New Project: National Transit Database Visualization

I created a new site that helps visualize data from the National Transit Database, which historically has made its data very difficult to parse.

For a little background: all transit agencies which receive federal funding must report a certain amount of data to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database. The FTA publishes two series of data: first, a spreadsheet of monthly ridership data, which usually lags by about two months. This spreadsheet has limited financial, ridership, and vehicle data for the each agency’s fiscal year, usually about one-and-a-half to two years prior to the present date. Second, the full NTD, which reports a high level of data about each agency, spread out across about 20 excel spreadsheets. The full NTD for each year (2016 is the latest available) contains financial (operating and capital), ridership, fuel/energy usage, and vehicle data.

In the past, when comparing different modes of transit and their financial costs, it has taken a lot of time and effort to just parse the spreadsheets and find the data you need.

My own National Transit Database site, which went live this week, is a start in parsing that data and making it more available. It’s meant to be user-friendly and visually informative.

For instance, take a look at the page for the Interurban Transit Partnership (The Rapid), in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I created a chart that shows overall ridership across all modes of transit provided by The Rapid, as well as breakdowns for each mode.

Ridership on The Rapid

For each individual mode of transit (for instance, bus, bus rapid transit, demand-response, etc) there is a tab with financial data. This tab pulls from both the monthly ridership spreadsheet and the full NTD data for the latest fiscal year (in this instance, 2016). Included is ridership, the number of passenger miles, average trip length, total operating spending, total fares received, total depreciation, and a breakdown of the cost of providing each ride and the total amount of subsidy required to provide that ride.

For the depreciation number, I had to estimate the amount of depreciation attributed to each transit mode because for some reason the NTD spreadsheets don’t break down the depreciation amount on a per-mode basis. Oddly, that’s one of the few bits of data in the NTD that isn’t broken down by mode. You can review the depreciation data in the Operating Expense Reconciliation spreadsheet. Therefore, I estimated each mode’s share of depreciation by allocating the depreciation amount based on the number of trips each mode represents as a portion of the total number of trips provided by that transit agency. Adding depreciation gives a much more accurate picture of the cost of providing a service because that includes a fair cost of the capital portion of each mode’s cost. Simply referring to the operating cost per ride (as many transit agencies do, including the NTD) paints an inaccurate picture.

One important thing to note, when reviewing the data, is that overall public transit ridership seems to have begun a decline in 2014 for many, if not most, transit agencies. Randal O’Toole has been reporting on this trend over at his Antiplanner blog.

The final item I’d like to point out is the monthly ridership change data. Simply presenting raw monthly ridership numbers would be very noisy and not very helpful or informative. Instead, it’s helpful to see how ridership is changing over time, even though it has a lag of a couple of months.

I plan to add more features, such as combined UZA ridership numbers, much more financial data, energy usage data, capacity usage data, and more. Feel free to contact me if you have suggestions.


Federal judge releases DNA software source code that was used by New York City’s crime lab

A federal judge unsealed the source code for a software program that was used to compare DNA samples in New York City’s crime lab.

In July 2016, Judge Valerie Caproni of the Southern District of New York determined in U.S. v. Johnson that the source code of the Forensic Statistical Tool, a genotyping software, “is ‘relevant … [and] admissible’” at least during a Daubert hearing—a pretrial hearing where the admissibility of expert testimony is challenged. Caproni provided a protective order at that time.

This week, Caproni lifted that order after the investigative journalism organization ProPublica filed a motion arguing that there was a public interest in the code. ProPublica has since posted the code to the website GitHub.

Read the full story . . .

U.S. Senate panel puts self-driving cars in fast lane

A U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday unanimously gave the green light to a bill aimed at speeding the use of self-driving cars without human controls, a measure that also bars states from imposing regulatory road blocks.

The bill still must clear a Senate vote, but it appears on track to passage. This should rev up profits for automakers, technology companies and ride service providers, hastening the day when their robot cars can carry passengers on the same U.S. roads as cars driven by people.

Read the full story . . .

Zoning regulations are problematic for tiny-house buyers

Tiny-house buyers have to cope not only with the challenges of living in a smaller space. There are also zoning regulations that make it difficult to find a spot for the homes.

In densely populated areas and most other areas, zoning regulations typically don’t allow full-time living in temporary structures such as RVs or movable tiny houses, the New York Times reports. The zoning laws also may specify a minimum lot size that it too expensive for a tiny-house buyer.

Some municipalities—including Fresno, California, and Nantucket, Massachusetts—have changed their zoning laws to accommodate homes that share land with existing homes. In another nod to the tiny house movement, the International Code Council has adopted a model code for such structures.

Read the full story . . .

Supreme Court adds 11 cases to 2017 docket

The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari in 11 cases [order list, PDF] on Thursday.

Dalmazzi v. United States [cert. petition, PDF] Cox v. United States [docket], and Ortiz v. United States[cert. petition, PDF] are three cases that will be consolidated and will be given one hour each for oral argument. These cases deal with whether active-duty military officers can serve on the Court of Military Commissions Review (CMCR). The petitioners were members of the Air Force who were convicted [SCOTUSblog report] of different crimes in a military court. They are appealing their convictions on the grounds that only members of the military can preside over a military court, and the judges in the petitioners’ cases were civilians because of their CMCR position.

Read the full story . . .