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

2/21/12Follow @wroush

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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 »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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