Greater Greater Washington

More details could improve Metro's trip planner itineraries

Programs like Metro's trip planner can make riding transit easier for new riders and seasoned commuters alike. But the way that trips are shown has a huge impact on the effectiveness of the data.

A few weekends ago, I needed to travel downtown for Transportation Camp. Since I don't often make the trip, I decided to use Metro's trip planner to see when I would need to leave in order to get to the event for its 10 am start. The result was not very helpful.

I chose the option to plan a trip arriving by 9:30 to account for trackwork scheduled for the Orange Line and also for the walk to the venue. As you can see, the trip planner told me to expect a travel time of 1 hour and 36 minutes. That's a long time. A lot longer than it should be, in fact.

The problem lies in the way Metro's trip planner deals with "arrive by" queries. When users try using the "arrive by" tool, the planner tool gives riders the trip arriving closest to (but not after) the time specified. That sounds good on the surface, but let's consider my trip.

If you look at the results closely, you'll see that the trip planner has me wait 40 minutes at New Carrollton station. If I transferred directly from the bus to the Orange Line, I would arrive at Foggy Bottom station at 8:55, which is 35 minutes too early. Instead of telling me this, the planner just makes it look like I have no option but to wait 40 minutes at New Carrollton.

That kind of information can turn riders off. Why take a trip that will take over an hour and half when you could probably drive it in a half hour?

What would be particularly helpful would be to show each possible permutation of a trip, especially when connections are involved. Metro's trip planner deals with this by returning each as a separate itinerary. For example:

  • Board a bus at 9:10. Exit at the Metro stop at 9:25. Take a Green train at 9:30.
  • Board a bus at 9:10. Exit at the Metro stop at 9:25. Take a Green train at 9:36.
  • Board a bus at 9:10. Exit at the Metro stop at 9:25. Take a Green train at 9:42.
Those aren't different itineraries. They're just different waits at the Metro station.

I think a format like this would be more helpful. The trip Metro actually planned for me is outlined in red.

I've also included (in yellow highlighting) one arrival after the "arrive by" time. This allows for trips that arrive within a reasonable time. For example, if I want to arrive by 9:30, and there's a train that gets me there at 9:31, that's probably okay, and a trip I might want to know about.

Other itineraries should be substantially different from the first (since it's showing all options). In this example, there's really only one other feasible option, and that's to travel by way of the Green Line.

An itinerary like this would allow riders to better plan their trips. Perhaps arriving early isn't a good option. In that case, they know they have time to stop off for coffee, or perhaps that they could wait for a later bus and still arrive within a reasonable time.

WMATA's arrive by function used to return all sorts of gibberish to achieve "alternate" itineraries, including trips that went past where you wanted to go and then had you change vehicles and return. These days, Metro has modified their planner so it does better, though it still leaves a lit to be desired.

Metro's trip planner and other trip planning applications could be better by showing more options. I know my graphics leave a little to be desired, but it's the principle I'm trying to illustrate.

Do you have thoughts for ways to improve trip planning?

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

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I'm not sure that much detail is necessarily the answer (and could be confusing to the uninitiated), and I can't think of any reason why I or anyone else would want to sit around a Metro station for 40 minutes vs getting to a destination early. I think Metro should just put you on the quickest trip (assuming a reasonable transfer time). That would also allow you to say "wow, 8:55 is really early. Let me see what happens if I say I only need to be there by 9:40 instead of 9:30."

Another option (admittedly in the "more info" category) that I've seen is to have a line at the bottom of each trip segment in smaller print that says "next train 8:38" so you know what kind of delay you'd have if you missed the transfer.

by RichardatCourthouse on Feb 3, 2012 12:29 pm • linkreport

I think what improve it most would be the ability to tie-in real time data or foreseen schedule updates, as when there's track work planned during off-peak times. I don't think metro's data is all linked that way, though.

The planner really gets in trouble when Metro closes stations. For example, select "rail only," and go try to plan a trip from Vienna to the Smithsonian tomorrow, when Rosslyn will be closed. Instead of providing information about the anticipated shuttle services, the planner returns a message of no available service. While allowing both rail/bus options will include the 38B, among others, the planner still acts as if Metro isn't running its shuttle service, and reads as if the trains just aren't running. That's a waste, particularly since the shuttle bus service has actually been pretty reliable.

by worthing on Feb 3, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

I always wondered why Trip planner seemed so concerned about me missing my connecting train that it got me there way in advance!
Having a 'next train/bus departing at X time' as Richard suggests would be a significant upgrade. Someone has to hit various 'plan to arrive 5/10 minutes later' options to guess at when a later connection might be, whereas having that information presented would be handy. Sometimes you have flexibility and it is not so important to arrive by a narrow time period, which the current system provides for.

by DCster on Feb 3, 2012 1:04 pm • linkreport

I'd just kill the trip planner. Honestly, how many people use it?

by charlie on Feb 3, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

I think Metro designed the trip planner with novice riders in mind. That's why it spells things out more. Sometimes this information is of somewhat questionable value (like the "walk .04 mile SW") but some of it is actually useful. For instance, Matt's version does not include direction the bus or train is going (just your destination). For someone new to the system this is useful information. Now for experienced riders, it's not. I know which train I need to get on to get to Foggy Bottom, so I would probably find Matt's table more useful, particularly when it shows what happens when I miss a transfer.

Having said that I've been using Google transit directions quite a bit. I like seeing on a map what my trip is going to look like. It's also pretty good at showing you options that require more walking, but might be faster. On Android phone, it also gives GPS navigation directions, telling you when to get off the bus for instance.

by Steven Yates on Feb 3, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

I agree with @Steven_Yates, when I first moved to the area to go to UMD, I only rode the Metro a few times a year, and the trip planner was pretty helpful for me. I was a novice then and the trip planner feature is, for the beginner, a good system to use. I think if you change it around too much then you make the system a lot less useful for a lot more people.

People that are more experienced riding Metro and other bus lines don't need trip planner as much. Maybe a tweak here and there is needed, but otherwise it is good as is.

by Cassidy on Feb 3, 2012 1:25 pm • linkreport

Also, per the example in the post, the system is built to show the latest time someone can begin their trip and get to their destination on time. While you have to "wait" 40 minutes at New Carrolton, you actually would get one of the earlier trains and make it to Foggy Bottom on time. However, if you missed your bus, then you would have been late to your destination.

by Cassidy on Feb 3, 2012 1:29 pm • linkreport

There is probably a way you could design the system so that it would look for a 10-20 minute window around your arrival/departure time and let you know if there was a shorter trip. "If you arrive 10 minutes later your trip would be shorter!" with a link to the itinerary.

Regardless, the trip planner shouldn't be telling you to wait while three trains pass you by, period.

Google Transit can't always be trusted either - the B30 data is messed up and thinks it takes 10 minutes to get from Greenbelt to BWI.

@charlie, the trip planner is very useful and lots of people use it. I would not be surprised if it is the most used part of the wmata website. Also how can you have a transit agency website without a trip planner?

by MLD on Feb 3, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

The trip planner, I suspect, serves people who are novice riders *for a particular trip*, regardless of whether they're new to Metro or whether they've been riding for years. We might include people who have to get to a new destination; who want to travel at a different time than they're used to; or who just need to understand the area's complex bus network.

by David R. on Feb 3, 2012 2:08 pm • linkreport

Aside: would GGW consider a less user-hostile CAPTCHA? Something like a question-based approach, if necessary, supported by spam blacklists?

by David R. on Feb 3, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

@MLD; that's great. But do you have any numbers to back it up?

by charlie on Feb 3, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

@charlie
No, I don't have the numbers specifially, but WMATA says it's a popular feature:
http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/news/PressReleaseDetail.cfm?ReleaseID=3994
1.7 million hits per month and TBD says the whole site gets 3.5 million hits a month:
http://www.tbd.com/blogs/tbd-on-foot/2011/11/wmata-com-the-evolving-history-of-the-d-c-metro-website--13506.html

Based on your crackerjack speculation we can determine it's probably useless though!

by MLD on Feb 3, 2012 3:36 pm • linkreport

Hmm. So one out of 7 trips on WMATA came from the trip planner?

by charlie on Feb 3, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

Why would every hit on the trip planner be equivalent to a trip on the system? Are you just trying to be snarky to question the numbers because they don't fit with your notion that because YOU don't use the trip planner, nobody does?

by MLD on Feb 3, 2012 4:43 pm • linkreport

@MLD; I never said anything about my use. Thanks to your numbers, we know people do use it.

However, I think that number, in isolation, is pretty useless. How many of those searches result in Met ro trips. You clearly don't think it is 1:1 ration. 1:10? 1:100? Or it the trip planner just being hit with a lot of spam bots?

For as long as I've been reading GGW, people try to find ways to fix the trip planner. Spatial based maps seem more popular. I did personally give up using it back when it required "Street" or "road" as part of the address -- no idea whether it still does.

by charlie on Feb 3, 2012 6:34 pm • linkreport

I love the ride guide! Yes, people use it.

It's not perfect, but I've learned how to make it work for me over the years.

by Jazzy on Feb 4, 2012 8:08 am • linkreport

I use it all the time without any problem at all. My daily commute is by foot but if I want to go somewhere outside of my normal circuit, which happens about 2-3 times a week (playdates for my kid, restaurants, doctors...), I plug it into the tripplanner. I never use the arriving by feature; I only do leaving by, as it seems easier to build a trip forward than backward and I can always adjust the times if it doesn't work (rarely happens). It has all the information I need now.

by Lackadaisi on Feb 5, 2012 6:59 am • linkreport

I use the Trip Planner only for the rail portions of my trips and use published timetables for the bus portions.

by The Civic Center on Feb 5, 2012 7:59 am • linkreport

I'm surprised there are no private people creating a web app for trip planning. The apps for iphone/android are pretty good but not for trip planning. Maybe there's some way wmata can encourage the private development of web apps for trip planning. With the number of hits an app could potentially get, there could be a lot of ad revenue.

by Falls Church on Feb 5, 2012 12:07 pm • linkreport

Not surprising considering you'd have to build your own trip planner from the ground up, apps basically don't make significant money unless they are ridiculously popular, and google maps transit directions already exist.

Some apps do have trip planners that do Metro station to station only, because that's easy.

by MLD on Feb 5, 2012 3:35 pm • linkreport

google maps transit directions already exist

Good point. I tried plugging in the above trip in google maps and it performed somewhat better on routing (although still didn't seem to give the shortest possible time) and the interface was way better than wmata's trip planner. My guess is that if you want improvements, it would be much easier to get Google to make them than WMATA. Google is inherently interested in making quality products if for no other reason, as a matter of pride. WMATA lost all sense of pride decades ago. Also, obviously, Google has a financial incentive to make sure their products are top notch.

Here's what google told me (1 hour 12 mins). :

Transit directions to Foggy Bottom Metro Station

Crescent Rd & Gardenway
Greenbelt, MD 20770
S Crescent Rd & Garden WY
G13
Bus towards Greenbelt Station
8:10am - 8:19am (9 mins, 16 stops)
Greenbelt Metro Dr & Cherrywood Ln
Walk to Greenbelt Metro Station
About 1 min (15 mins to make transfer)
Greenbelt Metro Station
Green
Subway towards Branch Ave
8:34am - 9:02am (28 mins, 12 stops)
L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station
Blue
Subway towards Franconia Metro
9:14am - 9:22am (9 mins, 6 stops)
Foggy Bottom Metro Station

by Falls Church on Feb 5, 2012 4:07 pm • linkreport

It would be awesome to see at least a comment from WMATA here to acknowledge that they're seeing things like this and thinking about ways to make it better, too.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 8, 2012 9:20 pm • linkreport

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