh believes that TriMet is one of the first transit agencies in the United States with a capability to allow users to display planned trips on a map screen. She said this is new because most of the trip planners in the United States are proprietary and not based on Web technology. “What we did was somewhat new. We built a Web technology to communicate with a proprietary system,” she said.

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