Navigating the Transit Revolution: Part II—The History of GTFS

ETA Transit blog series: GTFS History

GTFS has a rich history that reflects the evolution of public transportation data sharing. It emerged as a response to the challenges posed by fragmented and proprietary data formats, aiming to create a standardized way for transit agencies to share their information with developers and users.

To provide necessary context for current and future GTFS development, we will briefly cover the history of GTFS starting with the collaboration between Google and Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, also known as TriMet.

Early 2000s:

  • Prior to GTFS, transit agencies often had their own unique data formats, making it difficult for developers to create applications that utilized transit information from multiple sources.
  • TriMet recognized the need for a standardized format to share its transit data with developers and users. The agency aimed to make its schedule and route information more accessible and usable for third-party applications.
  • At the same time, Chris Harrelson, a Google engineer working on Google Transit, approached TriMet with the idea of creating a standard format for transit data. This collaboration laid the groundwork for the development of GTFS.


  • Chris Harrelson worked closely with TriMet’s Tim McHugh to create the initial version of GTFS. The two parties collaborated to define the structure and components of the standard.
  • TriMet provided its transit data to Google as part of the testing and development process for Google Transit, which was one of the earliest applications to utilize GTFS data.


  • Google launched Google Transit in 2006, using GTFS as its data format. This allowed users to access transit directions and schedules in various cities.
  • In 2007, Google released GTFS as an open standard, making the specification publicly available for transit agencies and developers to use. This move spurred greater adoption and collaboration.


  • GTFS gained traction as more transit agencies began to adopt the standard. This led to an increasing number of cities and regions making their transit data available in GTFS format.
  • Developers started creating applications and services that utilized GTFS data, further demonstrating the value of standardized transit information.


  • GTFS became widely recognized and used across the transportation and technology sectors. Many transit agencies saw the benefits of open data sharing and embraced GTFS to improve their services.
  • The success of GTFS encouraged the development of third-party applications, including trip planners, navigation apps, and mobility platforms, which enhanced the user experience and contributed to the growth of the public transportation ecosystem.


  • GTFS continues to be a foundational tool in the world of public transit data. As the standard evolved, new features and extensions were introduced to accommodate real-time data updates, service alerts, and more.
  • GTFS-realtime, an extension of GTFS, was introduced to enable the sharing of real-time transit information, allowing users to access live updates on transit arrivals and departures.
  • The impact of GTFS on public transit efficiency, user convenience, and innovation remains significant, with ongoing efforts to refine the standard and adapt to emerging technologies.
  • GTFS emerged as a response to the need for standardized transit data sharing. Its evolution from proprietary formats to an open and widely adopted standard has revolutionized the way transit information is accessed and utilized, shaping the development of numerous applications and services that enhance the public transportation experience.

Building Communities Around GTFS

Beyond its technical significance, GTFS has fostered a thriving community of developers, transit agencies, and enthusiasts passionate about improving public transportation. This community has evolved over time, finding its home in spaces like Google Groups and GTFS repositories. These platforms have become hubs for discussion, collaboration, and the exchange of ideas related to GTFS.

Google Groups, in particular, has been instrumental in bringing together individuals interested in GTFS. It serves as a virtual meeting place where members share insights, address challenges, and contribute to the ongoing development of GTFS. These discussions range from technical intricacies to innovative use cases, highlighting the vibrant ecosystem that has grown around this standard.

In addition to discussions, GTFS repositories, often hosted on platforms like GitHub, have become repositories of knowledge and a source of reference for the community. Here, developers and transit agencies can access and contribute to the latest versions of GTFS, extensions, and related resources. These repositories play a vital role in maintaining the collaborative spirit that defines the GTFS community

Exploring the Future: Proposed GTFS Extensions

As we journey through the history of GTFS, it becomes evident that its impact extends far beyond a mere data format. It has transformed how we approach public transit, making it more accessible, user-friendly, and efficient. Building on this foundation, the next post in our GTFS series will delve into the proposed GTFS extensions.

These extensions represent the evolution of GTFS to meet the changing needs of transit systems and travelers. From real-time updates to improved accessibility features, each extension brings a new dimension to the standard. We will explore the potential implications of these extensions on the development of public transportation standards, the user experience, and the broader ecosystem.

Join us in the next installment as we uncover the exciting developments in the world of GTFS extensions and their profound impact on the future of transit standards. The journey of GTFS continues, and its evolution promises to shape the way we interact with public transportation in the years to come.

Read Part I of this series:
The History of GTFS

Read Part III of this series:
The Operational Data Standard (ODS): A New Standard in Transit Operations

Read Part IV of this series:
A Gateway to Historical Transit Operation Data

Read Part V of this series:
The Future

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