Mon 28 Jan 2008
These days most every transit agency has some sort of online presence, but it wasn’t so long ago that the web was a curiosity known only to academics and those savvy enough to seek out early ISPs. Even at that early stage, the benefits of putting transit schedules online were clear, and so transit riders worked to fill the void.
Bay Area residents in the late ’90s were well-served by the Bay Area Transit Information Project (Internet Archive link), a student project which eventually morphed into the official 511.org that we use today. This effort inspired others like the SoCalTIP page for Southern California transit.
Chris “aka Wad”, who writes for the excellent MetroRiderLA blog, was one of the co-founders of SoCalTIP, and he agreed to answer a few questions about the old days:
When was SoCalTIP launched, and when did it finally shut down?
SoCalTIP was launched in 1996. After a little under a decade, Ray Mullins and I decided that it was just far beyond our capabilities, and the site just faded away. The domain name lapsed in 2004.
How did it originally get started?
It was inspired by the Bay Area Transit Information Page, which started in 1994 or 1995. That was created by two college students as a thesis project. Ray helped them out with their efforts.
Southern California had a similar need. We have about a hundred different transit agencies, each maintaining its own information center. Since there’s no centralized information center in Southern California, it was up to transit advocates to provide one. We did, and we gave most transit agencies their first online presence. The BATIP template was carried over for SoCalTIP.
What features did SoCalTIP offer at its peak?
SoCalTIP’s most valuable asset was having the schedules in one place. It listed every transit agency from San Luis Obispo and Kern counties to the north, San Diego and Imperial counties to the south, and Las Vegas to the east.
We also kept the most simple site design possible. We didn’t use a lot of graphics, all of our schedules were fixed-width (Courier) plain text, and everything was easy and ready to find.
Many people had requested us to build a transit planner, but this would have been way beyond the capabilites of a volunteer site. Instead, we offered routing advice via e-mail, and the routes we came up with from our heads could beat computer-generated routes any day.
Who were the people who were most involved with creating and maintaining the site?
It was a collaboration of several people, but full-time, I typed schedules and was the public face of SoCalTIP while Ray maintained the server end.
What kind of maintenance did it involve?
The upkeep on such a simple site actually involved a lot of maintenance! When I typed up schedules, I would have to include some code for Ray to put it in his textproc program. He then had to put it in a format that the SoCalTIP server (Unix) would like.
Eventually, this led to a backlog of schedules that Ray was never able to process.
What kinds of discussions did you have with the agencies themselves, if any?
I had many discussions with most of the transit agencies listed. More often, they were cooperative and helpful. A couple would send me schedules ahead of time to get them on the site before they went into effect for the public. Some offered to give us the raw data. A few agencies even provided links.
The transit agencies were very encouraging with our efforts. We did not get any resistance.
Did you have any kind of database software generating the site, or was it all created by hand?
Ray created special programs to take initially Word, then Excel, files and turn them into properly formatted plain text for the web. I am not a programmer, so I don’t know how these worked.
Initially, I hand-typed schedules on Word. When I had access to Excel, I figured out a formula to calculate headways, and I could get done in minutes.
How closely did you work with the creators of the Bay Area TIP?
Ray lent his expertise to BATIP, and transplanted the idea to Southern California.
What finally caused SoCalTIP to shut down?
Ray’s full-time job as a programmer did not leave him much time to maintain SoCalTIP on the side. I did not know enough programming to maintain it on my own. Plus, the backlog became so large we probably would not have caught up, ever. This was before Wiki, which would have made SoCalTIP last longer.
Who knows, it may come back.