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Google Transit
Jeremy Faludi, 8 Dec 05


One of the biggest obstacles to people using public transportation is learning how the system works--where to go, when to go, etc. Any transit agency worth its salt has trip-planning tools available online, but they generally suffer from poor-to-horrible interfaces, due to lack of development money. This keeps riders away due to confusion. Even if a good system exists in one city, it is always different from that of another city, and newcomers won't know where to find it. Having transit trip-planning data readable and presentable by a clean, easy-to-understand, universal tool will make a big difference. It looks like that's starting to happen.

Google now does public transit. At least, it does for Portland, Oregon. Their experimental rollout has all the schedule & route data of TriMet (the local transit system) with an interface that combines the best of Google maps with the best of current transit trip-planners. It tells you where to walk to, what lines to take when, plots it all out on the map (both walking and riding, with flags to differentiate), and tells you how much it will cost. It even compares the cost of your trip to the cost of driving (for instance, going from the airport to downtown costs $1.80 by transit and $4.27 by car!)

The implementation is still experimental, and there are a couple small bugs and loose ends to be found (sometimes not all the buses in your route show up until you click on the list, and it would be nice if the map showed walking and riding in different colors), but it's already the best interface a trip planning system has ever had. For instance, there's no need to fill out a form to plan your trip, you can just type your start & end addresses (and a time, if you like) into the "get directions" field. It lists your main departure time plus a few subsequent times, so you can see how often the bus runs without needing to click through to a schedule. It labels the modes of transit (bus, light rail, etc.), and tells you the title of each ride (like "75 to St. Johns") you don't accidentally get on the one going in the opposite direction.

Google said on their blog that they chose Portland because "Tri-Met, Portland's transit authority, is a technological leader in public transportation. The team at Tri-Met is a group of tremendously passionate people dedicated to serving their community. And Tri-Met has a wealth of data readily available that they were eager to share with us for this project." The next step will hopefully be to make the system universal, so that Google (or other map providers) will not have to hassle with all the different proprietary data formats for every city's system, and so that people who want to travel between different city's systems (or mix driving with transit) don't have to use multiple tools, they can have one-stop-shopping to plan their trips. As we've suggested before, this will probably mean an open-standard XML or other universal translator for trip planning data.

[Blatant horn-tooting:] When we wrote that earlier article, TriMet's Bibiana McHugh contacted us, because she had had a similar idea; it turned out that some folks at Google had as well, but the TriMet & Google people didn't know how to connect with each other. We were able to make that connection, and six months later, the first step is reality!

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Sounds like one of the better applications of Google's mapping capabilities. Moving the world toward a standardized, user-friendly interface will provide a service that will be heaven for visitors to large cities. Might even cause many from small or medium sized cities who are quite intimidated by mass transit to give it a try.

Posted by: Kathryn on 8 Dec 05

This is excellent news! As a Portland-area native, I am excited and not-just-a-little proud that my home city is the pilot city for this project. Great job Google and I hope to see more cities soon.

[And thanks to Worldchanging if your article really did help bring TriMet and Google together!]

Posted by: Jesse Jenkins on 8 Dec 05

Now, how about a mashup between that and the local real estate listings? I'd love to be able to say I'm looking to buy a condo within 5 blocks of a stop of a certain transit line. Or craigslist (or local newspaper classified) rental ads, for the rental market?

Posted by: Kenneth Trease on 8 Dec 05

OK -- We really, REALLY need Google Transit in LA. We have like 10 different transit systems, all with different routes, fares, stops, and transfer requirements. We have the subway too, I s'pose, though pretty much no one takes it right now -- Google, please come change that!

Posted by: green LA girl on 8 Dec 05

I blogged about Google Transit today. It's angered me by reminding how asburdly protective my city is about its data. They won't even let drivers have access to electronic schedules because they might tamper with them.

Good on worldchanging for making the connection, and Bibiana McHugh and the folks at Trimet for being visionaries.

Kenneth: the only way we'll get those mashups is if Google opens up its API or those agencies share their data. I suspect Google sees the incredible value this project has, and won't open their API right away. They haven't opened their driving directions either.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 9 Dec 05 does an incredible job providing a bus schedule service for Pittsburgh. It is searchable by street, intersection, or bus number, integrates with GoogleMaps to display the location of stops and includes a blog on Pittsburgh bus related news. It will even guess your location based on IP address and suggest the nearest stops. For comparison, check out the absolute horror of the offical Port Authority of Allegheny County website,

buskarma is maintained by an excellent Pittsburgh interaction design company MAYA Design,

Posted by: Eli Pousson on 9 Dec 05

Eli, you're right that Buskarma does a good job of helping people locate bus stops. Finding bus stops is only a small part of the battle in figuring out how to get from point A to point B--which is why Google/TriMet's trip-planner implementation is such a breakthrough--but even little things help. For instance, in Seattle, does a beautiful job of finding stops & routes.

But ultimately it would be great if you could go to some site like Google (or someplace else), and just type in two addresses anywhere in the country and have it tell you everything you need, with no prior knowledge of anything required.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 9 Dec 05

Their prices for the MAX line as stated in my directions are a bit off. It currently costs $1.80; the directions generated say $1.50.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 9 Dec 05

This is a great example! It would be even better if this takes an international approach in the near future. Reliable public transit info is hard to find on the Web for locales outside the United States.

Posted by: Ron Mader on 9 Dec 05

It's great that Google encourage more and more people to use the public transportation system by comparing the cost of trip using Public Transportation.

Posted by: Kivrik on 9 Dec 05



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