Trip Tool

A cooperative program between Google and King County could help transit users plan trips.

by / December 5, 2006

Do you know where you're going? Do you know how you're going to get there? If not, never fear. With a new online service, search giant Google and King County, Wash., can help you figure it out.

County officials say the partnership with the private search-engine company represents a net gain.

"Our interest is to make sure we are providing the best service we can," said Mike Berman, IT supervisor at the county Department of Transportation's Metro Transit Division. "Google does the planning, but who is getting on the bus and whose bus service is that? That's ours."

The partnership resulted in a trip-planning service, delivered on Google's Transit Web site, that can display how to cross King County by bus, ferry or any other public means and arrive at a specific destination.

Routing Assistance
This is not the county's first venture into transit trip-planning services. In fact, technologists there have been toying with different versions of the idea since 1998, when a rudimentary call center system was implemented in which customer service representatives helped riders plan routes. It's still a popular service, Berman said.

In 2001, the county rolled out an online version of the service, developed in-house with proprietary and off-the-shelf components. The system can plan trips using intersections, addresses or landmarks as starting and ending points. Riders can choose their arrival and departure times and even customize features to include trips with the least walking distance or the fewest transfers.

These services won't be replaced by the new Google product, Berman said. Rather, Google's offering will enhance the county's existing tools.

In late 2005, Google approached County Executive Ron Sims with a request to access the county's public transit schedules and geographic data. Though that information is public knowledge anyway, it was an unusual request. Google wanted everything, Berman said, setting in motion a project to make the data available.

"We give data to clients on a regular basis. People call for data and then it's done, whereas with Google they wanted it updated as often as we update it, which is every two weeks," Berman said. County engineers built an automated mechanism that feeds updates directly into the Google system.

More Information
So why the thirst for transit data? Google says the project is part of its ongoing effort the deliver the world online.

"Google is in the business of organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible," said Stephanie Hannon, product manager for Google Transit.

In this case, a public-private partnership expands an already existing line of information. People already come to Google to map routes to restaurants, and though this information is useful, Hannon said, it's not the only information. "We want buses, trams, ferries and more transportation, and we want you to be able to plan a trip from A to B just on transit."

So far Google helps users plan trips in Tampa, Fla.; Honolulu; Seattle; Pittsburgh; Portland and Eugene, Ore.; and Burbank and Orange County, Calif.

It isn't easy to put together a transit trip planner, Hannon said. First, municipalities typically must perform back-end programming to deliver the data, as was the case in King County.

Something Different
In addition to the technology challenges, Hannon said, government entities aren't used to a model where no money is changing hands and find it odd that no one is getting paid -- in either direction. Google usually has to do a little explaining regarding the fiscal model.

It's the classic Google model, Hannon explained: Throw it up there and see if it sticks. If enough people use it, there will always be a way to monetize it down the road.

Finally there is the inevitable bureaucracy.

"There is not a single person or agency. There are typically different people, different agencies," Hannon said of municipalities. "So there has to be collaboration among agencies to decide how to participate."

The partnership offers benefits for all, Berman said, but first and foremost, the county's riders have a significant new service available.

"For example, Google offers a map, which our site doesn't. That is a big advantage to using the Google site."

At the same time, the county can enhance those Google maps with data the search site would not otherwise have available.

"Our data is regional," Berman said. "We have partners in the adjacent counties. We also are multimodal; we have information from the ferry system and light rail."

Together, the county and Google can deliver something neither of them could muster on their own.

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Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide. 

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