Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thoughts on Google Transit

As you may have heard, the TTC has joined York Region Transit, GO Transit, Hamilton Street Railway, Burlington Transit, Brampton Transit (it's a secret!), Grand River Transit and Guelph Transit by sharing its data with Google (Guelph Transit is currently offline because the city is one giant construction zone right now).  If you want to plan a trip using transit in areas served by these services, just use the same Google Maps interface you would use to plan other trips, but be sure to select the transit option.

I've been a long-time fan of Google Transit (much to the chagrin of a certain someone who, despite leaving negative comments and not responding to rebuttal, is still a cool person), but the benefit of this system over the in-house travel planners that many agencies have developed is two-fold. Google Maps is available to most mobile device users allowing you to plan trips while on the move, whereas the in-house planners often use web code not supported by all mobile browsers. Secondly, Google's trips plans span multiple agencies, so a trip between two random points within the coverage area is just as easy to plan as a trip between two other random points within the coverage area.

Now, Google has a few limitations which users should keep in mind before using.

First, not all transit agencies in the GTHA are participating at this time. Mississauga, Oakville and Durham Region Transit are left to come online, so trips starting or ending within these areas will be limited to a reasonable walking distance of the GO station or GO bus stop. For example, a trip to northern Oakville will probably send you along the 407 route, since a local bus connection from Oakville GO Station is unknown to the system.

Second, the planner tends to pick the first departure available, even if a faster trip is departing soon. For example, a rider is mostly likely to take the 196 York University Rocket from Downsview to York U, but the planner might suggest the 106, the 107 or even VIVA Orange depending on the exact departure time. If you don't like the directions the planner is offering, try shopping around by adjusting the time by a few minutes in either direction. On a related note, leaving a few minutes later may result in a different trip suggestion that is superior to waiting around for the next departure of the original bus. A great example of this is a trip from Yonge/St. Clair to Bramalea GO in the midday, where suggestions alternate between going via Union GO Terminal or via York Mills GO Terminal. This doubles the options available to the rider instead of simply sending them to Union to wait.

Third, Google doesn't support customized trip plans, so if one requires an accessible trip or does not want to use buses (which is really a little dumb in my opinion) then the in-house trip planner is the only option. One day this will be a moot point, as all transit service will be accessible and all transit modes will be attractive.

Fourth, Google uses the scheduled departure times, not the real departure time. If possible, plan trips that arrive at your destination earlier than you need to arrive and select trips which offer plenty of time to make connections. Traffic conditions will make even the best made schedules fall apart, and crossing the street can often take much longer than anticipated.

Finally, Google tends to choose the most efficient route and does not tend to prefer one agency over the other.  This is probably because of the way it does (or doesn't) handle fare rules. In the GTHA, all local transit agencies use a flat fare system where you can travel as far as your transfer allows on a set price. Within the local transit systems, one can trade transfers when connecting to a different agency at the point where two systems connect. GO Transit provides regional service and does not allow transfer trading, but does offer some sort of discount for transfers (but this varies by municipality). The TTC, however, does not participate in either transfer-trading or GO's discount program, but you are permitted to use the transfer from the first TTC bus to board the second TTC bus if you ride GO between those buses. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately - I'll explain later), Google ignores these rules and assumes that a transfer between agencies is the same as a transfer between routes of the same agency.

The upside of this is that the system will show you more efficient routes than you would see if you had used an in-house trip planner. For example, trips between the central business district and the numbered section of South Etobicoke are about ten minutes faster on GO than on the TTC (even with using the TTC for the last mile), and trips from the CBD to the Kingston-Galloway neighbourhood are more than twenty minutes faster. Humber College to U of T Scarborough will save you 40 minutes by using two GO buses and a TTC versus taking two TTC buses. Of course I'm cherry-picking here, but for some trips restricting oneself to a single agency does not make sense. The downside of this is multi-agency trips will likely be more expensive than a single agency trip due to the fare rules at play. The Humber college trip I described will cost $8.15 cash for the GO option, versus $3.00 cash for TTC.

So why is this a blessing in disguise? Because it exposes our odd patchwork of fare rules in a way that the average rider can see - previously this subject was an academic question. Why should someone have to choose between a cheap but slow trip or a fast but expensive one? Why should someone who lives just north of Steeles have to pay a second full fare when they get to Finch when someone living just south of Steeles doesn't? Why should someone on Burnhamthorpe in Toronto have to wait for the TTC bus to come around when the Mississauga Transit bus might be more convenient? Google Transit will make getting around the region more convenient and less daunting, and hopefully further the argument that we need an integrated fare system that doesn't discriminate by mode or agency, and where price increases are logical and gradual.

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