Google’s incomplete information affects transit ridership

By Brian Lutenegger

Google Maps has transformed how people get around, making it relatively simple for even a first-time visitor to navigate a new city. But there is one area where Google Maps fails: if there are transit options that haven’t published their data in the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), the service might as well not exist for travelers or visitors. GTFS is a standard that transit agencies use to allow software developers to access schedules and routes and make them available in apps and online. But many small transit agencies or specialized services haven’t made their information available, so even giants like Google Maps don’t show the information.

And it’s not just in small cities where this problem crops up.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority runs a shuttle to Dulles Airport from the Wiehle-Reston East station, the final stop on Phase 1 of WMATA’s Silver Line.  The shuttle has been in operation since the station opened in 2014.  However, until recently, Google Maps’ transit directions were unaware that the shuttle existed.  Instead, depending on their point of origin, Google might send riders traveling away from the airport in order to make a connection to an airport-bound bus route in its database.

Google Maps remains completely unaware of Fairfax County’s Connector transit service, which also operates bus routes from Wiehle to Dulles Airport, as well as to other popular destinations in the county such as the pedestrian-friendly Reston Town Center.  For Reston, Google Maps currently suggests either a nearly 40-minute walk from Wiehle-Reston East station or that the trip is simply not possible via transit.

This issue also exists for Google Maps users in other U.S. cities, including many small towns and rural areas.  In rural areas, although service may be a fixed route within some communities, the driver may be allowed to deviate from the route upon request, and certain stops listed on the schedule may be served upon request.  For example, Southern Minnesota Area Rural Transit (SMART) runs fixed-route services within four small cities that can deviate a short distance if needed to serve passengers.  Namekagon Transit runs a similar service around Hayward, Wisconsin.  These agencies do not appear in Google Maps as transit options.

The lack of data may put some transit passengers at personal risk if they do not look at other sources for transit connections. They might decide to walk the last mile to their destination using unsafe pedestrian facilities, and it may push other transit riders to use more expensive options like taxis, shuttles, or rental cars to reach their destination, particularly those from out of town who are unfamiliar with the transit system.

For small and midsized transit agencies in particular, getting their routes to appear on transit directions provided by Google Maps would clearly be a boon to ridership as new riders learn of the service in the community and existing riders discover new routes.

To become a “Transit Partner” with Google, a transit service must be open to the public and provide scheduled fixed-route service.  There is no cost payable to Google, but a transit agency must share its route data in GTFS format and provide Google with new data in the event of route changes.

It is this last step—including the need to keep the data current—that may be the biggest challenge for smaller and even mid-sized transit agencies.  The agency first must be aware it is even an option to place its data on Google Maps.  Then, under the current program, it must have staff with the knowledge and time to turn its schedule data into GTFS format and to keep it updated when changes occur.

In the case of Fairfax Connector, an issue with the contract the agency must sign with Google has so far prevented it from turning over its data, although the agency expects the issue to be resolved within a few months.  Its data has been on Microsoft Bing for some time, which has fewer contract restrictions.

Instead of waiting for transit agencies to make the initial contact, Google could use its capacity to more proactively reach out to transit agencies of all sizes, particularly those in rural areas where staff may be solely focused on the day-to-day operation of the system for existing passengers.  Google can then work directly with them to receive up-to-date data in the correct format.

Google clearly envisions its mapping tool as a “one stop shop” for directions via all travel modes—and it is for many people.  If transit information were more complete in smaller communities or for specialized service such as airport shuttles, it might boost the utility of Google Maps in smaller markets and encourage more people to use transit. This partnership would be a win-win for both Google and each transit agency.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Fellow at Smart Growth America