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Google Transit: Here, but Still Texas-Centric

July 8, 2009

With all this Mikey hoopla, I somehow took for granted a story which actually matters: the roll-out of Google Transit in LA. This stunning turn of events has lit up the blogosphere like a firecracker, ironically appropriate for a program launched over Fourth of July weekend. Streetsblog, LAist, the Militant, they’re all gaga for Google. Green LA Girl is both pleased and peeved, since the new transit program doesn’t include the Big Blue Bus (for that matter, where’s Long Beach Transit in all this?) But I really can’t fault their enthusiasm, since G-Trans is pretty nifty after all.

The arrival of Google Transit is such a big event, it has brought the long-dormant Metro Rider LA back from the grave. MRLA leading man Fred Camino, a web designer who is as tech-savvy as they come, is positively gooey for G-Trans:

It’s the Google Maps functionality we’ve grown accustomed to for years now, tailored to our preferred mode of transportation, and it’s brilliant.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that Google has implemented this new program. I’m all for anything that will raise the visibility of public transit in our fair city, and I loves me some Google Maps. But I think we need to take the introduction of G-Trans with a grain of salt. First of all, the methodology of Google’s car-route calculator doesn’t necessarily graft well to public transit trips. A commenter at LAist notes that while planning a route from Pasadena to Venice, G-Trans instructs him to get off the Gold Line at Chinatown, take the 45 to Broadway/Venice, then take the 333 west from there. Google neglects the possibility of riding all the way to Union Station and catching the 333 there, a route which is .15 miles longer but potentially much faster, as any delays to the 45 would significantly increase traveling time. Not to mention that one less ride would save $1.25.

Secondly, a familiarity with transit routes at the macro level can greatly improve the transit-riding experience. In the hypothetical example above, a transit rider using only Google transit might take the 45, thinking it was his only option. But armed with a transit map, he might opt for the 333 at union station, or even Gold Line/Red Line/Blue Line to Pico with a walk to Venice/Flower – hey, it’s possible. I’ve always been a fan of the foldable metro system map, it’s free, comprehensive, and surprisingly portable. It won’t give you instant directions, but it still works pretty well, and it’ll never run out of batteries.

sf map

I still have another bone to pick with Google: where are the cool lines which show the actual train routes? As I noted awhile ago, the Lone-Star city of Dallas is replete with a Google-furnished rail schematic, as are several other American metropolises (San Fran has a rainbow-looking BART stripe running through town). Yet even the introduction of Google Transit in LA didn’t lead to the implementation of actual transit route maps to our little corner of the Google Maps universe.

Fred Camino notes that G-Trans will be a boon for tourists and others who simply can’t figure out the metro system, and I agree. But I think it could be even better. Instead of just ordering transit riders to take certain routes, Google would do well to emulate the metro map as well, allowing transit riders to view alternate routes they might want to take instead. That way, iphone toting tech-hipsters and luddite map readers like myself would both be better off.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2009 1:06 pm

    You make good points about the imperfections in Google Transit, and already there’s a nice argument in the comments over at MetroRiderLA ab0ut these imperfections (ahhh blogging). Certainly there remains many gaps to be filled, but the notion that the fold up Metro system map can compete is a bit naive. Many of the problems with Google Transit are still present and them some even with a system map and a box full of schedules. Sure, when you’re on the road and don’t have the luxury of a google maps enable phone, by all means refer to that map, but I think as we forge forward into the future even the cheapest of phones will be capable of handling google maps.

    As a person who is “as tech-savvy as they come” (lol, appreciate the praise, but I only pretend to know what I’m doing) I find the fact that Metro has made their transit data available to developers ( very promising. I think it gives the possibility for certain enterprising and tech-savvy individuals to take the initiative and do the work required to fill in those gaps, and do it in half the time that it takes certain bureaucratic local transit agencies

  2. July 8, 2009 11:01 pm

    Greetings. I am another fellow poster at MetroRiderLA. One of the reasons its seen a flurry of activity is the reintroduction of my Open Source Transit series. I have worked out bus changes to interface with the Expo Line that will open in about 2 years. And thanks for reading.

    My experience as a rider of going on 30 years now, is that the best transit planning tool remains the static Metro system map PDF. The human brain is a far better route planner than Google Transit or any other machine-processed data.

    One thing to keep in mind in L.A.: There are almost always at least two combinations for virtually all transit trips. There are a few exceptions to this, but that’s for another time.

    Here’s another option for the hypothetical Pasadena to Venice trip: Line 485 to Line 33/333. This is what Google Transit cannot tell you, unless you kick the same trip data in and hope it spits it back out to you.

    Line 485’s advantage over the Gold Line is that it is an easier transfer. Union Station is the worst place in downtown L.A. to transfer, since it involves long walks between the bus stops (some of which are outside of Union Station) and train platforms.

    While Line 485 has some slower street running in Pasadena, it makes up for the time on the freeway and in downtown L.A. Line 485 does not pick up passengers in downtown on inbound trips. This means it can travel to its end terminal, near Venice Boulevard, much quicker than 33 or 333, which must stop everywhere.

    Get out at Venice Boulevard, and walk across the street to catch the westbound 33 or 333. It’s somewhat faster than the Gold Line, and the transfer is easier.

    While I was typing the above, I came across another trip possibility that’s even faster and more reliable. Take the Gold Line or Line 485 to somewhere in downtown and take Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus Line 10.

    Now, Line 10 flies like a rocket on the freeway but only takes you to Santa Monica. It’s about a 30-45 minute walk to Venice, but … in Santa Monica, you can transfer to Big Blue Bus line 1 or 2, or Metro Line 333. Those buses run so frequently, you’ll only have to wait 5-10 minutes for one to show. It’s only about a 15 minute ride to Venice.

    Does this take some advanced degree or some an encyclopedic knowledge of all route maps and schedules? No. It only takes a few minutes of your time to scan the map and see what buses and trains can take you on your journey.

  3. Drew permalink*
    July 9, 2009 1:29 pm

    Wow, what a strong showing from the MRLA crew! Let me just say that I’m a big fan of your efforts over there, and it’s always a pleasure to show your website to anyone who dogmatically asserts that it’s impossible to get around in LA without a car.

    Fred, I think you’re right about the maps not being a total replacement for G-Trans; the map I usually carry only gives a very general indication of when each bus will show up, whereas Google can easily provide the full schedule for each line, and potentially even provide live updates of when buses and trains are delayed. If Google can combine their current trip-advising capability with a simple overlay of a transit map (maybe have a “transit” tab to the left of their traffic tab) I might be ready to retire my map for good, or at least only use it when my phone dies.

    Wad, nice tips, and I’m enjoying your series at MetroRider. Good call on the 485, looks like that would be a good option for anyone beginning closer to Lake in Pasadena, whereas someone starting closer to Fair Oaks might prefer the Gold Line. With a map feature on Google, you might be able to get the best of both worlds. Though, come to think of it, a Google transit map might not include the color coding which I find helpful in determining which bus route to use. Oh well. I still think G-Trans for the MTA is a step forward, but I hope they add more in the way of maps.


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