5. Protocol Buffers

The previous chapters have included extracts from GTFS-realtime feeds in a human-readable format. This data is actually represented using a data format called Protocol Buffers.

Developed by Google and initially released in 2008, Protocol Buffers are a way of serializing structured data into a format which is intended to be smaller and faster than XML.

Note: Remember, if you are writing a transit-related mobile app, GTFS-realtime feeds are not intended to be consumed directly by mobile devices due to the large amount of data transferred. Rather, you will need an intermediate server to read the feed from the provider then serve only relevant data to the mobile devices running your app.

Even though it looks similar to JSON data, the human-readable version of a protocol buffer is not intended to be manually parsed. Instead, data is extracted from a protocol buffer using native language (such as Java, C++ or Python).

Note: Although the Protocol Buffers application can generate code in Java, C++ or Python, all code examples in this book will be in Java.

For example, assume you have written a Java program that reads and parses a GTFS-realtime service alerts feed (shown later in this chapter, and in the next chapter).

In order to consume a GTFS-realtime feed provided by a transit agency such as TriMet or MBTA, your workflow would look similar to the following diagram:

GTFS-realtime Consumption

When a transit agency or data provider want to publish a GTFS-realtime feed, their process would be similar, except instead of reading the feed every 15 seconds, they would write a new protocol buffer data file every 15 seconds using data received from their vehicles.

Note: Chapter 11. Publishing GTFS-realtime Feeds will show you how to create a GTFS-realtime feed using Protocol Buffers. In order to do so, you will need to install Protocol Buffers as demonstrated in this chapter.

Installing Protocol Buffers

In order to generate code to read or write GTFS-realtime feeds in your native language, you first need to install Protocol Buffers. Once installed, it is capable of generating code for Java, C++ or Python.

This section shows you how to download and build the protoc command-line tool on a UNIX or Linux-based system. These instructions were derived from installing Protocol Buffers on Mac OS X 10.10.

First, download and extract the Protocol Buffers source code. At the time of writing, the current version is 2.6.1.

$ curl -L \
    https://github.com/google/protobuf/releases/download/v2.6.1/protobuf-2.6.1.tar.gz \
    -o protobuf-2.6.1.tar.gz

$ tar -zxf protobuf-2.6.1.tar.gz

$ cd protobuf-2.6.1

Note: Visit https://developers.google.com/protocol-buffers/ and click the "Download" link to find the latest version. The following instructions should still work for subsequent versions.

Next, compile the source files using make. First run the configure script to build the Makefile, then run make.

$ ./configure && make

Note: Separating the commands by && means that make will only run if ./configure exits successfully.

Once compilation is complete, you can verify the build by running make check. You can then install it globally on your system using make install. If you do not want to install it globally, you can run protoc directly from the ./src directory instead.

$ make check

$ make install

Next verify that it has been successfully built and installed by running the protoc command. The output should be "Missing input file."

$ protoc

Missing input file.

The next section will show you how to generate Java files using protoc and the gtfs-realtime.proto file.

Introduction to gtfs-realtime.proto

In order to generate source code files that can read a protocol buffer, you need a .proto input file. Typically you won't need to create or modify .proto files yourself, it is useful to have a basic understanding of how they work.

A .proto file contains a series of instructions that defines the structure of the data. In the case of GTFS-realtime, there is a file called gtfs-realtime.proto which contains the structure for each of the messages available (service alerts, vehicle positions and trip updates).

The following is an extract from gtfs-realtime.proto for the VehiclePosition message.

**Note: **The TripDescriptor and VehicleDescriptor types referenced in this extract also have declarations, which are not included here.

message VehiclePosition {
    optional TripDescriptor trip = 1;
    optional Position position = 2;
    optional uint32 current_stop_sequence = 3;
    enum VehicleStopStatus {
        INCOMING_AT = 0;
        STOPPED_AT = 1;
        IN_TRANSIT_TO = 2;
    optional VehicleStopStatus current_status = 4 [default = IN_TRANSIT_TO];
    optional uint64 timestamp = 5;
    enum CongestionLevel {
        STOP_AND_GO = 2;
        CONGESTION = 3;
    optional CongestionLevel congestion_level = 6;
    optional string stop_id = 7;
    optional VehicleDescriptor vehicle = 8;
    extensions 1000 to 1999;

Ignoring the numerical values assigned to each field (they aren't likely to be relevant because you never directly refer to them), you can see how the structure is the same as the specification covered earlier in this book for vehicle positions.

Each field in a protocol buffer has a unique value assigned to it. This value is used internally when encoding or decoding each field in GTFS-realtime feed. If there is additional data to be represented in a feed, the values between 1000 and 1999 are reserved for extensions. Chapter 10. GTFS-realtime Extensions shows how extensions in GTFS-realtime work.

Compiling gtfs-realtime.proto

The next step towards consuming a GTFS-realtime feed is to compile the gtfs-realtime.proto file into Java code using protoc. In order to do this, you must have already created a Java project ahead of time. protoc will generate the files and incorporate them directly into your project's source tree.

These instructions assume you have created your Java project in /path/to/gtfsrt and that you will download the gtfs-realtime.proto file to /path/to/protobuf.

First, download the gtfs-realtime.proto file.

$ cd /path/to/protobuf

$ curl \
    https://developers.google.com/transit/gtfs-realtime/gtfs-realtime.proto \
    -o gtfs-realtime.proto

Note: If this URL is no longer current when you read this, you can find the updated location at https://developers.google.com/transit/gtfs-realtime/.

In order to use protoc, you must specify the --proto_path argument as the directory in which gtfs-realtime.proto resides. Additionally, you must specify the full path to the gtfs-realtime.proto file.

Typically, in a Java project your source files will reside in a directory called src within the project directory. This directory must be specified in the --java_out argument.

The full command to run is as follows:

$ protoc \
    --proto_path=/path/to/protobuf \
    --java_out=/path/to/gtfsrt/src \

If this command runs successfully there will be no output to screen, but there will be newly-created files in your source tree. There should now be a ./com/google directory in your source tree, and a package called com.google.transit.realtime.

Adding the Protocol Buffers Library

Before you can use this new package, you must add the Protocol Buffers library to your Java project. You can either compile these files into a Java archive (using the instructions in ./protobuf-2.6.1/java/README.txt), or you can add the Java source files directly to your project as follows:

$ cd protobuf-2.6.1

$ cp -R ./java/src/main/java/com/google/protobuf \

If you now try to build your project, an error will occur due to a missing package called DescriptorProtos. You can add this to your project using the following command:

$ cd protobuf-2.6.1

$ protoc --java_out=/path/to/gtfsrt/src \
    --proto_path=./src \

Your project should now build successfully, meaning you can use the com.google.transit.realtime package to read data from a GTFS-realtime feed.

Reading Data From a GTFS-realtime Feed

To read the data from a GTFS-realtime feed, you need to build a FeedMessage object. The simplest way to do this is by opening an InputStream for the URL of the GTFS-realtime feed.

The following code builds a FeedMessage for the vehicle positions feed of the MBTA in Boston.

Note: To simplify the code listings in this book, package imports are not included. All classes used are either standard Java classes, or classes generated by Protocol Buffers.

public class YourClass {
    public void loadFeed() throws IOException {

        URL url = new URL("http://developer.mbta.com/lib/gtrtfs/Vehicles.pb");

        InputStream is = url.openStream();

        FeedMessage fm = FeedMessage.parseFrom(is);


        // ...

A FeedMessage object contains zero or more entities, each of which is either a service alert, a vehicle position, or a trip update. You can retrieve a list of entities using getEntityList(), then loop over them as follows:

public class YourClass {
    public void loadFeed() throws IOException {

    // ...

    for (FeedEntity entity : fm.getEntityList()) {
        // Process the entity here

    // ...


Since many of the fields in GTFS-realtime are optional, you need to check for the presence of the field you want to use before trying to retrieve it. This is achieved using hasFieldName(). You can then retrieve it using getFieldName().

In the case of FeedEntity, you need to check which of the GTFS-realtime messages are available. For instance, to check if the entity contains a service alert, you would call entity.hasAlert(). If the call to hasAlert() returns true, you can retrieve it using entity.getAlert().

The following code shows how to access the various entities.

public class YourClass {
    public void loadFeed() throws IOException {
        // ...

        for (FeedEntity entity : fm.getEntityList()) {

            if (entity.hasAlert()) {
                Alert alert = entity.getAlert();

                // Process the alert here

            if (entity.hasVehicle()) {
                VehiclePosition vp = entity.getVehicle();

                // Process the vehicle position here

            if (entity.hasTripUpdate()) {
                TripUpdate tu = entity.getTripUpdate();

                // Process the trip update here

        // ...


The next three chapters will show you how to process the Alert, VehiclePosition and TripUpdate objects.

Outputting Human-Readable GTFS-realtime Feeds

Earlier chapters included human-readable extracts from GTFS-realtime feeds. Although plain-text GTFS-realtime feeds are not designed to be parsed directly, they can be useful for quickly determining the kinds of data available within a feed.

All objects in a GTFS-realtime feed can be output using the TextFormat class in the protobuf package. Passing the object to printToString() will generate a human-readable version of the GTFS-realtime element.

For instance, you can output an entire feed as follows:

FeedMessage fm = ...;

String output = TextFormat.printToString(fm);


Or you can output individual entities:

for (FeedEntity entity : fm.getEntityList()) {
    String output = TextFormat.printToString(entity);

Alternatively, you can call the toString() method on these objects to generate the same output.