Loop routes and headsigns in Google Maps transit trip planner user interface

One of Trillium’s roles for our clients is to advocate for our GTFS publishing clients.  We provide feedback to applications and trip planning sites that use the GTFS, making recommendations for how information provided to customers could be improved.  The latest example of this is feedback provided to Google regarding loop routes and headsigns in Google Maps.  Here’s the correspondence.

Google Transit team and Google Transit Partners:

Many transit services in small cities operate “loop”-shaped routes.  Trillium has found that the Google Maps UI does not accommodate loop routes in an ideal way, particularly with regard to displaying headsigns.  This post describes the issue in further detail, as well as the great number of services that are affected by this issue.  This post also makes suggestions for how to better accommodate various styles of service and approaches to headsign information in Google Maps.  Feedback and responses from the Google Transit team and GTFS publishers and consumers is very welcome.

In transit itineraries, Google Maps currently prefaces headsign information with “towards” so customers see text such as “Line 6 Bus towards Jantzen Beach.”  (example: http://g.co/maps/d3hcd) In the pop-up bubbles in the map view, Google Maps shows “Line 6 Bus Direction: Jantzen Beach.”  If no value is provided for trip_headsign, Google Maps shows the name of the last stop as the destination for a trip.

This directional information works well for routes that travel outbound and inbound to different terminuses.  However, loop routes start and end at the same station.  Most often, one vehicle operates continuously on loop routes.

Loop routes are a *very* common feature in small transit systems.  The majority of Trillium’s clients’ transit services include loop routes.  50 of our client transit services collectively operate approximately 195 loop routes.

Trillium has found that the Google Maps UI does not accommodate loop routes well.  One of the primary issues concerns the display of headsigns.  Most agencies that operate loop routes express objections to the options currently available for showing their loop services.  “Red Route Bus towards Transit Center” doesn’t make sense, especially if the customer is traveling away from the Transit Center.

To get around this issue, Trillium has prepared some GTFS in which a trip_headsign of “[Loop]” indicates a loop service.  This compromise helps customers understand the idea that the loop route does provide service in different travel directions, however it still yields an awkward result.

This is an example result for Eureka Transit Service: http://g.co/maps/7hsz3

Oshkosh Transit System: http://g.co/maps/5jswe

San Benito County Express operates two opposite-direction loops (Green and Blue Lines).  We use headsigns of “Clockwise” and “Counterclockwise” for these trips: http://g.co/maps/bh5cu

I can provide many additional examples if they would be useful.

I suggest that Google Maps should display destination information in a way that will better accommodate loop routes.  Specifically, I ask that destination/travel direction information should be suppressed in cases where trip_headsign is not provided.  Alternatively, destination information could be suppressed if the stop_id for the first and last stop time records is the same, but this may not cover every possible case in which data publishers may prefer that trip_headsign information is not displayed.

[Update 7-March-2012: I changed the text in the above and below paragraphs, substituting destination information for headsign in many cases.  Earlier, I had meant the GTFS’s trip_headsign values with the use of the word headsign, but the phrase “destination information” captures this better.  As I understand it, “headsign” usually refers to the entire text that is shown on the vehicle readerboard (or destination indicator).]

Additionally, there are many cases in which an earlier style Google Maps used to show destination/trip_headsign information yielded better results.  Formerly, destinations were shown after “Direction:” instead of after “towards.”  “Towards” does create a more natural phrase, but “Direction” makes sense with a greater variety of possible trip_headsign values, such as  “Clockwise” (in the case of loop routes), or “Northbound” or “Inbound” (for directional routes).  Therefore, I request that Google Maps consider returning to the earlier display style.

Do any other feed publishers or consumers have feedback or responses regarding this issue?  I am also very interested in responses from the Google Maps team.

Thanks for your consideration,

Relevant threads:

“Best practices for loops” (http://groups.google.com/group/google-transit-help-troubleshooting/browse_thread/thread/e09e9578fe4c43ea/024e799fff97f90f?lnk=gst&q=loop#024e799fff97f90f)

Trip_id and block_id for loops (http://groups.google.com/group/google-transit-help-troubleshooting/browse_thread/thread/f56dd192d0a20b54/cb496ff9f1f22696?lnk=gst&q=loop#cb496ff9f1f22696)

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.