Google Transit: How (and Why) the Search Giant is Remapping Public Transportation

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moved on to Google, King County Metro Transit, Sound Transit, Pierce Transit, and UW recently committed $150,000 to keep the app running at least through the end of 2012. (That’s music to the ears of at least one Seattleite: Xconomy’s own Curt Woodward, who tells me that OneBusAway is “indispensable…hands down the only good way of navigating the bus system in Seattle.”)

“I felt with OneBusAway that I was having a real impact on people,” Ferris says. “People would stop me on the street and say, ‘This is changing the way I live, the way I get around.’ Open data and standardization is what made that possible.”

Embark’s founder tells a similar story. Because its first application, iBART, used GTFS, the company was well positioned to build similar transit apps for other cities. “It certainly wasn’t easy going,” says David Hodge, who started the company with Ian Leighton three and a half years ago. “We had to convince a lot of transit agencies to give us their data. But it would have been much more of an uphill battle” if these agencies hadn’t already been using GTFS to send their data to Google Transit.

Embark's iBART app on the iPhone

Embark’s free, ad-supported apps also prove that a little openness can support a lot of innovation. The startup’s iBART app and its sister apps for transit systems in Boston, Chicago, London, Long Island, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington are arguably far cooler than anything Google has developed. One nice feature: the apps keep working—that is, you can still input a starting point and a desired ending point and get back a route and schedule recommendation—even when you’re underground and cut off from the Internet. The app sends you a push notification if your usual train is running late. Embark even adjusts its estimates of walking times between stations according to measurements of local citizens’ customary walking pace. (This varies quite a bit between cities, interestingly.)

“We think there is a lot of room for people like us to make applications that are very tailored for specific regions, and to add features that Google may not be interested in,” says Hodge. This month, Embark’s New York City app beat out 41 other apps for the $5,000 grand prize in the MTA App Quest. And back in its home city, San Francisco, the startup’s app continues to win more users: about 3 percent of all trips taken on BART begin with a query on iBART, Hodge says. “If you think about how many people are planning trips, that’s a bunch,” he says.

Still, it’d be wrong to attribute all of these changes to Google and GTFS. Hodge says Embark and other transit-app startups are “riding a number of waves,” the biggest being the arrival of the mobile app store concept in North America and Europe, largely thanks to Apple. Wave number two is the spread of cheap and accurate location-finding technology such as GPS. Then there’s the general ubiquity of Internet-connected smartphones, which are quickly weaning people from their 2005-era habit of printing out a map at home before they leave on a trip. “Our thesis is that in the age of the smartphone, you shouldn’t have to think about how to get somewhere,” says Hodge. Clearly, millions of consumers now share that thesis.

Events Occur In Real Time

As important as it was to get transit schedules off of printed bus-station placards and onto the Internet, that was just the first step in the modernization of trip planning. GTFS applies only to “static” data—the ideal, theoretical schedule to which bus drivers and train conductors try to adhere. But as any rider of public transit knows, theory and reality often—quite often—diverge.

If your morning bus to work was running 10 minutes late and you knew that in advance, you could have one more cup of coffee at home before grabbing your umbrella and saying goodbye to the kitty. That’s the whole concept behind Live Transit Updates, a feature added to Google Maps for six cities last June. If you’re in Boston, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Madrid, or … Next Page »

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

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33 responses to “Google Transit: A Search Giant Remaps Public Transportation”

  1. Helen says:

    Google Maps really helps people when they visit or move to a new city. You can find out how to take the bus before you go. Now we just need to get more small towns on it.

  2. prev says:

    Well look at the situation with internet traffic and specifically email spam traffic (they say 90% of email is spam). Also the situation of bogus website. If you run a search most of the sites are just plain bogus useless nonsense.

    Wonder what google can do about this?

  3. Jason says:

    The article paints Google as this nice company out to help the average guy but then near the end the statement, “You have to use Android to get it.” basically shows it’s self promoting.

    If the APIs aren’t provided for iOS or Microsoft Mobile also, than although a terrific feature, we see the real motives.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with them developing and keeping this feature for themselves, but we don’t need an article suggesting it’s a goodwill project from Google.

  4. Mike says:

    Hopefully Google Maps will continue to innovate and offer valuable services to people looking to use public transit From having worked in the business world that sells software to transit agencies I can say that the business model is broken. The transit industry still lives in the old enterprise software model where the software costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for clunky, difficult to use software that takes months if not years to implement. Google can help to move the transit software industry in the right direction.

  5. tookie says:

    Jason, it’s available on the desktop version of Maps as well. Put it this way, if you’re a developer working for Apple, would you make apps that support iOS first, or Android first? If you answered iOS, you already answered your question. If you answered Android, you’re lying.

    It does not make sense for Google to leave its Android user base with sub-par app, and make the app for other platforms fantastic. It’ll be shooting themselves in the foot, and driving users away from their own platform. This, obviously, makes no sense. Why do you think Microsoft puts Internet Explorer instead of Mozilla Firefox in their OS distributions?

  6. Richard says:

    If only Google could allow you to change the font size and the colors to white text on black background in its transit schedules, then low-vision people who depend on transit could read them.

  7. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Jason: You don’t have to use an Android device to get Google Transit data. The APIs are pretty open, as far as I know, and the schedules (and the live updates, where available) can be viewed on all mobile platforms — it just takes a few extra clicks or taps if you’re using an iPhone or another non-Android device. On Android devices, Google has outfitted Google Maps with the extra nifty features I mentioned, like clickable icons at transit stops, and turn-by-turn and stop-by-stop navigation.

  8. Ray says:

    Glad to see Dan Gildea and Mikael Shiekh get the BATIP shoutout. I helped them collect the data for the small Bay Area agencies, and I feel having all this information available helped MTC take notice and eventually take over their work.

  9. David says:

    Iam developng realtime vehicleclient applications..
    Right now I am testing my android app which interacts with 1000 taxis in real time …its harder than you think.. my hope is to create system/api which will be transferable to other cities within one month saving money and time of implementations for other taxi companies… and that is similar whats GOOGLE is doing for public transport… and that can save lot of money for all of us.. if we try.. try to push our boundaries and see beyond what sharing can bring for your company and others. I see definitely markets where they differ in magnitude of their business protectionism. From my experience… give them small piece…show them that they can profit from it and only then show them even bigger picture and they will truely understand advantages of investment and opening data for others.. (gtfs->gtfs-realtime)

  10. “One natural extension of Google Transit, Ferris suggests, would be a software tool that shows people hunting for a house or an apartment how long their commute to work would be by bus or car”

    This exists as Walk Score Apartment Search:

  11. Google Maps has done great things for bicycling as well. The bicycle is an essential partner with public transportation in sprawling cities like those found in the U.S. with inadequate train and bus service.

    Here’s a radio story from Marketplace about what Google and others are doing on that:

  12. I am still using an old cell phone and wanted to get an iphone, but after reading your very interesting article, I believe I will look into one of the Samsung androids from Google with 16 GB internal memory (SD Card). Google is the big elephant in the room. I like to drive and can not commute on public trans where I live. Good things come from big companies (Google Maps etc.) but invariably they may end up inflicting their views on us all.

  13. Neil Henry says:

    Is there a technical path to using aggregated user data (last transit query + GPS stream) to produce a more accurate Transit RealTime result? I recognize that there are both privacy and technical issues to address. If presented well to users, many would be willing to contribute GPS data (and a bounded amount of upstream bandwidth/$) to get to a refined real-time transit awareness. Note, this is a different approach to the one used by

  14. Khushi_Kumari says:

    Google map has done very nice job!!

    transportation company