Sunday, August 02, 2009

Transit Geeks Diaspora

Is Pittsburgh an emerging hub of transit technology innovation? The supporting anecdote:

“With Google Transit, travelers unaware of the convenience of public transportation can do research and choose for themselves,” MBTA general manager Daniel Grabauskas said in a written statement issued today.

What Grabauskas may not know is, one of the engineers on the Google Transit project prefigured the T’s foray into GIS in 2005, with an unauthorized mashup of transit schedules with maps of the Boston area. Joe Hughes developed the tool while living in Boston in 2005, and published it to his blog, His application scraped the MBTA’s online schedules and route maps, allowing any Internet user to query nearby MBTA routes and schedules by location. Before moving to Boston in 2002, he’d set up a similar system in Pittsburgh, where he attended Carnegie-Mellon University. In 2005, not long after he built the MBTA hack, he moved to Mountain View, Calif., to take an engineering job at Google’s headquarters there.

“Most of us on this project are transit geeks at heart,” said Hughes. “I’d like to see public transit information as essential a part of any map you might see as any other mode of transportation.”

A blogger compatriot once wondered aloud if Rust Belt refugees were more attracted to urban planning than other people from outside of the region. Perhaps this is true. And maybe the Pittsburgh connected are more likely to end up as part of the Transit Geek Diaspora.


Paz said...

I think it's absolutely true. The region has a strong sense of nostalgia combined with a historical place as one of the largest transit systems in the country. Even if you never ride the bus, the streetcar is in your veins in Western PA.

Unknown said...

I have no information about this, but just playing the odds, there's an awfully good chance that Joe Hughes isn't from Pgh, and that his only experience in Pittsburgh was from his time at CMU.

This sounds a lot more like a story about how awesome CS is at CMU (but of course, I'm biased).

Joe said...

Hey, I'm the guy name-checked in the article. aothman is right that I wasn't born in Pittsburgh--I first moved there in 1995 for CMU, and then I stuck around, working at MAYA Design, until 2002. is still maintained by Anukul Kapoor, who is still in the burgh.

My time living in Oakland and reading Jane Jacobs et al on my 54C rides to the South Side definitely influenced my thinking about urban planning.

Speaking of transit diaspora (though maybe not geeks), I believe Bill Millar, the president of APTA, ran the Port Authority back in the early 80s.