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Google Transit Hits Five New Cities and releases API
Jeremy Faludi, 11 Oct 06

googtransit.jpg
You may remember when Google released Google Transit, a version of Google Maps that gives you directions for public transportation. It's a fantastic tool that does exactly what you want--shows you a map and directions of where to walk, what bus to get on, where to get off and walk afterwards (or between buses), etc. This information already exists in most transit systems' online trip planners, but the interfaces are usually so bad that you need to also use mapping tools. (Unless you already know your route and only need timetables.) Google's interface even lets you enter your route in nearly-natural English (for instance, "from 459 N 36th St seattle to 915 E Pine St, Seattle at 9pm"). Making public transportation easier to use will get people out of their cars, which is necessary for a bright green future. We're also particularly excited about Google Transit because we helped make it happen.

The only problem was, Google Transit just existed for Portland, Oregon. Now, however, they have it for five new cities: Seattle WA, Pittsburgh PA, Eugene OR, Tampa FL, and Honolulu HI.

What's even more important is they have published the Google Transit feed specification, so any city that wants to have the Google Transit interface can just write some code to translate their trip planner's output into something Google can read. (And by the way, they licensed the feed spec under a Creative Commons "Attribution-ShareAlike" license. They're really doing things right.) All transit systems' trip planning software is written by a small number of companies who keep their programs proprietary and expensive so they can stay in business; unfortunately this gets in the way of the end product and the users. (It would be nice if their revenue model could change to getting a fee based on ridership, or ridership referred through their trip planner, rather than fixed fees for time and project completion. Then the correct incentives would be in place.) Google understands that having an open spec that people can write to, rather than charging people to do the translation for them, is the best way to spread the innovation and make the system as ubiquitous as possible.

The ultimate tool for making public transit easier to use would get multiple systems to work together. For instance, in the San Francisco bay area, if you want to get from Berkeley to Stanford you face a three-hour odyssey involving four separate transit systems--two bus systems and two light rail systems. In New York, a trip might involve both buses and the subway. Or perhaps it could be used for long-distance commuter park-and-ride planning. Hopefully the next iteration of Google Transit's feed spec will be usable as a universal translator for transit systems, so that you enter your desired route into it, then it feeds the data not just into one system and back out, but from one system to the next to the next so that it all works as a seamless whole. This is obviously a much harder problem, and it would no doubt require cities to work with Google and each other to develop this as an open standard, but it would be tremendously useful to the public, and would hopefully get thousands more people out of their cars.

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Comments

The ultimate tool for making public transit easier to use would get multiple systems to work together. For instance, in the San Francisco bay area, if you want to get from Berkeley to Stanford you face a three-hour odyssey involving four separate transit systems--two bus systems and two light rail systems.

Actually, the Bay Area has had a great resource for that for years called "transitinfo.org" - now called transit.511.org. Here's the output for a trip from Cal to Stanford.

I did some tangential work with two of the Cal students who put it together back in ancient times (1994) -- Mikael Sheikh and Anuj Goel.

http://transit.511.org/abouttransit.asp

Good to see the approach finally get mainstreamed and spread to other areas.

What I'd like to see is Google interface their SMS and Transit apps so that I could set up locations in my account, then text them simple queries to get real-time scheduling, especially based upon where the vehicles actually are as opposed to what the schedule says. It'd then be fairly easy to migrate that over to a local ridesharing system for on-the-fly rides.

Most of these trip planning apps on the Web also are able to parse out intersection and landmark data, so it would also be nice for locations you don't have preset if one could do things like "airport to home" or "main & elm to work" etc, then maybe have an extra confirmation step with a response message from their server.

Either way, it'd be a nice bridge before location-aware cell phones become ubiquitous.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 11 Oct 06

Another online tool is "Picsfromspace, lookup your place by address", showing satellitepictures at streetlevel.
Try it on "www.walweb.nl/picsfromspace"


Posted by: walweb on 11 Oct 06

Okay Jeremy -- As an LA blogger who considers herself relatively web savvy, I clicked on your Google Transit feed specification link, and got totally lost. Seriously -- Those are not directions that regular peeps who care about public transit can follow! Am I missing something? If so, pls hel me out, cuz we desparately need Google Transit in LA --


Posted by: green la girl on 12 Oct 06

Green LA Girl --

Try here:
http://socaltransport.org/tm_pub_start.php

or simply start with the simple planner interface on the Metro homepage:
http://www.metro.net/default.asp

I tested it with a trip from the county government center in San Bernardino to LAX leaving 10am tomorrow to see if it could route across different transit systems. No problem. Actually spit back 4 options.

Not as pretty as Google, but I assume the information is accurate.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 12 Oct 06

See busmonster.com to see some additional capabilities for multiple bus stops, routes, and traffic conditions. Yes, it's only for seattle (fine for me). Transit is an important addition by google. Thanks.


Posted by: Arthur Knapp on 14 Oct 06

Green la girl, the specs are for developers. Whoever creates the timetables for the transit agency or agencies in LA should be able to follow them. Jeremy's spot on when he says companies want to keep the information proprietary to protect their revenue model.


Posted by: David Goulden on 15 Oct 06

As a New Yorker, I'm so glad to hear about this, but it doesn't do me much good... :)

Luckily, http://www.hopstop.com saves the day. They have integrated with transit systems from New York, DC, Boston, SF, and Chicago.

I've had good luck with their routes - and they will give you combined subway/bus routes, as well as two options - more walking/less walking, more xfers/less xfers.

cheers,
karl


Posted by: Karl Brown on 16 Oct 06



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