ODS: GTFS Gets A Close Friend

  • Author: Kevin Chambers
  • Date: August 18, 2022
Buses travel aloing a tree lined, two lane street in the early morning. People wait at stops to catch their bus.
Minnesota's Metro Transit buses drive through a transit way.

The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), though a mere 16 years old, has matured rapidly. So much so that it has become the central reference point from which all other data standards in the shared mobility space are compared (if you’d like to learn more about GTFS and its role in open data in transit, you can read NCMM’s series dedicated to open data, starting here). Because of its success, some may think that the GTFS is on the road to filling every need for data standardization in transit.

The truth is that the GTFS will never be all things to all needs transit. That’s because the standard has a clear driving purpose of standardizing public-facing transit data. Its focus on getting useful information into the hands of travelers (with spin-off benefits for planners and researchers) has been key to its success. Nothing blunts the effectiveness of an effort as complex as the GTFS like doing too much. GTFS’s narrow scope makes the arrival of the Operational Data Specification, or ODS, good news for transit agencies, the GTFS, and the broader landscape for data management in the transit industry.

In brief, the ODS aims to describe data intended for internal use within the operating agency. The goal is to make internal operations run more smoothly, particularly when moving data from resource planning tools (scheduling drivers and vehicles to routes) to systems used for daily operations (computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location, commonly called CAD/AVL systems). 

To accomplish this, ODS starts by relying on GTFS data, which already describes offers a large share of what’s needed with its detailed route, stop, and stop time data. ODS steps in to take care of what’s missing: personnel schedules (called “runs”), vehicle non-service travel time to and from the route (known as “deadhead”), and other behind-the-scenes data points, such as bus garage locations.

When planning tools produce both the GTFS and ODS data sets according to the specifications, CAD/AVL tools designed to accept those same formats will be able to import the data with minimal error or need for staff to tweak it manually.

The force behind ODS is Cal-ITP, the California Integrated Travel Project. Cal-ITP is a program of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) that has been working since 2019 to make “riding by rail and bus simpler and more cost-effective—for providers and riders.” 

According to Scott Frazier, Product Manager on the Operations Data team at Cal-ITP, the need for ODS became apparent when Cal-ITP staff interviewed agencies throughout the state, asking them where their pain points were in their technology stacks. “What the agencies were telling us was that one of the main frustrations they experienced was trying to get schedules out of their scheduling software and into their CAD/AVL system. It was rarely as easy as just moving a file.”

To develop something where it could be just as easy as moving a file, Cal-ITP staff was able to bring representatives from almost every scheduling and CAD/AVL company working in North America. While the current reliance on proprietary formats is understandable, “I think that the fact that we were able to bring so many different people to the table is an acknowledgment by the private sector that this is the direction that the industry is moving in,” said Frazier.

Now that the standard is out in the world, what’s next? Vendor development of the features that will produce and consume data in the ODS format. According to Frazier, “what we’ve heard from both producers and consumers is that the way that they will get this prioritized in their product roadmaps is to have it written into an RFP.” Since the timing of releases of RFP for new systems can be challenging to plan around, Cal-ITP is also seeking to grant funding to bring together test case “triads” consisting of a transit agency and the scheduling and CAD/AVL vendors that the agency uses. These test cases could be the fastest way to get the standard working in the real world.

For agencies who are frustrated with a lack of seamless integration between their scheduling and CAD/AVL systems and want to help speed the roll-out of ODS support along, Frazier thinks that agencies “should definitely be asking [their vendors], ‘When is this rolling out? When is this coming? Is it on your roadmap?’ Having the agencies build that pressure will only help us get the vendors on the path to doing this development work.” Agencies can also reach out to Cal-ITP and get assistance crafting procurement language.


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