Google Transit benefits

This article appeared in the Times-Standard on October 23, 2007.

Google Transit is a new service that provides customized public transit itineraries. If you’ve ever used a website like MapQuest for driving directions, you will instantly understand Google Transit.

To figure out how to travel somewhere using Google Transit, just enter starting and ending locations and the time and date to arrive or leave by and Google Transit returns a selection of travel options, travel itinerary and map with walking directions. Google Transit even returns instructions for transferring between buses and systems.

Through the participation of Humboldt Transit Authority and the work of my company, Transit Information Solutions, Humboldt County recently became the most rural area in the United States to be included in Google Transit. Try it yourself by visiting www.google.com/transit and entering some locations in our county — “Humboldt State University,” “ACV,” “Moonstone Beach,” or another location. You can also get to the trip planner from our area’s new transit websites, linked from www.hta.org.

Metropolitan districts like L.A., the San Francisco Bay Area, or Chicago have offered online trip planners for years. But Google Transit is novel in its aim to include transit districts whose size, budget, or expertise level has previously limited their offerings in the online world.

Google Transit isn’t only attracting the interest of areas that don’t already have online trip planners, however. Many areas that already offer services like the San Francisco Bay Area’s 511.org have already, or are in the process of, publishing their data to Google Transit because of its advantages.

These advantages come by virtue of Google’s ability to “horizontally integrate” their products and services. For example, Google Maps driving directions maps offer two tabs — “Drive there” and “Take public transit.” A driver unaware of transit opportunities may click the “transit” tab to discover a convenient route they would have never learned about otherwise.

Google Transit compares transit fares with the cost of driving, based on IRS per-mile figures accounting for the fixed and variable costs of driving. A trip from Eureka to Moonstone Beach costs $2.20 by bus, for example, versus an estimated driving cost of $9.60.

The tiny transit stop icons that show up on Google Maps are another example of horizontal integration at work. Say you look up a downtown location and notice a tiny bus icon nearby. Click it, and Google displays the routes that serve the location and the times the bus stops there. Complete transit directions are one click away.

The same feature shows up in Google Earth, Google’s free software to explore the globe in eye-popping 3D. In Google Earth, you can turn on and off a transit layer that shows transit stops. In the future, the software will display the actual transit route paths for Humboldt County.

Having transit stop information included in Google Earth will allow more and better citizen participation in the transit planning process. It will help people use data to make decisions about where they live, work, and play. Google Maplets, for example, already allow people to create geographic “mashups” quickly and easily. For example, if transit is an important consideration in where you want to live, it is possible to view real estate or rental listings and transit stops plotted on the same map.

But, why is Google offering Google Transit free-of-charge to transit operators and riders? In an online conference, Tom Sly, Google New Business Development, explained that “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Additionally, Google has indicated they are concerned about global climate change (it’s worth noting Al Gore is a Senior Advisor at the company) and that they believe promoting good environmental practices within and without of their company is not only a corporate responsibility but good business planning.

From my perspective, I have little choice but to agree. Google has provided a way to make transit more convenient for Humboldt County, and therefore facilitate more sustainable transportation habits.

If you were to ask me what the transportation of the future looks like, rather than point to the latest hybrid model or prototype hyrdrogen car, I’d advise you to check out Google Transit. Look for information technology, in the form of websites and fancy mobile phones and PDAs to play an ever increasing role in helping get to places we need to be conveniently, cheaply, and more sustainably by bus, train, rideshare, and other modes.

Aaron Antrim is the Principal of Transit Information Solutions and the Outreach Director for Green Wheels NEC.

Aaron is the founding principal of Trillium Solutions, Inc. He brings experience that includes 12 years of web-development with 8 years in public transportation, with knowledge of fixed-route transportation, paratransit, rural transportation, and active transportation modes. Aaron is a recognized expert in developing data standards, web-application design, digital communications, and online marketing strategy. He originally developed Trillium’s GTFS Manager, and has played a key role in the development of the GTFS data specification since 2007.