Here will always go to there

One winter in college I was in Lower Manhattan and needed to catch a train toward Philadelphia. My sister living in New Jersey helpfully told me that the easiest option would be taking the PATH train to Newark where I could get a train that would take me closer to my destination.

Still a transit timid southerner, I opened Google Maps to see what this Newark business was all about. The PATH train was nowhere to be found, but the New York City Subway was displayed in a tangled web of colors that led back to Penn Station. The PATH from the World Trade Center to Newark is 22min, the subway to Penn Station alone is 18min—not including the labyrinthine transfer to NJTransit—but why trust the invisible train over the bright red line?

I chose the subway plus the additional time spent on the train between New York and Newark along with the added cost. The line on the map has a powerful psychological effect. It says confidently: here will always go to there.

If there is no line, what then? What is shown on a map is generally accepted to be what exists, especially on a map as encompassing as Google Maps. If a visitor or unfamiliar local does not see the train a block away, how can they possibly choose it over the Uber and Lyft logos that beckon brightly in Maps?

My gripe with the PATH was resolved a few years ago. I sent several bug reports to Google and pestered my friends working in unrelated positions (the support team has very little sway with the Maps team) and one day the lines simply appeared, most certainly completely unrelated to my efforts.

Google went through a brief burst of adding transit lines to their coverage after that. At one point 2/3 commuter railroads in the New York area were depicted before being removed for making the map unintelligible. Chicago’s L still suffers the same poor design in Maps.

Where the lines converge in the famous downtown Loop they are a city block wide, appearing to run on tracks so wide even Supertrain would be envious. Apple Maps does not suffer these same flaws, the lines sit flush against each other cleanly and it is well indicated where multiple lines stop at the same stations. All around, Apple Maps gives much more care to transit than Google.

My frustration with Google’s carelessness toward transit peaked with the announcement that Google Maps would be rolling out new “eco-friendly” directions. Much of the announcement centers on the eco-friendly options that will be presented to driving navigations, the mode which will always pour the most carbon into the air.

Maps will now present the most fuel efficient route first apparently factoring in traffic and slopes (save the planet, drive downhill). Transit, walking, and biking do not appear till the third paragraph of the announcement. It is unclear what the improvements are for these, the only concrete change announced is that travel times for all modes will be presented simultaneously and that the app will learn your mode of preference and present it first.

None of this tackles the core issue which is that for dozens of cities, transit is deeply hidden. While heavy rapid transit like Washington’s Metro, Atlanta’s MARTA, and Chicago’s L are all clearly marked with colored lines (unless you ride San Juan, PR’s Tren Urbano, then it is not), the light rail and bus systems many rely on are spotty at best.

Light rail is where Google starts to get picky about when a service merits a line. Seattle’s light rail has a bright red line, so does it’s two streetcars, and even the Seattle Center Monorail despite it being closer to an amusement park ride than urban transit. Light rail in Minneapolis, Jersey City, Charlotte, Baltimore, Buffalo, Newark, and even Google’s hometown San Francisco and San Jose trains are not so lucky.

Buses do not ever receive transit lines in Maps. There is a case to be made that local buses are too numerous to display on a map but even high quality bus rapid transit lines are left missing. Richmond, Indianapolis, and Albuquerque have assembled some of the best bus rapid transit projects in the country in recent years but none of them have made the cut for Google’s Map. A visitor to Richmond would be well informed to know that there is a bus line through spanning the downtown that runs every 10min all day, they would have to find out some other way than the world’s most popular map though.

All this to say that it is quite apparent that transit riders simply are not a priority to the developers of Google Maps. Part of the issue seems to lie in Google’s culture of programmer grandeur. The reason that transit data is woefully incomplete while gravity-factored routing algorithms are debuted is probably the same reason that Google rolls out a new chat app yearly: it is much sexier — and better for your career — to be a part of a new feature than maintaining an old one.

It is simply a maintenance issue. The data for the transit lines exists, transit operators already publish their route data (sometimes even with information on where vehicles currently are) in the commonly agreed upon General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). Google even has this data already: if a station is selected in Maps where a transit line is not visible, the route will appear (but on mobile only, for reasons unknown).

Note: it was pointed out when I published this on my Patreon that GTFS was created by a Google Maps developer and originally called Google Transit Feed Specification. Wikipedia attributes the origin of the specification to two IT managers at Portland’s TriMet transit agency frustrated that Maps lacked transit directions.

GTFS came from “20 percent time”, Google’s term for side projects that developers are encouraged to take on. Creating a new standard is a standout attention-grabbing project, maintaining and integrating the standard into products is maintenance. Google (and tech at large) clearly favor the former over the latter.

There are better tools than Google Maps, I mentioned Apple Maps better handle on transit and there are dedicated transit apps like CityMapper and Transit. These apps are limited to a select list of cities where they provide a high quality display of transit and routing options. Then there are the apps that transit agencies themselves provide, a disparate lineup of apps ranging from decent to non-functioning.

Using transit should not require dedication to digging through Google Maps or to finding an alternative app. Again, driving or taking an Uber can all be done inside Maps, it is transit that as usual requires the extra effort. That is on top of the extra effort already required to use transit in the United States: relying on infrequent schedules, pricey fares, paid transfers, and time-consuming and uncomfortable travel.

Potential users of transit need clear information: where does the bus or train go? How close is the station to where I am now? When will it arrive next? How do I pay for the fare?

If Google is sincere in its commitment to offering users ways to live more sustainably then there is much work to be done providing users with easy upfront transit information. This work is much more mundane than rejigging the driving algorithm to consider coasting down hills, but the tedium of processing GTFS feeds and designing easily understood user interfaces is necessary for fostering a culture of transit use.

Until Google (and other digital mapmakers) put in the effort to prioritize transit over techno-automotive solutions to sustainable travel, when users ask “how does here go to there?” the answer will more often than not be “by car”.

Correction: I wrote in the caption under the Pittsburgh Busway map that Apple maps also did not show the busways. That is incorrect, it shows the South, East, and West busways.

transit oriented poster

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store