Transit apps are plentiful in Portland, thanks to TriMet’s open data

John McBride's myTriMet.com was one of the first browser-based transit apps developed using TriMet's open data.
In 2008, John McBride developed myTriMet.com, one of the first browser-based transit apps to use TriMet’s open data.

We’re lucky to live in Portland.

Someone at TriMet had the foresight eight years ago to realize that most of us would become umbilically connected to our smartphones… And that there was a whole community of open source developers here in the Portland area willing and able to “show off their stuff” by developing useful applications using data supplied by TriMet… And that these developers would do the work for free! Amazing.

How could they have known?

I have no idea, but the results were astounding. Rather than paying in-house developers, or hiring expensive consultants to develop apps, TriMet simply made its schedule and arrival data available to anyone willing to sign up. The developers did the rest, pretty much on their own, with occasional support for the folks at TriMet.

I shudder to think how much it would have cost TriMet to develop nearly 60 unique transit applications. In fact, I don’t think TriMet could have purchased the kind of creativity exhibited in these apps at any price. There’s a difference between work done for money and work done for love. And trust me, these developers work because they love what they do.

When I developed myTriMet.com, my objective was to create something simple and reliable just for me. Lots of other folks use it, but it was created for my particular commuting situation.

Each new app builds on existing ideas. That’s the beauty of open source development: Developers share ideas. The focus is on the end product.

Fast-forward 5 years. I still use my app at least twice a day, both on my desktop and my iPhone. But in all candor, my app was quickly eclipsed by other developers going beyond simple arrival information. Each new app builds on existing ideas. That’s the beauty of open source development: Developers share ideas. The focus is on the end product.

I attended the INIT TriMet Open Data Series last Wednesday and learned about all kinds of cool things that might happen as a result of TriMet’s recent upgrade to INIT equipment (for tracking its fleet of buses). For example, we may soon see apps that:

  • tell riders how full the arriving bus is and perhaps advise them to wait for the next bus
  • tell riders a bus is going to skip a stop because it’s full
  • give riders historical arrival information for a given stop so they can choose which stops to use

I’m sure we’re going to see lots of new map functionality, too, including animated buses moving on a map. And of course, there will be lots of things I can’t even imagine right now.

During the meeting, a representative from INIT added that if a bus has a sensor, they can make the data available. That’s when the brainstorming started… A sensor for bike rack availability? A sensor that tells riders the temperature inside the bus? Crowdsourcing data? Imagine being able to tweet your fellow passengers! Oh boy. Let me have at it.

The sky’s the limit!

Like I said, we’re lucky to live in Portland.

About the author: John McBride is a Portland area resident and daily TriMet commuter who has been living here almost 18 years.  Being a New York City transplant, he knows a thing or two about mass transit.  John describes himself as a compulsive hacker whose daytime job is crunching numbers for the planning department of a local credit union. He’ll tell you he loves all things “tech”—especially things with bright colors and blinking lights. John developed myTriMet.com, one of the first browser-based transit apps in Portland and winner of the CivicApps for Greater Portland for “Most Useful App.”