hbus, the transit day tripper | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

hbus, the transit day tripper

Metro Transit won't cooperate, but William Lachance, a Halifax programmer, builds an online bustrip planner.

Photo: Aaron Fraser MacKenzie
Alternate route William Lachance used his bike to figure out bus schedules.

While Metro Transit is getting its Go Time and Google Transit act together, a local software developer has launched a bus route planner to help Haligonians---without help from the city.

William Lachance created hbus.ca beta, a route planner that allows Metro Transit patrons to plug in starting points and destinations to get route plans. The information includes what time bus riders should walk to paticular bus stops---including those pesky stops Metro Transit doesn't list in its online route schedules---and what transfers to take.

It's a project Lachance thought of when he came to Halifax almost two years ago. He was talking to his friend, Daniel Haran, about the city's transit system.

"We were just kind of thinking about what we really could do to make transit that much more compelling here," explains Lachance.

He adds that it's "kind of painful" to go through Metro Transit's online schedules to determine routes. Haran contacted Metro Transit numerous times from 2004 onwards, trying to get the city to release its transit data for all bus routes and bus stops. He even filed a Freedom of Information Act request to access the data. But no luck.

"You get one of two responses," says Lachance of Metro Transit's replies to his friend's---and later his own---requests. "One is just 'no.' The other one is that they give you their policy on the dissemination of geographical data, something on the order of 'give us a lot of money and we'll give you the information you can basically only use for personal use.'"

Lori Patterson, spokesperson for Metro Transit, explains further.

"We can't give our information out for somebody else to put up and run their own Metro Transit trip planning because we ultimately are accountable for it," she explains.

Patterson adds that routes are updated four times a year, and she doesn't have the resources to make sure organizations with transit data get the updated version. If someone riding the bus gets the wrong information, they'll call Metro Transit.

She's quick to add that Metro Transit has been working on a trip planner for a year, which will be out in two months. It'll be part of Google Transit, and up-to-the-minute Go Times are to be released shortly thereafter.

While Lachance says it's not uncommon for a city to keep its transit data private, the fact that Metro Transit is spending money on making its own trip planner while programmers like Lachance and Haran are willing to do it on their own time baffles him.

"I think from the social point of view, there's a lot of scope for private citizens to improve the transit system for everyone," Lachance explains. He adds that sharing the responsibility for improvement with a city's citizens can improve Halifax's transit system quickly, with significantly less cost. But Patterson says there are too many organizations and too many ideas to act outside of Metro Transit's staff.

Lachance decided to make a route planner anyway, as market research on software he created, called Routez. He converted Metro Transit's schedules and input the data into Routez. And those stops not listed on the Metro Transit schedule? Lachance biked all the routes with a GPS, recording all the times and locations.

"When I tell [people] about the biking thing, they tend to assume that I'm insane," says Lachance with a grin. "We're talking between 20 and 30 hours of biking---people easily spend that amount of time in a month watching TV."

Lachance began the project last August, and has biked most of the Halifax peninsula and some Bedford and Dartmouth routes. All of Lachance's data is open source, for other programmers to use if they wish. Now, Lachance is looking for feedback. The trip planner is far from perfect---significant routes are missing, and he wants to improve on the information the site gives its users, while also creating Blackberry and iPod applications. The incompleteness of the site isn't from bugs---it's from lack of data.

"My real hope right now is that the city can be made to see that they really have nothing to lose by opening up their transit data," says Lachance. "It's kind of fun to bike around the city, but really it shouldn't be necessary."

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