According to a new colleague of mine, research recently done at the California Center for Innovative Transportation (a research institute at UC Berkeley) revealed that while Google Transit’s uniform data is great for users, it presents a challenge for most small transit agencies.  Time, manpower, and technical prowess are often in short supply in such organizations.  And, despite Google’s trademark ability to make things simple, transforming one’s transit data in to GTFS (or General Transit Feed Specification) and managing the system over time is no small feat. [youtube]

In searching to find out more information about the topic, I came upon this report written by consultants NelsonNygaard and Trillium Solutions in conjunction with the California State Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the Shasta RTPA (a northern California regional transportation planning agency).  The study finds that the 8 rural agencies that make up this region desire to leverage Google Transit as a customer information tool, but that they face budget constraints in paying for technology and consultants, staff constraints for maintaining the system over time, and political constraints – it must provide an obvious value to customers and the agency.  None of these 8 agencies currently have automated vehicle locator (AVL) technology and only half have their transit data in a GIS.

While the report lays out 9 important implementation and next steps, I found it to lack critical convincing arguments to get agencies interested in this solution in the first place.  It does a good job of estimating costs for particular next steps and outlining important parties the agency would have to partner with to fully implement Google Transit, which are both helpful pieces of information, however they’re only relevant to agencies who already have the internal impetus to get something off the ground.

Interestingly, I think skimming this study made me realize the true value of research in-and-of itself more than the value of Google Transit for rural agencies.  This study involved 8 agencies, 5 of which piloted the Google Transit trip planner.  The simple act of contacting and involving these small agencies enabled them to get a solution up and running.  It serves as an example, and it also alerts other important stakeholders (most importantly, Google) to the various challenges faced by small transit agencies.

While reaching out through research is not a scalable solution, it is one important piece of the puzzle in spreading technological innovation.  As a bright-eyed and somewhat naïve student planner, I sometimes forget this.  I’m anxious to identify problems, find solutions, and implement them quickly.  I hope the study inspires enough additional writing (like this one, this one, or this one) to spread the idea that small agencies can also reap rewards of new technologies; even if it happens slowly, I’ll be glad to see it happen.

- Terra Curtis