There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Feeling lucky with Google Transit

They call it beginner's luck for a reason. You can't count on it over the long run -- or even over the course of a single week. Eventually your luck turns.

The wife made four trips to work and four trips home using Sacramento Regional Transit last week. On one trip to work, the bus connecting with the train was late enough that the wife had to run to catch the train. On one trip home, the bus connecting at Mather missed the train the wife needed to catch in order to meet her bus at Watt. As a result, she had an extra 20-minute wait at Watt for the next bus.

The other day I chided Google Transit for not being able to correctly identify transit options for the wife. Now I wonder if perhaps Google just has higher standards for what qualifies as a realistic transit option. Yes, Google's option of walking across eight lanes of freeway traffic is problematic, but a 25 percent failure rate on making connections is equally troublesome. Passengers of Sacramento Regional Transit shouldn't have to rely on luck to make connections. Unfortunately, RT's skimpy service leaves little choice.

There are things that RT could do to reduce the problem. For instance, both Google Transit and RT agree that in the morning the bus the wife takes must meet the outbound Gold Line light rail line that follows Folsom Boulevard on its way to Rancho Cordova. But only Google Transit appreciates that the wife should get off the bus across from the Starfire station. RT instead insists that she ride to the end of the line at the Watt/Manlove station.

According to the RT's schedule data, it takes the bus six minutes to get from the Norcade Circle stop across from the Starfire light rail station to the bus stop at the Watt/Manlove park-and-ride lot. That's an important six minutes if the bus is running late, as my wife learned on the morning she had to run to catch the train.

I agree with Gabby, who commented on the earlier post, "I find myself using the Google Transit route planner far more often than the RT one. For me it is far more user friendly and I like to see the map of where I'm going."

Since it is just not imaginable that RT could adopt Google's mapping technology to its Infoweb site, then the obvious solution would be for Google Transit to lower its standards. What is needed is an "I'm Feeling Lucky" link similar to Google's basic search site. Click on the "I'm Feeling Lucky" and Google Transit could abandon its rules for what counts as a realistic option and offer the equivalent of RT's wishful thinking.

Of course, I could always wish that the four buses the wife relies on -- Nos. 80, 84, 73, 74 -- ran more often than once an hour. Make those half-hour buses and suddenly the wife would have the equivalent of 15-minute service, which would more easily match the 15-minute light rail service.

Maybe I'll have the wife ask. Anonymous RT bus bench orderers seem more willing to listen to her.


Brian Goldner said...

assuming you have the time to plan a route (esp. if this is something you use every day) I'd check out the RT system map and make tentative plans based on this. I'd see which combinations of buses/rail would satisfy my trasnport needs and then I'd carry some of their schedules on me.

Of course once we all have iPhones all of this will be unnecessary (tic)

John said...

It is true: All of the details necessary to plan a single trip or a commute schedule can be found on RT's Web site (which is more than you can say about RT's PR and community relations functions).

But it is how those data are presented that puts Google Transit light-years ahead. It is the visual representation that allows much fuller understanding.

And the future could be even better. Currently, Google SMS offers the ability to text a search query to 466453('GOOGLE' on most devices) and have the results text-messaged back.

I would like to be able to text sacrt and the route number (which appears on the back of bus stop signs) to 466453 and have the next two departure times for that stop returned to my phone.

Anonymous said...

Uh, I seem to recall being able to get around on public transit -- in Sacramento and elsewhere -- long before anybody ever heard of the internet.

John said...

QUOTE: I seem to recall being able to get around on public transit ... long before anybody ever heard of the internet.

And at one time you could find streetcars in downtown Sacramento running so often that you didn't need a schedule.

At a minimum today you need the bus schedule book RT sells for a buck. RT's service is so sporadic and uneven -- half-hour for awhile and then a 45-minute break; bus lines that only run during "peak" periods; bus lines that don't run on the weekend -- that someone who wants to use transit is REQUIRED to plan ahead. The Internet makes that easier.