Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Transit Routes on Google: Soon with Circulator!

Soon Baltimore will get a step closer of towards integrated transit display on Google maps. Barring a last minute objection of Baltimore's Board of Estimates (not a totally predictable body!) regarding collaboration with Google, the online giant will soon display the Baltimore Circulator on its popular maps under the transit option.

So far, the Google maps show only MTA connections. The addition of the Circulator comes to you thanks to a federal grant and the work of TRIP, the Transportation Resource Information Point. TRIP is part of Laurel based Central Maryland Regional Transit, a non-profit which provides transit planning and mobility management solutions after it relinquished running actual regional transit to its sister organization RTA.

According to Philip LaCombe and Jaime McKay of TRIP, the Circulator information will be static for the time being, i.e. display only scheduled arrival times. For real time info one has to go to the Circulator website or look at displays at select stops with information from NextBus.

Current real time info for the Circulator is limited to its own app
Increasingly apps organize our life which makes Google maps popular even with geeks who usually prefer smaller apps like Waze, (which was bought by Google)  Transit App or Where is my Bus and many others.

Transportation is a favorite field on the journey towards the "smart city". Transportation Techies have their own "Hackathons" and meet-ups where they share their latest applications. One such event took place last night at WMATA's headquarter in DC.

Google maps provide bike and walk connections, the fastest route by car and since 2007 also transit with scheduled arrival times. The latest frontier at Google: Live Transit Updates. another GTFS feed that gets real time data from on board vehicle location systems and lets the maps show the actual time of arrival. Google relies on what schedule and route info it gets from providers. So far in most places that is only (static) info. In the Baltimore area both the MTA and now TransDev, which runs the Circulator on behalf of the City, so far can only provide static data.

Transit agencies like MTA and Transdev also provide their own online transit info through their websites or through own apps. Last year MTA equipped all bus stops with "Bus Tracker" numbers allowing riders to get text messages with real time bus arrival. However, MTA and Circulator real time info is famously unreliable due to outdated technology.  Open source apps developed by hackers (who get the schedules and routes without formal agreements) or by giants like Google have the upper hand for the convenience of neatly wrapping all modes into one package using GTFS feeds.
Real time transit info is available on Google maps in London and Seattle among other cities (Android). Google has provided (static) transit info on its maps since 2007

Transit advocates have long said that the user doesn't care who provides what services as long as it gets you where you want to go. Full multi-modal integration of real time info is the ultimate goal.

How good actual arrival time information is depends on how reliably the transit agency obtains it and how much it is willing to share it.  So far, MTA's real item info is spotty because it relies on old fashioned radio signals from the buses rather than a satellite and GPS based Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems.

MTA is in the process of procuring new satellite based AVL for their bus fleet for reliable real time info. Once it will have all that working, MTA can do what LA's Metro did as a "soft" launch last December, display actual bus and train arrival times on Google maps in three colors (Green: On time, red delayed arrival, black, scheduled, no real time available). Other US cities employing this feature include Seattle and San Francisco, several large cities overseas (London) have advanced to real time as well.

Meanwhile, Google maps with static schedule info will be the best we can get in Baltimore. But at least now we can see how MTA and City Circulator overlap and complement each other and plan a trip accordingly.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated 2/24/16 8:42h

BBJ article
Metro Hack Night IV

Hackathon Presentation of the open source app Traze

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