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.

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

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