Monday, November 17, 2008

Google Your Trip

The Chicago Tribune reports that METRA and Google are teaming on a project to harness the power of internet to make it easier for people to find out how to travel between the Windy City and its suburbs by mass transit. The online plan tool, still a beta test site, combines METRA schedule information with Google Maps.

Check it out at www.metrarail.com/googletransit

It's pretty straightforward. Just enter your origination and destination points and whether you are coming or going. I tried it for an imaginary trip from Joliet, IL, to a location on N. Michigan Ave. Within seconds, I had walking directions to Joliet Union Station, the schedule for the next train over the Rock Island line, and a schedule for a connecting bus to take me from LaSalle St. Station to my final destination. Oh yeah, there was a map showing the route, too.

One drawback noted by the Tribune article was the lack of information for PACE, the suburban bus line. I'll go out on a limb and predict that once the kinks are worked out PACE will be included too. I'll go one further and project that eventually every public transit agency in the country - no, in the world - will be included.

A service such as this can be a huge boon for public transit usage. One of the drawback is access to easy-to-use travel information. Of course, passenger train schedules for the various operating companies are readily available online and in print. But they only tell you when you can go from one station to station.

The problem is nobody travels from Station A to Station B; they travel from Point A to Point B. It could be from their house in the suburbs to a museum, store or office in the city, or from an office in one city to an office or hotel in another. So, what's need is not just information on travel between stations, but information on travel from the point of origination to the first station and, then, from the second station to the final destination.

If you can't readily find it, you'll probably punt, i.e. drive. After all, you can go to Google Maps or its rival, Mapquest, and get driving directions to just about everywhere.

Here's a personal example of how better access to information could put more people on trains. This past weekend, my wife and I attended a Bat Mitzvah in Northern Virginia. We wanted our daughter, a student at SUNY New Paltz, to join us, so I bought her a ticket on Amtrak from Poughkeepsie, NY, to New Carrollton, MD.

Then, we drove for nearly an hour on the Capital Beltway to meet her at the station. What I did not know at the time, was that WMATA's Orange Line originates at New Carrollton and terminates in Vienna, VA, just 12 minutes from our hotel.

Making public transportation more user friendly is a sure fire strategy for putting more fannies in the seats of America's passenger trains - intercity, regional and local. Harnessing the power of information technology from savvy companies like Google to help people learn how to ride is a low-cost approach for achieving that.

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