I knew it would eventually come, but I didn’t realize how excited I would be to hold transit directions in the palm of my hand! Much of the inconvenience of riding transit is the lack of information. Google and Apple have just broken through the first barrier of inconvenience by bringing pervasive information to transit riders (which is my only means of getting around Denver). In case you haven’t heard, Apple just released version 2.2 of it’s iPhone operating system including updates to the Maps application, enabling transit and walking directions (as well as street view). Of course, this breakthrough is currently limited to iPhone users. While Google Transit was a welcome addition to their mapping platform and greatly simplified trip planning, it still required looking ahead. We don’t always have the foresight or ability to plan an entire day of trips. And the number of schedules I would have to carry around everywhere would be comical if not impossible.
Now there are very practical reasons why I am excited about this as a user of and advocate for transit, but this upgrade to Google Maps is pointing toward something much more exciting and potentially transformational. Behind this innovation was an XML standard released by Google for transit information, making it far easier to share and exchange transit data across agencies, technologies, and organizations. I am eagerly awaiting for Google to release an API that let’s users create transit mashups.
What is holding this up? Well transit agencies are very proprietary about their data (my home city’s transit agency SEPTA hasn’t even signed up with Google yet, opting instead for an expensive, proprietary system). It will be a matter of time before Google comes up with a creative solution to balance private concerns against the public good or before transit agencies realize how much money they will save and make by crowdsourcing transit information systems.
One easy to imagine application would be a text message query system that would simply return the times and bus routes of the next 3 or 4 buses coming to a stop. This would help people make the often harrowing decision, should I wait for the bus or walk or take a cab? Then if only we could just get all the buses and trains to arrive on time or, better yet, report their location in real time so that any mobile user could get accurate updates on bus arrivals and departures. Heck, transit agencies could even use long term data to adjust schedules dynamically. Then we would have a truly pervasive transit information system that we could all hold in our pocket.
The possibilities are exciting, but it will take another breakthrough that involves transit agencies opening up their data to developers and eager transit lovers like myself.