CHARLESTON, WV (WOAY)- Let’s say you live in Beckley and need to get to the hospital in Morgantown to see your mother. Now let’s say you don’t have a car.
Currently, it might take a dozen phone calls to transit agencies all over West Virginia to figure out what buses to catch to make the trip. But a program being developed by two West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) agencies, the Division of Public Transit and the Division of Highways, and students at WVU Tech will soon allow you to find the best route with a simple Google search.
Neal Vance, Safety and Planning Coordinator for the West Virginia Division of Public Transit, said public transportation officials have teamed up with students from Tech to enter data for all of the Mountain State’s public transit agencies into the General Transit Feed System (GTFS), a national data network that saves information in a common format that can be accessed through Google Maps or similar applications.
Once completed, a user in one part of the state will be able to punch their starting point and destination into a cell phone or computer and find out what bus routes they’ll need to take to get where they’re going. The routes will include timetables, fares, where to get on, and so forth.
“We want to make sure it’s available for all the bus systems people use every day,” Vance said.
Public Transit Director Bill Robinson said about 35 of West Virginia’s 55 counties currently have some form of public transportation available. Public transit accounts for about 6 million rides a year in a state with a population of about 1.8 million.
“That’s like everybody in the state rode the bus twice each year,” he said. “That should be some measure of why it’s so important to people.”
Robinson said transportation officials have wanted to link data for the state’s 18 transit agencies for a while. “Someone has to sit there and look up all this information and then do it,” Robinson said.
Deputy Secretary of Transportation, Jimmy Wriston, P.E., a graduate of Tech, first suggested the idea of working with WVU Tech students to help solve the labor-intensive problem of collating data for all of the state’s transit agencies.
Hussein Elkhansa, M.S.E., G.I.S.P., Chief Data Officer for the DOT and Director of the Strategic Performance Management Division, agrees. When Wriston and transit officials have an idea to do something like collate route information for all the state’s transit agencies, Elkhansa and his staff have the technical savvy to make it happen.
After some discussion, it was decided that the best way to get WVU Tech students in on the project was for DOT to hire them as temporary employees.
“We figure, if we hire them as temporary employees, it’s a win-win situation,” Elkhansa said. He said the citizens get the work done, the students get to add real-world experience to their resumes, and if the students decide to work for WVDOT in the long run, that’s a win for the agencies as well.
While WVDOT works with colleges and universities all over the Mountain State, tapping WVU Tech for help with the bus project made a lot of sense. Elkhansa said WVU Tech professor Amr Mohammed, Ph. D. has expertise in transportation matters, and worked on a similar project in Canada.
The students involved in the project are excited about its prospects.
“As software developers, we know there are opportunities out there,” said Jacob Tellep, a WVU Tech senior who is participating in the program. “But there are fewer opportunities where you actually get to help people.”
“If you don’t have transportation, you’re stopped in your tracks right away,” Tellep said. “It’s vitally important.”