Sunday, December 11, 2005

News From My Backyard: Google Public Transit Launches, Portland Flagship City


[Note: This is the first of what will become another irregularly continueing series of posts that will focus on news from my backyard - that is, the Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon. If you scan back over my previous posts, you'll see quite a few that would fit into this category and I figured I'd start identifying them with the 'News From My Backyard' headline from now on. Now on to the story...]

Google has unvieled the beta version of its new Transit Trip Planner online service. Like their popular and easy to use driving directions feature, Google Local, Google's Transit Trip planner makes it easy to get from point A to point B - only this time using mass transit instead of that darn gas-guzzlin' car.

Google chose Portland, Oregon as the flagship city for the launch of the Planner. The Planner currently only works for the Portland-metro area under the service of TriMet, the local transit authority. The Planner currently has all the route and schedule data for TriMet's routes.
[It seemed to be missing some stops in my hometown of Forest Grove however and told me to walk 45 minutes into neighboring Cornelius to catch the 57 line which stops 6 blocks from my house - there are likely a few kinks to iron out as this is still a beta version].

According to Google:

"We chose to launch with the Portland metro area for a couple of reasons. TriMet, Portland's transit authority, is a technological leader in public transportation. The team at TriMet is a group of tremendously passionate people dedicated to serving their community. And TriMet has a wealth of data readily available that they were eager to share with us for this project. This combination of great people and great data made TriMet the ideal partner."

The interface looks and feels just like Googles Local's maps and driving directions. It tells you where to walk to to get on the mass transit lines, what lines to take when, where to transfer, etc. all of which it plots out on the zoomable, scrollable maps you're used to from Local with walking and riding differentiated by flags. It estimates how long the trip should take and even tells you how much the trip will cost and compares it to the cost of driving. It allows you to specify start and finish addresses and even lets you choose a specific departure time, suggesting the best combination of routes to get you where you want to go in the shortest period of time based on the desired start time.

As anyone who has tried to use public transit at any point to get around a metropolitan area, one of the hardest parts is the process of learning how the system works--how to get where you want to go, when to buses run, etc. If you are like me, you probably only devote the effort to get to a few, specific locations around town you frequently travel to. Figuring out how to get somewhere new can be a bit of a hassle and this can be a major obstacle for many who want to utilize a public transit system, no matter how extensive and useful the system is.

Any transit agency worth its salt usually has some kind of trip-planning tool online already, but they generally suffer from sub-par to absolutely unusable interfaces due to lack of development money/talent/effort. This generally means only the most patient or dedicated use the trip-planners. Even if a good system exists in one city, there is no standard application and each is developed specifically for that city. Thus, newcomers to any city won't know where to find their local trip planning tools or how to use them if they did. Having transit trip-planning data in a readable and presentable form utilizing an easy-to-understand and use interface that can be used universally across the country or world will make a big difference. It looks like that's exactly what Google is trying to do.

They will be working to develop a standard format for transit system data and trying to expand their Planner to cover other transit areas beyond Portland.

Google employees have the freedom to spend 20% of their work week working on their own pet projects, independent of direction from managers and other higher ups. The policy is known as "20 Percent Time" and a lot of Google's most innovative tools got their starts here, including the Transit Trip Planner. According to Google's official blog:
"So not too long ago, a few engineers from San Francisco, New York, and Zurich -- all of whom regularly use public transportation -- decided that being able to plan local trips without having to go to multiple websites, and done in an easy, intuitive way would be a useful product. So they devoted their 20 percent time to building it. As it happens, a lot of people thought this was a great idea, and our small team quickly grew with "twenty-percenters" from across Google."


I've got to say, I'm proud that Portland is the first city to be included in this latest of Google's innovations. I'm also excited to see the Transit Trip Planner spread to other cities and hopefully become a universal system accross the country or even the world. It will no doubt have a positive impact on ridership in the cities that it includes. Props to Google and the dedicated employees who devoted their 20% time to working on a very worthwhile project!

Note: for those of you, like myself, who use Safari as your web browser, the Transit Trip Planner unfortunately does not work in Safari, yet anyway. Google suggests Firefox as an alternative and is working on adding Safari compatability soon. (Remember, this is a beta version)

1 comment:

eugenio said...

Thanks to you for the interest. Ah, I'have put your blog on my rss :-)