Going the Google Route

The challenge was a relatively simple one: take the bus near my home in southeast Portland, Oregon, across the Willamette River to a laboratory just north of downtown on Naito Parkway, about five miles away. I was to plan the trip using Google Transit Trip Planner, a pilot program being tested here that is intended to act as a one-stop guide to routes, bus times, and directions—like MapQuest for mass transit. Sure enough, Google Transit was up to the challenge.

The process began on my browser like any Google search, by entering the addresses for my starting point and destination info into the familiar keyword box. It felt a little clunky because one must enter not only both addresses but also the city and state twice. People love the simplicity of Google’s pages, but a couple of drop-down boxes might have worked better here.

Within a few seconds I was given a map of my journey, a link to another route with the drive highlighted on major roads (for those pariahs wanting to take cars), a listing of the next four bus departures, the duration (28 minutes, including walking time to and from bus stops and a transfer from the 19 line to the 44), and the cost. In the last case the price of the bus ticket ($1.65) was offered along with a parenthetical comparison of what it would cost to drive there on average ($2.21). I arrived at my destination within a minute of the predicted time (10:51 a.m.).

That said, Google Transit is still in its infancy, and a few additional modifications wouldn’t hurt. For example, after getting off the bus, my walk required crossing a pedestrian bridge over the train tracks of nearby Union Station. Because I already knew the area it was easy enough to figure out, but non-Portlanders using the program might have been tripped up trying to get around the tracks. Also the Web site for Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, includes an important tool that Google Transit does not: it offers the same list of departures and arrivals but features a code number for each bus stop that one can use to find out how many minutes away the bus is by calling TriMet or logging in online. With phones, BlackBerrys, and other handheld devices increasingly ubiquitous, Google must certainly have such monitoring systems under way.

As Google Transit expands to more cities, it will be a considerable asset to know that no matter where you travel, one Web site can act as a guide to local mass transit. If as Ken Kesey said, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus,” my experience with Google Transit was an encouraging climb aboard.

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