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Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Data Management Technologies
Fact Sheet: Transit Overview

Technology Overview

Use GIS and Data Management Technology to:

  • Create and manage spatial data such as location of bus stops, routes, and facilities.
  • Support AVL, APC, CADS, Itinerary planning and other applications.
  • Record and store large quantities of data.
  • Data Management costs can be reduced through cloud hosting.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are systems to manage and create spatial data such as location of bus stops, routes, transit facilities and the regional street network. The management, analysis, communication and display of this information are vital for a transit agency to support ITS applications. GIS systems are critical to support other technologies such as Advanced Vehicle Location (AVL), Automated Passenger Counters (APC), Computer Aided Dispatch and Scheduling (CADS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Mobile Data Terminals (MDT), Itinerary Planning systems and other applications. GIS systems record and store immense amounts of data and are therefore closely tied to and integrated with data management systems. The larger the transit agency, the more data is needed and created and the more comprehensive a data management system must be.

GIS systems are utilized primarily by large transit agencies and are often implemented in concert with AVL and CADS systems. These systems are all dependent upon geo-spatial data for vehicle location. Integrating these GIS systems and spatial data systems can provide significant cost savings for transit agencies. Many ITS applications use street network base maps with a data layer that contains the stops and routes. A single data management system can be used to maintain the base maps and data layers. For smaller agencies, GIS systems may not be practical; however data management will always be needed.

image depicting Data  management that can include basic data storage and organization such as spreadsheets  and basic data management software.

Data management can include basic data storage and organization such as spreadsheets and basic data management software. Medium sized agencies may want to implement a larger than needed data management system as the basic foundation for planned ITS expansion. Data management must encompass not only real time spatial data generated and utilized by GIS systems, but archival data to be utilized for planning, automated recording and internal evaluation. Data storage and management comes at a cost. Servers are required to hold data; more data means more servers for agencies to purchase, power and maintain. Infrastructure is needed to make stored data available to the people who need to use it. Data storage and management can be challenging. Many agencies are now moving toward cloud hosting as a way to remotely store data and share software and reduce costs.

A sound data management system will receive data inputs from systems such as GIS, APC, AVL, GPS, MDT, CADS and other systems, and will create archival data from these inputs as well as be able to formulate automated reporting for internal and external use. Ideally, this will encompass all other ITS systems integrating with a single, comprehensive data management system to include advanced analytical tools and software to aid in planning, billing and reporting.

Common Combinations

image depicting GIS systems that are combined with many technologies.

GIS Components

As noted previously, GIS systems are combined with many technologies and are particularly important to consider along-side a single data-management system. Most commonly GIS systems are integrated with AVL, APC and CADS systems, as well as Traveler Information Systems (TIS) such as trip and itinerary planning. Data management systems can be simplistic and stand-alone such as spreadsheets and data storage devices, or advanced data management systems and software can be implemented and utilized to communicate with all ITS systems as mentioned above.

Open Data Sources

Open Data sources allow agencies to share real time data with the public and third party application developers. Many agencies provide their GIS base map layers on the Internet. Many agencies make operating data (real time bus locations, traffic camera views) available.

The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) is a common open format for exchanging transit route and schedule data. This has been a major change in the level of effort and costs required to implement transit and multimodal trip planning. This has led to the trend in providing transit data to Internet map and routing providers (Google maps, Bing Maps, Map Quest) for multimodal trip planning applications.

Cloud Computing/Hosting

Benefits of Social Media for the Transit Community:

  • Communicate directly with customers, not filtered or distorted.
  • Less expensive than traditional forms of advertising.
  • Communicate in real-time. Transit agencies can “tweet” riders when delays may occur.
  • Create an interactive dialogue with those interested in hearing about your agency and services.

Cloud computing is a way to remotely store data and share software. Cloud hosting refers to third parties hosting data on behalf of other entities and enables users to share, store, and manage data via web-based programs. Cloud hosting services can be used to store a large amount of data. Cloud hosting can provide cost savings to agencies and allow staff to focus more of their time on tasks other than data management.

The advantages of storing data or using software in the cloud include:

  • Potential cost savings of paying another entity to operate the service rather than maintaining server infrastructure in-house;
  • Reduction of redundant data through centralized version and content controls;
  • Ease of sharing data among many different computers and users on different networks; and
  • Increased use of data standards to facilitate sharing among different organizations.

Social Media

Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging have rapidly become some of the most powerful and effective tools a transit agency can use to engage riders. Transit system operators need to deal with transit riders by embracing social media. Transit riders want to hear about prices, promotions, receive information on late running trains and alerts, changes in timetables and new technology through social media. Transit riders are also interested in purchasing paperless tickets.

Factors to Consider

GIS and Data Management are useful tools which any transit agency can benefit from. Regardless of an agencies’ size, some form of Data Management must be utilized. Smaller agencies may require only basic data storage and spreadsheet capabilities, sometimes combined with a basic mapping system or basic data management system. Larger agencies will require advanced data management tools to utilize advanced analytical tools and software for AVL, GIS, CADS, Billing, Planning and Reporting. Many agencies are looking at cloud hosting to store data.


a map of downtown Chattanooga

Downtown Chattanooga

  • Develop a structured procurement plan and performance oriented requirements and specifications.
  • Involve staff from various departments and outside stakeholders, such as contractors that may provide transportation services or may be (eventually) linked to the transit agency service and communications network.
  • Visit transit agency providing similar transportation services and discuss their data programs and GIS related technologies.


  • Perform rigorous testing of the entire system to identify gaps in the network or GIS coverage (identify blackout or dead geographic areas).
  • Install back-up data storage systems to ensure data preservation or contract with a cloud hosting partner.
  • Develop standard data-exchange protocols to be able to add equipment from multiple vendors, to operate on different bandwidths, and to be able communicate with different technologies (reference the Transit Communications Interface Profiles – TCIP).
  • Equip all systems with virus and firewall protection and an uninterrupted power supply.
  • Expect learning curve as drivers and dispatchers develop efficient techniques.


  • Data management is growing ever more tied to GIS, AVL, CADS, and MDT to provide for seamless integration and manipulation of data. Agencies should expect multi-system deployment to allow modular implementation and simplified upgrading of other technologies or additional devices for data storage and manipulation.
  • Transit GIS and data management systems should be linked with the multiple networks used by Information Technologies. Use of open data sources will facilitate integration and use by other agencies.

Benefits and Costs


Benefits of GIS:

  • Cost savings resulting from greater efficiency.
  • Better decision making.
  • Improved communication.
  • Better geographic information recordkeeping.
  • Managing geographically.

For cost-effective route planning, GIS helps an agency take into account both ridership demand and efficient route analyses. GIS software for the Web enables transit agencies to provide online public access to riders with interactive maps and real-time arrival/departure information.


The costs of a GIS consist of the following components:

  • Hardware,
  • Software (base software, base GIS and additional GIS modules),
  • Maintenance,
  • Services (resources to fulfill the GIS project objectives, e.g. customization),
  • Training; and
  • Data (if obtained from elsewhere).

Costs associated with GIS and data management deployments can vary in cost from $100,000 to millions of dollars depending on the size of the transit agency and scope of the work to be completed with the deployment. A phased implementation is recommended.

Agency Deployments

Agency Contact Information Type of Project Context / Success of Deployment
NJ Transit 1 Penn Plaza East
Newark NJ 07105
(973) 491-7000
Cloud Hosting Moved customer service application to cloud to reduce IT requirements and to increase response to customer inquiries without increases in staff.
Florida Department of Transportation – District 7 11201 N. Malcolm McKinley Drive
Tampa, Florida 33612
(813) 975-6000
Web Application GIS and data management was used to obtain and view spatial data from many public transportation agencies across West Centeral Florida Region.
Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (Tri-Met) 1800 SW 1st Ave., Suite 300, Portland, OR 97201
Open Source Data Open source software is providing GIS.
Chattanooga Area Regional transportation Authority 1617 Wilcox Blvd
Chattanooga, TN 37406
SmartBus Project Comprehensive phased transit ITS Program over multiple years.

Additional Resources on GIS and Data Management (and ITS)


Jonathan Walker, P.E., Ph.D.
Chief Policy, Architecture, and Knowledge Transfer, ITS Joint Program Office
U.S. Department of Transportation
(202) 366-2199

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