Introduction: Open APIs and the Future of Mobility

At Transit, we love public APIs and open data standards. They're the secret sauce for urban mobility, helping people get around cities without owning a two-ton metal box.

But how do they work? Who makes them happen? Glad you asked. We've got a quick explainer (and a full report) so you can get up to speed in no time.

On this page: 

Why open standards matter

Imagine if you had to buy a different phone every time you tried call someone, depending on the telephone company they used. Or if, on a road trip, you could only pump at 1 out of every 5 gas stations because the nozzles at the other rest stops didn't fit your car. Or if sending an email required logging into five different accounts to message five different people, depending on whether they had signed up for Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo.

It'd be ridiculous. A headache. A waste of time. But thanks to standards, these services are seamless, integrated, easy-to-use β€” and ubiquitous.
Industry, government, and consumers all benefit from standards and interoperability:
  • Companies develop new innovations that build on existing systems
  • Consumers easily find the best options
  • Governments deliver public benefits and achieve policy goals
Open standards are developed and adopted by businesses, non-profits, and governments working together. And they work not just for phones, gas stations, and email. They can also work for mobility.

Our enlightened self-interest

It’s true: our app exists because of open data standards. We use them to bring multimodal options into a simple, integrated experience for riders. While Transit benefits from open data standards, so do other companies β€” and the general public.
Mobility operators use these standards to provide accurate, high-quality data to everyone... even our competitors. And the public gains an important new tool when open standards become part of their city's mobility program.

The state of mobility data standards

In the mobility world, there's been lots of progress on open data standards, but there's still a long way to go.

Fact is, it's a mixed bag: despite some big successes, data standards are not fully developed or adopted across the entire industry. What's worse: many of the APIs that could power multimodal connections are under lock and key. The result? Mobility options aren't yet fully interoperable and "mobility as a service" remains an unfulfilled promise.

Jargon decoder: what's an API?

Simply put, an application programming interface (API) is the software that allows applications to talk with each other. In the mobility world, APIs bring real-time bus information to riders, help them request a ridehail pickup, and unlock a scooter.
APIs can be:
  • πŸ‘ Standardized: following a standard, so everyone is using a common language
  • πŸ”’ Proprietary: developed from scratch, specific to a particular operator
They can also be:
  • πŸ‘ Open: available to any app that wants to connect its users to another service
  • πŸ”’ Private: available only through a private agreement between partners

A world of private, proprietary APIs leads to walled gardens. But open, standardized APIs? That's the path to multimodal nirvana.

When it comes to mobility APIs, there are two broad categories:
  1. Schedules and real-time information, so riders can plan trips and see the current status of their ride
  2. Payment and trip completion, letting riders create an account to book a trip, request a ride, unlock a vehicle, and pay for their journey

Bus, bike, taxi: who's leading the pack?

Together, real-time and payment APIs make it easy for riders to take trips using multiple modes and operators. Learn more about the current state of mobility data standards, and the next steps industry and government can take to make each a fully-integrated part of "mobility as a service."

  • Fixed-route transit (buses, trains, ferries)
    • Well-developed standards for schedules and real-time information (GTFS)
    • Payments rely on proprietary APIs that could be brought together by developing open standards
  • Micromobility and free-floating services (bikeshare, scooters, mopeds, carshare)
    • Open standard for real-time information is increasingly popular, particularly for bikeshare and scooters (GBFS)
    • Work is underway to include mopeds and carshare
    • Payment and unlocking, however, rely on proprietary APIs that can be standardized
  • On-demand rides (microtransit, ridehail, taxis)
    • Currently rely primarily on private, proprietary APIs
    • Industry working group is developing open data standard (GOFS) so riders can integrate on-demand services with other mobility options

How to support the movement

There's a lot of work remaining to promote open standards, so riders can connect all their options. Fortunately, everyone has a role.
  • Mobility operators: Contribute to the development of open standards, and use them to provide public APIs with high-quality data for riders
  • Multimodal platforms: Integrate APIs that use open standards to clear the way for riders looking to get from A to B
  • Non-profits: Promote the creation and adoption of open standards, and encourage governments to make open APIs and data standards part of their mobility programs
  • Governments: Enable "mobility as a service" by requiring public APIs using open data standards as part of your city's mobility programs and first/last-mile options

Read the full report

Prefer a PDF? Download the full report, which includes additional guidance about open mobility data standards.

Still need help? Contact Us Contact Us