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

You can’t talk to a Googler for very long without hearing them recite the company’s mission statement: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Not only does it sound noble, but it’s an all-purpose answer for the sorts of nosey questions tech journalists pose, like why Google would want to buy a company that compiles restaurant reviews (i.e. Zagat), or why it cares about flight reservation systems for airlines (ITA), or why it’s spending $30 million to encourage private companies to send robots to the Moon (the Google Lunar X Prize).

Of course, Google’s mission statement long ago ceased to be a full explanation of its intentions, or of its true impact. Google might like to be seen as a mere arranger of information—the meekly efficient librarian who puts the books back in the stacks every night. But the reality is that the company is too big, too wealthy, and too ambitious to step lightly on the world’s data. There isn’t a marketplace or a category of knowledge that Google can “organize” without remaking it in the process.

In areas like book publishing, video entertainment, and mobile communications, Google’s expanding reach has been exhaustively covered by the press. But there’s one area where Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has exercised a transformative influence almost completely outside the spotlight of media attention: public transportation. The changes are easy to overlook, especially if you never step out of your car, or if you only ride the bus or subway in your own city. But there’s been a dramatic shift over the last five years in the way people plan trips on public transportation and the way transit agencies communicate with their riders—and Google is the main instigator.

This revolution, as with almost everything the company does, is proceeding at Internet scale. More than 475 transit agencies in the U.S. and around the world now submit their operating schedules to Google, which publishes the data as part of its Google Maps service. So whether you’re accessing a map from a desktop browser or a smartphone, you can figure out how to get where you’re going by bus or train, not just by car. To see arrival and departure times for thousands of bus and train lines, you can simply click on the little blue icons that connote transit stops (at least, you can if you’re using a desktop browser or an Android phone).

Live departure times in Google Maps for Mobile

The file format that Google invented in 2006 to make all this possible, called GTFS, has become the de facto world standard for sharing transit data. And now Google is pushing a related standard that enables agencies to alert riders about service delays in real time—thus answering that age-old question, “When’s my bus coming?” So far, Google is displaying these live transit updates for only four U.S. cities (Boston, Portland, OR, San Diego, and San Francisco) and two European cities (Madrid, Spain, and Turin, Italy). But it hopes to add many, many more.

Google’s activism in public transit is having widespread ripple effects. Most importantly, the company’s services are making it easier for public-transit users to plan their bus or train trips to minimize waits and missed connections. In theory, better experiences for riders translate into higher ridership, greater revenues for transit agencies, and less congestion on streets and highways.

On top of that, Google’s leadership has opened up space for a whole ecosystem of transit-app startups. It’s not as if Google invented the idea of putting transit data online—that’s been going on since at least 1994, when a pair of University of California students created a website called to tie together data from 26 transit agencies around the Bay Area. (It’s now called 511 Transit.) But the emergence of a common standard for publishing transit schedules has enabled independent developers who started out building apps tailored to their local systems to think much bigger.

Just look at Embark, a Y Combinator-funded startup in San Francisco. The company’s first mobile trip-planning app in 2008 covered only the Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) system. Now the startup makes apps for … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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