Is GTFS the only solution ?

The Transit Feed Standard (TFS) is a de facto standard, adopted by some transport organizations. Despite the deep penetration or the internet, the so called smart cities are not so smart. This is not due to the lack of will of the municipalities, far from that. No, the problem is just a matter of time. Somewhere between 2040 and 2050, a significant part of world cities with more than   1 million inhabitants will have implemented an intelligent transport system. Alas, this is far in the future and doesn’t tell us what to do today.

stop_gtfsThere are several  TFS  systems. The one that tries to bring together all of them is GTFS, from a well known IT company. Yes, it is a good initiative. More and more companies are adopting GTFS. However, there are some limitations. The letter T stands for Transit and transit is about local transportation.  In case of a large city, the area covered by the city’s bus system is substantial. In case of a small city, that is not the case. The regional company and the metropolitan transporter are not the same. At this level, the GTFS shows its limits, when it comes to harmonizing  the system.


One of the weaknesses of the GTFS is the way data is stored. The designers of it have thought of an open format that is easy to read by humans.While this is good when designing an Minimal Value Product (MVP), it enforces a peculiar design of the IT system that backs it up.

There are some limitations built into such a system:

  • the original purpose of GTFS, which was to describe an oriented graph;
  • exponential growth of the data set in case of big transportation networks, in other words need of computer memory;
  • difficulties in combining two or more graphs into a bigger one.
  • complicate time management, essential across time zones (frontiers between countries, states, districts)

The main advantage of GTFS is its simplicity of use. Due to its popularity and widespread use, this file format has been adopted by many municipalities. Here many means several thousand cities. The world population is much bigger and the number of cities that need smart transportation systems is also higher.


Here we see just a  fraction of world’s biggest cities. There should exist a EXtended Information Standard for Transportation Systems (EXISTS) that takes into account what lacks in GTFS. It is not about pointing a finger, but about seeing the big picture, a unified vision of public and private transport operators, no matter where they are,  no matter which type they are:

  • land;
  • air;
  • water.

GTFS is a data format that allows to specify vehicle routes, time tables, shapes on maps, connections, etc. There have been identified hybrid pieces of information which are not a transportation system, yet they are part of it or contribute to it. We will present EXISTS in another article.

For the moment, we will focus on what lacks in GTFS when it comes to global transportation:

  • support (help desk or docs). Yes, there are some docs, but most of the transport operators use systems that are obsolete
  • software for maintaining operator’s  own IT systems. The lack of APIs is also of concern
  • hardware to be deployed in the vehicles and on site (stops/stations)
  • universal language. GTFS uses CSV as its own format. CSV doesn’t guarantee multi-platform compatibility (Windows, Mac, Linux).
  • widespread culture. The GTFS community is relatively small.

There are many mobile apps for local city bus networks and Google Maps tries its best to formalize and uniformize the information. Still, there are too few people that speak GTFS, many of them very enthusiastic about it. I am one of them. I also try to identify the next version of GTFS or at least the features that need to be included in the standard.


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