15. Optimizing Shapes

Shape data in a GTFS feed (that is, the records from shapes.txt) represents a large amount of data. There are a number of ways to reduce this data, which can help to:

  • Speed up data retrieval
  • Reduce the amount of data to transmit to app / web site users
  • Speed up rendering of the shape onto a map (such as a native mobile map or a JavaScript map).

Two ways to reduce shape data are as follows:

  • Reducing the number of points in a shape. The shapes included in GTFS are often very precise and include a number of redundant points. Many of these can be removed without a noticeable loss of shape quality using the Douglas-Peucker Algorithm.
  • Encoding all points in a shape into a single value. The Encoded Polyline Algorithm used in the Google Maps JavaScript API can also be used with GTFS shapes. This reduces the amount of storage required and also makes looking up all points in a shape far quicker.

Reducing Points in a Shape

Many of the shapes you find in GTFS feeds are extremely detailed. They often follow the exact curvature of the road and may consist of hundreds or thousands of points for a trip that might have only 30 or 40 stops.

While this level of detail is useful, the sheer amount of data required to be rendered on a map can be a massive performance hit from the perspective of retrieving the data as well as rendering on a map. Realistically, shapes do not need this much detail in order to convey their message to your users.

Consider the following shape from Portland that has been rendered using Google Maps. The total shape consists of 1913 points.

Original Shape

Compare this now to the same shape that has had redundant points removed. The total number of points in this shape is 175, which represents about a 90% reduction.

Reduced Shape

If you look closely, you can see some minor loss of detail, but for the most part, the shapes are almost identical.

This reduction in points can be achieved using the Douglas-Peucker Algorithm. It does so by discarding points that do not deviate significantly between its surrounding points.

The Douglas-Peucker Algorithm works as follows:

  • Begin with the first and last points in the path (A and B). These are always kept.
  • Find the point between the first and last that is furthest away from the line joining the first and last line (the orthogonal distance -- see the figure below).
  • If this point is greater than the allowed distance (the tolerance level), the point is kept (call it X).
  • Repeat this algorithm twice: once using A as the first point and X as the last point, then again using X as the first point and B as the last point.

This algorithm is recursive, and continues until all points have been checked.

Note: The tolerance level determines how aggressively points are removed. A higher tolerance value is less aggressive and discards less data, while a lower tolerance discards more data.

The following diagram shows what orthogonal distance means.

Orthogonal Distance

The following resources provide more information about the Douglas-Peucker Algorithm and describe how to implement it in your own systems:

You can often discard about 80-90% of all shape data before seeing a significant loss of line detail.

Encoding Shape Points

A single entry in shapes.txt corresponds to a single point in a single shape. Each entry includes a shape ID, a latitude and longitude.

Note: The shape_dist_traveled field is also included, but you do not strictly need to use this field (nor the corresponding field in stop_times.txt). The technique described in this section will not work if you intend to use shape_dist_traveled.

This means if you want to look up a shape by its ID, you may need to retrieve several hundreds of rows from a database. Using the Encoded Polyline Algorithm you can change your GTFS database so each shape is represented by a single row in a database. This means the shape can be found much more quickly and much less data needs to be processed to determine the shape.

Consider the following data, taken from TriMet's shapes.txt file. This data represents the first five points of a shape.

18532845.52291 -122.67737210.0

If you apply the Encoded Polyline Algorithm to this data, the coordinates can be represented using the following string.


To learn how to arrive at this value, you can read up on the Encoded Polyline Algorithm at https://developers.google.com/maps/documentation/utilities/polylinealgorithm.

Instead of having every single shape point in a single table, you can create a table that has one record per shape. The following SQL statement is a way you could achieve this.

  shape_id TEXT,
  encoded_shape TEXT

The following table shows how this data could be represented in a database.


Storing the shape in this manner means you can retrieve an entire shape by looking up only one database row and running it through your decoder.

To further demonstrate how both the encoding and decoding works, try out the polyline utility at https://developers.google.com/maps/documentation/utilities/polylineutility.

You can find implementations for encoding and decoding points for various languages at the following locations: