The Key to Data-Driven Transportation: The National Transit Database

Data and technology are the future, and the National Transit Database is the key.

Deep inside the labyrinths of the Department of Transportation complex in southeast DC, there is an office with four mild-mannered folks sipping on their coffees. These are the people responsible for collecting data on the operations and public usage of every public transit agency in the nation.

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This data collection is called the National Transit Database (NTD) and holds the potential to help us understand what our transit investment dollars buy for us today, and where we should invest future dollars.

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Congress established the NTD 40 years ago to collect information about all of the nation’s transit systems and to distribute funding to all of them. Now we have over 2800 transit systems across the nation who report their data to NTD to be eligible for over $6 billion in federal funding annually.

 

WHY IT MATTERS

NTD covers everything from how much transit authorities spend, to where they get their funds, the condition of their buses and trains, how safe their vehicles are, and how much service they provide. With this data:

  • Congress can inform public transportation investment decisions.
  • Public transportation providers and planners can understand how their systems work, track their progress over time, and adopt best practices from their peers.
  • Cities can improve transportation access to schools, jobs, and healthcare to strengthen local economies.
  • Bus and train manufacturers can improve their vehicles.
  • The private sector can identify new investment opportunities for commercial and residential developments that leverage growing transit networks.

 

THE CHALLENGE

Both the legislative and executive branches want efficient, performance-based, and data-driven transportation policy to get the most out of every dollar spent, but progress on the development of an intuitive, efficient, and accurate reporting system has been very slow. The Healthcare.gov rollout highlighted the numerous obstacles government faces with legacy systems that often preclude its ability to create and use new technologies, such as few contracting firm options and security requirements. These structural and procedural obstacles are only exacerbated by the arcane nature of transit data collection and database architecture.

Starting back when recipients had to fax in their reports and slowly progressing to the point when recipients mailed their reports on floppy disks, the evolution of technology became both a saving grace and a massive obstacle for the NTD. The amount of time and labor sunk into old systems holds the entire process back from advancing into new technologies and getting better results out of our existing transit systems.

Where technology was the problem in the past, we see potential for it to be the answer in the near future. Today, NTD reporting is completed through a web-based reporting interface — a definite sign of progress. But still not enough to provide the 2,837 transit systems with the right tools to make daily improvements to their systems, safety and investment value.

While technology changes are slow, local leaders are hard at work to collect better data and expand the amount of information they collect for the federal database. CEOs of transit systems across the country are aggressively embracing sensor technologies to collect more accurate data. For instance, the immense amount of data that comes from installing Automatic Passenger Counters and GPS systems present a wealth of information for the NTD. Sensor technologies are now in vogue as small cities refine their methodologies to qualify for more Small Transit Intensive Cities funding.

Fueled by a strong Congressional mandate, former FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff led a valiant effort to add safety and asset condition reporting requirements to the database in MAP-21 legislation. When fully operational, these new requirements will provide a clear picture of the performance and condition of our nation’s transit assets. This data will help make vehicles last longer, prevent accidents, and inform short and long term vehicle investments.

As we collect more data with more hardware, the sheer size of the database continues to grow. Last year, large city public transit systems reported over 1.4 million data points to NTD. With so much data coming in, it’s time to “put down the glossy brochures, roll up our sleeves, and target our resources on repairing the system we have,” as Peter Rogoff put it.

 

THE KEY

There is room for improvement. The key to an effective national database system that allows our transit systems to be efficient and cost effective is to focus on the opportunity presented by new technology and online information sharing. And the federal government is moving in this direction.

Back in September, the Office of Inspector General issued a report on the NTD. In response, FTA’s Acting Administrator Therese McMillan made several commitments to continue improving the NTD, from algorithms that find data inaccuracies to dedicated processes for analyzing the specific data points (out of those 1.4 million) used in federal grant calculations.

In an ideal world, anyone should be able to make use of the wealth of information and insight contained within the NTD to help improve America’s transit systems. Here’s a simple example showing federal assistance for capital and operating expenses over the last 10 years.

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The information paints a striking picture. The federal government increased its investment in capital and operating assistance, but because of how far behind operating assistance started, the gap is only growing. The jump in operating assistance in 2010 and 2012 came from $750 million in dedicated operations funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), as well as some of ARRA’s discretionary grants. Overall, the data tells us that investments to repair and maintain our tracks, trains, buses, and escalators take a backseat to expanding our transit systems.

This is the NTD at its most basic level. As state and local governments collect more and better data, the federal government needs to make more progress on a robust federal database that is actionable. With the roll-out of NTD 2.0, slated for December 15, FTA is hoping to overcome the challenges and enable stakeholders to fully leverage the NTD.

Data and technology are the future, and the National Transit Database is the key.

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