What is GTFS, and Why Does It Matter?

Posted 9 months ago · 3 minutes to read

February 11, 2020

Transit management is more than just managing road signs. These days, it can involve a great deal of data. If you’re involved in city administration, transport control, or civil engineering, you might be aware of GTFS feeds. On the other hand, even if you work in this sector, you may not have heard of them or understand them, as GTFS feeds and their integration into public transport is a relatively recent phenomenon. Read on to find out more about what GTFS feeds are and why they’re rapidly transforming this industry for the better.

Where Did GTFS Come From?

As far back as 2005, public transit agencies have been developing GTFS. The basic idea behind the system—which at that time stood for Google Transit Feed Specification—is to give commuters tools they can use to plan trips as easily for public transport as they can by car. We all know how simple it is to use Google Maps for pathfinding; just enter your destination and it automatically generates a route there from your current location.

Back in the mid-2000s, there was nothing of this sort available for public transit, and this pushed more people to travel by car. In order to combat this trend, public transit agencies began to develop GTFS, which was intended to feed transport data into Google Maps, to help create Google Transit. Google Transit initially aimed to replicate the model of Google Maps for car pathfinding. Google’s developers created a benchmark for the GTFS, in order to make a level playing field for all transit agencies, big and small. Even now, 15 years later, GTFS feeds still run as ZIP files of basic CSV files.

How Does GTFS Work?

A GTFS feed requires several CSV files which help compile the data that is being fed to Google. These files include calendar.txt for service schedules, routes.txt for transit routes that commuters can access, and stops.txt, which lists every stop for pick up and drop off. There are a few more baseline CSV files that need to be included.

Overall, it’s very simple. By putting transit data together in this framework, Google can serve it to travellers, and they follow the path of least resistance into using your transit system.

Why Is It So Important?

The short answer is because it’s not only Google that uses GTFS anymore. Even though the format has become a core part of the transit management field over the last decade, many other apps can use GTFS now—ridesharing, time management, trip planning, etc. This is why the ‘G’ no longer stands for Google. Now, we live in the age of General Transit Feed Specification.

GTFS feeds are still not in place across all public transport systems, but they do come with some significant benefits. By adopting GTFS, and making their route data public, transport systems are able to interface with many more people than before, and meet them through the apps they already use to navigate urban environments. The easier it is for people to use public transport, the more they do!

What's Next For GTFS?

Any team managing a transport management system stands to gain from using GTFS to serve data directly to commuters, but transitioning into a model that does so can be difficult, as GTFS feeds can be time-consuming to compile. We can help. Talk to the team here at Radiola now to find out more.