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

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parse through. We want this to a be a spec that anyone can work with and propose features and make that happen, without us being the elephant in the room.”

The Best Computer Is the One You Have With You

The reality, of course, is that Google can’t enter any room without being the elephant. And in many ways, that’s a positive thing. When Google bought a small geographical information systems (GIS) startup called Keyhole back in 2004, it wound up disrupting the whole digital-mapping industry, where expensive, professional desktop software had previously ruled. Now anybody can open a free Google map on their smartphone, browse a virtual globe in Google Earth, or get detailed directions from Penzance to Tintagel. (If you ask Google Transit to show you how to get from Union Square in San Francisco to Pioneer Square in Seattle entirely on public transportation, it will oblige.)

Few other companies could have brought about such a swift change—or moved so quickly to take advantage of advances in mobile and location-finding technology.

“For me, personally, Google Earth on the phone is something I could only dream of in the year 2000,” says Chikai Ohazama, a Keyhole co-founder who’s now director of product management for the Google’s Mobile Geo team. “You barely had broadband penetration. There was no 3D graphics on desktops, let alone phones. But today all the dreams we had have come true on the phone.”

Google Maps for Mobile on an Android device

Indeed, if there’s an overarching logic to Google’s involvement in transit data, and location information more generally, the smartphone is its organizing premise. Like its rival Apple, Google sees your phone as an intelligent gateway to a growing world of content, applications, and local information. Since it’s the computer you always have with you, it’s the one you’re most likely to use to navigate your way across town, and to zero in on a particular store or restaurant once you get there. “We like to say a phone has eyes, ears, skin, and a sense of location,” Katie Watson, head of Google’s communications team for mobile technologies, told me last year. “It’s always with you in your pocket or purse. We really want to leverage that.”

In fact, to understand Google’s vision for mobile maps at its fullest, you have to experience it through Google’s mobile operating system, Android. If you’re browsing a map on an Android phone, you can see transit data instantly by tapping on the blue icon for your local bus, train, or streetcar stops. (These icons aren’t clickable on other mobile platforms.) And only on an Android phone can you access related features like 3D maps, a terrain layer, indoor views, turn-by-turn or stop-by-stop navigation, and Places, Google’s Yelp-like catalogue of business locations. Yes, Google Maps still works on iPhones, Windows phones, BlackBerry devices, and Symbian devices—but the experience feels impoverished by comparison.

“What’s really great about Google Maps for mobile is that it offers one-stop shopping,” says Google’s Martha Welsh. “It’s not just about getting from Point A to Point B, it’s really about the opportunity to explore and interact with your environment.”

So far, Google isn’t making aggressive use of its map- or navigation-related products to serve advertisements. (On the Web, you’ll see an occasional keyword-based ad on Google’s street-view and indoor-view pages for businesses, but I’ve never come across an ad on a Google mobile map or a transit data page.) That’s not to say that Google has ruled out monetizing these services. It’s just that for now, they’re offered as part of the larger family of free products—from Gmail to Chrome to Picasa—that make Google so sticky.

The more transit data Google can provide to its mobile users, the more confident they’ll feel that the bus or train will get them to their destination on time (which is why the company is so committed to GTFS-realtime). And the better they’ll feel about leaving the car at home—or not buying one in the first place.

Indeed, if you listen to a public-transit enthusiast like Brian Ferris—who says he hasn’t owned a car in almost eight years—you begin to wonder what other forms of anti-driving persuasion the company may plan to apply.

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—or how much they’ll pay for car insurance and parking in each neighborhood. “If we can capture information about all the external costs we don’t represent now…[and] if we can give you as much information as possible when it comes time to make a decision about where to live or whether to get into a cab versus a car versus a bus, those are the ways we can encourage people to use public transit,” says Ferris. It’s all just another example of “organizing the world’s information,” he says. But like so many of Google’s ideas, it may be one that will help reorganize the world along the way.

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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