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 Transitinfo.org 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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  • Google Maps really helps people when they visit or move to a new city. You can find out how to take the bus before you go. Now we just need to get more small towns on it.

  • prev

    Well look at the situation with internet traffic and specifically email spam traffic (they say 90% of email is spam). Also the situation of bogus website. If you run a search most of the sites are just plain bogus useless nonsense.

    Wonder what google can do about this?

  • Jason

    The article paints Google as this nice company out to help the average guy but then near the end the statement, “You have to use Android to get it.” basically shows it’s self promoting.

    If the APIs aren’t provided for iOS or Microsoft Mobile also, than although a terrific feature, we see the real motives.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with them developing and keeping this feature for themselves, but we don’t need an article suggesting it’s a goodwill project from Google.

  • Mike

    Hopefully Google Maps will continue to innovate and offer valuable services to people looking to use public transit From having worked in the business world that sells software to transit agencies I can say that the business model is broken. The transit industry still lives in the old enterprise software model where the software costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for clunky, difficult to use software that takes months if not years to implement. Google can help to move the transit software industry in the right direction.

  • tookie

    Jason, it’s available on the desktop version of Maps as well. Put it this way, if you’re a developer working for Apple, would you make apps that support iOS first, or Android first? If you answered iOS, you already answered your question. If you answered Android, you’re lying.

    It does not make sense for Google to leave its Android user base with sub-par app, and make the app for other platforms fantastic. It’ll be shooting themselves in the foot, and driving users away from their own platform. This, obviously, makes no sense. Why do you think Microsoft puts Internet Explorer instead of Mozilla Firefox in their OS distributions?

  • Richard

    If only Google could allow you to change the font size and the colors to white text on black background in its transit schedules, then low-vision people who depend on transit could read them.

  • Jason: You don’t have to use an Android device to get Google Transit data. The APIs are pretty open, as far as I know, and the schedules (and the live updates, where available) can be viewed on all mobile platforms — it just takes a few extra clicks or taps if you’re using an iPhone or another non-Android device. On Android devices, Google has outfitted Google Maps with the extra nifty features I mentioned, like clickable icons at transit stops, and turn-by-turn and stop-by-stop navigation.

  • Ray

    Glad to see Dan Gildea and Mikael Shiekh get the BATIP shoutout. I helped them collect the data for the small Bay Area agencies, and I feel having all this information available helped MTC take notice and eventually take over their work.

  • Iam developng realtime vehicleclient applications..
    Right now I am testing my android app which interacts with 1000 taxis in real time …its harder than you think.. my hope is to create system/api which will be transferable to other cities within one month saving money and time of implementations for other taxi companies… and that is similar whats GOOGLE is doing for public transport… and that can save lot of money for all of us.. if we try.. try to push our boundaries and see beyond what sharing can bring for your company and others. I see definitely markets where they differ in magnitude of their business protectionism. From my experience… give them small piece…show them that they can profit from it and only then show them even bigger picture and they will truely understand advantages of investment and opening data for others.. (gtfs->gtfs-realtime)

  • “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”

    This exists as Walk Score Apartment Search: http://www.walkscore.com/apartments/

  • Google Maps has done great things for bicycling as well. The bicycle is an essential partner with public transportation in sprawling cities like those found in the U.S. with inadequate train and bus service.

    Here’s a radio story from Marketplace about what Google and others are doing on that:

    http://www.marketplace.org/topics/tech/transportation-nation/techies-cutting-edge-bike-commuting#comment-55946

  • I am still using an old cell phone and wanted to get an iphone, but after reading your very interesting article, I believe I will look into one of the Samsung androids from Google with 16 GB internal memory (SD Card). Google is the big elephant in the room. I like to drive and can not commute on public trans where I live. Good things come from big companies (Google Maps etc.) but invariably they may end up inflicting their views on us all. truckersgpssystems.com
    Al

  • Neil Henry

    Is there a technical path to using aggregated user data (last transit query + GPS stream) to produce a more accurate Transit RealTime result? I recognize that there are both privacy and technical issues to address. If presented well to users, many would be willing to contribute GPS data (and a bounded amount of upstream bandwidth/$) to get to a refined real-time transit awareness. Note, this is a different approach to the one used by 511.org

  • Khushi_Kumari

    Google map has done very nice job!!

    transportation company