Use of Geographic Information System (GIS) for Public Transit

Written by Dhaval Daterao

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is giving public transport the ability to develop and use data with a much higher degree of efficiency.

Use of Geographic Information System for Public Transit
Use of Geographic Information System (GIS) can help in achieving excellence in Public Transit


As in almost every field of life, Geospatial data for public transportation has significant potential. Some transit agencies and transportation planning organizations have become quite active recently in the use of Geospatial data.

The more active users typically belong to the largest transit systems and metropolitan planning organizations.

On the other hand, smaller planning organizations are less likely to invest the resources necessary to set up Geospatial Data that is sufficient to produce significant benefits.

The Geospatial data is analyzed and processed in a certain way using the Geographic Information System (GIS). This is a combination of programs that work to help users make sense of their Geospatial data.

But in recent years, technology has progressed to an extent where basic Geographic Information System functions and applications have become much affordable for small agencies.

Maps are powerful tools, as they guide and provide a sense of scale and distance. They are a universal language and accessible to everyone from different backgrounds.

In a transportation planning context, maps provide a flexible canvas for communicating significant information.

Geospatial data allows transportation organizations to harness the power of maps much easily and inexpensively than ever before.

In this article, we will understand the in-detailed use of Geospatial data for public transit.

What is Geospatial Data?

Geospatial data describe locations. It is the information about events, objects, or other features that have a location on the surface of the earth.

In other words, Geospatial data is a combination of location information and attributes information with temporal information

It can be about specific places such as the address of a building or large geographic areas like a city, or country.

One of the well-known or familiar examples of Geospatial data is Maps. They are visualizations constructed by combining different types of Geospatial data.

Geographic Information System for Transportation

Geographic Information System is mainly associated with transportation through the utilization of maps for transit and navigation.

We can see the availability of many applications integrating with digital maps that are changing the way we understand the world. 

Who might have thought that we would know the exact time it would take to travel from point A to point B or that we would be able to track live traffic on the route?

But apart from the use of applications like Google Maps, organizations are leveraging Geographic Information System for transportation that offers better results.

Geographic Information System focuses on achieving better results in a cheaper and faster way while maintaining the best quality.

Benefits of Geographic Information System

From the transit perspective, there are many potential benefits of using Geospatial data to enhance the provision and planning of public transit.

1. Increased Precision in Transit Planning

Geographic Information System can provide the ability to support improved data interpretation and increase precision in the analysis and planning of public transit.

Increased precision is the result of geographically referencing transit facilities and then overlaying attribute databases that distinguish the geographical locations.

2. Increased Efficiency

Once a GIS is set, it provides a mechanism for automating the production of maps that were previously created manually.

As the process is automated, more maps can be generated that display a variety of information characterizing the transit service, transit system, and the service area population among others.

However, the increased productivity is a result of:

  • Better data management, which significantly results in lower costs and enhanced planning.
  • Elimination of redundant activities, resulting in saving money, time, or labour. 

3. Faster Response Time for Assessing the Implications of Frequency Adjustments

It can provide a mechanism for assessing more quickly the implications of modifying frequency, services, and other service characteristics.

Once the transit network is loaded in Geospatial data along with services and population characteristics, the impact of modification can be analyzed.

4. Enhanced Ability to Convey Information

This is one of the most powerful benefits of Geospatial data for public transit. In addition, GIS provides an excellent tool for improving customer information services.

Use of Geographic Information System for Public Transit

The GIS uses in public transit are summarized in four application areas, and also identifies factors related to the implementation of a transit GIS.

1. Transit Planning

The general area of transit planning has the largest number of potential users for the Geographic Information System.

Following are some examples of using GIS under this category:

  • Route planning
  • Schedule planning
  • Ridership forecasting
  • Mode choice modeling
  • Service area analysis
  • Survey analysis
  • Incident analysis
  • Crime analysis
  • Emergency contingency planning
  • Data integration

2. Facilities Management

All the facilities and properties of a transit system can be geographically referenced or characterized within a GIS. 

This application enables the transit system to easily access locations, inventory information, and characteristics of facilities.

The facilities and inventories may include:

  • Stations
  • Shelters
  • Facilities locations
  • Bus stop inventory
  • Park and ride lots
  • Maintenance facilities
  • Route maintenance
  • Maintenance scheduling

3. Information Dissemination 

This application refers to the design and production of cartographic materials that can easily convey information to the management, patron, board members, and general public.

A GIS gives the transit system the ability to create sector maps, system maps, and individual route maps. Additionally, changes in route structure can be updated relatively easily with GIS.

The following are more uses:

  • Useful in map production
  • Telephone-based customer information services
  • Thematic maps
  • Carpool or vanpool information
  • Ride matching 
  • Visualization and presentation

4. Operations and Control 

GIS can be used to improve customer assistance through the up-gradation of customer information service.

Information can be provided regarding the use of traditional transit services as well as carpool or vanpool formation.

It also enables the geographic display of transit vehicles in real-time with the help of Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL).  AVL technology provides continuous tracking of vehicles through devices.

The use of GIS in scheduling and dispatching of paratransit vehicles requires a significant number of details related to service area characteristics, including intersection, address, and landmark geocoding, with routing procedures for scheduling.

Following are some examples in this category:

  • Interaction with AVL
  • Paratransit dispatching
  • Customer information system
  • Emergency response

Issues in the GIS Implementation Process for Public Transport

Just like benefits, there are some issues in the implementation process of GIS for public transit. It is important to recognize these issues early on since the successful implementation of GIS depends on how adequately the issues are addressed and resolved.

Also, it is necessary to give detailed attention to the issues presented, rather than focusing on software and hardware. Even the best GIS software and hardware are only tools, not a solution in itself.

The issues are divided into certain criteria and each criterion has a set of questions that are most often asked when implementing GIS.

Application Issues

  • What scale maps should be used?
  • What area should be implemented first (bridge management, pavement management, safety, road inventory)?
  • How to interface with existing databases?

Management Issues

  • Who should have the lead for GIS within the organization?
  • What will be the cost?
  • What is the best way to get started with GIS?
  • How to prepare a GIS plan?
  • How to educate my organization about GIS?

Technology Issues

  • Which GIS system should be used?
  • How to interface with the existing database?

Data needs and Acquisition Issues

  • How to put together digital data with attribute data?
  • How to keep the data up-to-date?
  • How to obtain latitude/longitude for existing data?

Hence, it illustrates that there are a variety of issues in GIS implementation that would require thoughtful deliberation on the part of public transport.

We have made an attempt to identify a few of the issues which may be potential stumbling blocks in the implementation of GIS.

Mapping it out

The use of Geospatial data has gained popularity beyond traditional consumers and is adding importance to the transportation, healthcare, and retail markets.

This recent expansion shows the popularity of Geospatial data and how adding it to any data collection or analysis effort would be beneficial.

Geographic Information System enables transportation agencies to show information about their assets on maps that the general audience can understand.

GIS provides analysis tools that agencies can use to consider geographic features in the maintenance and design of their infrastructure.

Public transport aims to provide reliable, safe, and efficient services to the users of their systems. Hence, GIS activities can help agencies to provide better service efficiently.