Alex Goldmark is a senior producer in the newsroom for New Tech City and Transportation Nation.
"There's no more need to guess when to leave." That's the bold claim from Google today, as it announced the addition of real time transit information in Google Maps for four U.S. cities and two in Europe. Instead of making a mental calculation about which train to take, or wondering whether to wander out in pouring rain, you can check when all the trains or buses near you are actually going to leave, not just when they are scheduled to leave.
The data come from GPS devices embedded in the actual buses, and other real-time data collected by the transit agencies.
Boston is one of six cities to get Google real time mapping along with San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Madrid, Spain and Turin, Italy. The data includes service delays, just like HopStop.com, but the real innovation is that you can see, right on Google Maps, when the next bus is coming at any given station, just by clicking on the station icon.
So when you click on Boston's Park Street T station this pops up. You see bus routes, and T lines. Click on that, and you get the departure times for all the lines. This is "huge news," Josh Robin, Director of Innovation and Special Projects for Boston's MBTA.
Departure times aren't always so frequent as these are from downtown Boston on a weekday rush hour. On weekends or late nights some buses run only once an hour. So imagine you are eating at a restaurant, or getting ready to leave your friend's house. You can pull out your phone, bring up Google Maps, which will know where you are, and click on the nearest station to see that you have to leave right away, or that you can kick around for another 20 minutes. And if you have to decide which of two lines at two stations to take, you'll now see which is coming first. Now imagine if it were raining outside. Handy, and it all makes riding transit more convenient, which makes it more likely that more people will do it.
Boston has made GPS data available to third party program developers since 2009, so there are already a handful of mobile apps that answer the "when to leave question." And they're popular, at least when it's raining. In Boston, when there's bad weather, one in four bus riders use existing transit apps that have real time arrival data.
But the new service means a big expansion of who uses the data. "With Google having a massive user base in the hundreds of millions, this is the next big step towards making real-time data truly ubiquitous," Robin told Transportation Nation.
Google told the Boston Globe that 200 million people use Google Maps from their phones every month, that's 40 percent of all Google Maps searches.
You can already get transit directions on Google Maps, in most cities, just as you've been able to all along. And there's still HopStop.com, which does a great job, MapQuest and other map programs that have their own versions of the service. What the real time data adds is a feature that tells you when to leave your house right there in the directions.
So, this search, for San Francisco directions done at 5:24 p.m. suggests I leave 20th and Mission at 5:30 p.m. In essence saying, sit tight, keep reading Transportation Nation for another six minutes before heading out. A valuable service indeed.
Live in one of the six cities? Test it out. And tell us how it's working in your area. Are the times actually accurate? Are the directions correct? Is it helpful? Let us know.