MBTA Data Helps Google Users Get Around Boston

At a press conference in the bustling lobby of Boston’s South Station this morning, Google and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (known to locals as the “T”) announced that they’ve collaborated to make route and schedule information for all T trains and buses available inside Google Maps.

It’s all information that’s already online at the MBTA’s own Trip Planner website (which includes embedded Google maps), but now it’s accessible to Google’s large number of users, who can go to the “Get Directions” tab of a Google Map, click on the new “By Public Transit” link, and see a list of transportation options, with route maps and estimated trip times for each.

For example, for my own commute from my apartment in the South End to Xconomy’s office in Kendall Square, Google Maps suggests several options: take the #1 bus down Massachusetts Avenue to MIT, then walk (38 minutes); take the Silver Line bus to the Broadway T station, then take the Red Line to Kendall Square (37 minutes); or walk to Boylston Street, then take the Green and Red Lines to Kendall Square (43 minutes).

Using the Street View feature of Google Maps, potential T riders can get a photographic look at locations like bus stops, to better prepare for their trip. The service also works on mobile versions of Google Maps, for Web-capable cell phones such as iPhones, Blackberrys, and Android phones.

“There’s no excuse now not to feel a level of comfort [riding the T] because of the navigability of this new system,” said Dan Grabauskas, general manager of the MBTA.

A Google Transit route Between eight and 10 other cities (including San Diego and Seattle, Xconomy’s other hometowns) have already partnered with Google to put their transit systems’ information into Google Maps, according to Steve Vinter, engineering director for Google’s Boston-area headquarters in Kendall Square.

Getting a new city involved in what Google calls its “Google Transit” program involves two ingredients, Vinter told me after the press event. “There’s a technical part and a non-technical part,” he said. “The technical part is there’s a lot of data that has to be available in a certain format, and it has to be exchanged, and there has to be a system set up to make sure it’s up to date. The non-technical piece, obviously, is a commitment to share the information and to work through the obstacles to get the partnership to be successful. In this case, it’s all come together and it’s working great.”

Vinter says Google didn’t have to do much to clean up the data supplied by the MBTA. “It was in the format we’d requested, but I think it was some work on their side to get it all organized and pulled together. That’s what the big accomplishment was here.”

Of course, the transit directions that Massachusetts residents get from Google Maps is only going to be as accurate as the MBTA’s own data. And as it turns out, there are concerns about whether that data is as up-to-date as it could be. At South Station, I spoke with Jonathan Kamens, a Boston resident who said that the MBTA’s published information about where T buses stop in his neighborhood has been wrong for the last six years. “Now they’re putting that incorrect data into Google Maps, where it will be orders of magnitude more accessible,” Kamens said.

The MBTA may already have identified Kamens as a potential troublemaker. In an unfortunate example of what I saw as overbearing policing, a transit police officer interrupted our interview and threatened to remove Kamens from South Station after she saw him hand me a flyer detailing his unsuccessful attempts to get the MBTA to update the bus route information for his neighborhood. The officer said a permit is required to distribute printed information on MBTA property—even if that printed information is being handed to a journalist. The officer said Kamens was allowed to talk to me all he wanted—he just couldn’t hand me any information on paper. [Update: Kamens has blogged about the incident here.]

I asked Vinter whether putting transit system information online via Google might create an opening for a crowdsourced solution to the MBTA’s alleged data accuracy problems. In Google Maps, after all, it’s possible for any user to correct Google’s own information about the physical locations of street addresses simply by dragging a location marker to the right spot on the map.

“Google has a lot of tools for crowdsourcing,” Vinter agreed. “I think the correction process, as you might understand, is a little more complicated. Changes have to be done in a controlled way and reviewed. I think what this is going to do is make the information that’s there much more publicly visible and accessible, and it’s going to create the opportunity to get a broader review of what’s correct and what’s not, and hopefully allow us to get that feedback loop to happen.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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6 responses to “MBTA Data Helps Google Users Get Around Boston”

  1. sean says:

    Boston is about the 418th city,not 10th, to use google transit. You can see the list on google.com/transit. We were beat out by every other major system in the country (and many abroad) except for D.C.

  2. ricardo says:

    please, oh please, mbta (or google) – just tell us how long it’s gonna be before the next train arrives. It’s a simple problem. Help us waste less time waiting…

  3. Finally! Looking forward to this.

  4. Wade Roush says:

    @sean, it’s true that Google Transit covers 418 transit systems, if you count all the small cities, towns, and regions that supply Google with data—including, just here in New England, the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, MetroWest Regional Transit Authority, Lexington’s Lexpress, and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority. I checked with Google and they said Vinter meant that the MBTA was about the 10th major transit agency to join the program.