Greater Greater Washington

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Metro refuses to participate in Google Transit

Three years after the launch of Google Transit, which gives directions using transit on Google Maps, and after constant requests by riders and bloggers, WMATA's Director of Customer Service, Brett Tyler, announced their decision that participating in Google Transit is "not in our best interest from a business perspective." That's a very shortsighted decision.

Like many people in this area, I have been looking forward to having the ability to "get there by transit" using Google Transit. The feature, a free service by Google, just requires transit agencies to format their data in the Google Transit Feed Specification format and sign an agreement with Google.

At first, WMATA officials said that their scheduling information was "proprietary" and could not be shared with Google. Later, they told me that formatting the data in GTFS was time-consuming and not a priority for the WMATA staff. In June, General Manager John Catoe said in a Friday lunchtime chat that WMATA was working on it, but that the results were not accurate enough. (Since Transit would use the same data as WMATA's own trip planner, this explanation didn't hold water.) Finally, when I asked about it at the October board meeting, they said that they still needed to hammer out the legal agreements.

On Monday Brett Tyler, Director of Customer Service, gave me a definitive answer:

Metro staff did explore some possibilities with Google, but ultimately we decided that forming a partnership with Google was not in our best interest from a business perspective. We do believe that Metro's newly redesigned Web site, at www.wmata.com, improves customers' access to information about the Metro system. In addition, customers may get real-time information and bus and rail schedules directly on their cell phones or PDAs.

These tools are quite useful, but they're not a substitute for Google Transit. WMATA's Trip Planner doesn't let you explore either your origin or destination neighborhood. It's especially picky in trying to designate the origin or destination, at first asking you to leave off the city and state, then later requesting that you designate what city and state you meant.

Google spends a lot of time working on its user interface. WMATA should take advantage of that experience, especially since Google is willing to provide it for free. Plus, by making the data available, WMATA could allow other innovators to build even more useful tools. A company that specializes in easy-to-use Web sites will probably build a better site than an authority that specializes in running trains and buses, and having more clever programmers helping riders get the most from our public transit beats limiting the information to just a single site.

We've created a petition to ask WMATA to reconsider their decision and make their data available to Google, as 91 other US transit agencies have done, and publish it online for anyone to use to build innovative new tools and grow transit ridership.

Here are just a few of the many US transit agencies who decided that Google Transit is indeed in their best interest:

  • Maryland MTA (including Baltimore and Maryland Transit bus stops within DC)
  • Fairfax, VA
  • Alexandria, VA
  • Loudoun County, VA
  • New York MTA (including the New York subway and commuter railroads)
  • Chicago Transit Authority
  • BART (San Francisco Bay Area)
  • San Diego, CA
  • Denver/Boulder, CO
  • Miami, FL
  • MARTA (Atlanta, GA)
  • Portland, OR
  • Dallas, TX
Please sign the petition today.
Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia. 

Comments

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definitely say it's pretty outrageous for them to withhold that information. they're going to have to give it up - they might as well save some face and do it earlier rather than later.

one of the best aspects of google transit, of course, is the interconnectivity it shows between all the different regional services. it's basically incredible.

by Peter on Dec 13, 2008 3:57 am • linkreport

When towns like Duluth, Lexington KY, Walla Walla, and Racine offer their information, I find it embarrassing that DC refuses to participate, even when cities with comparable transit like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco find a way to make it happen.

Also, Baltimore has finally found a way to be better than DC's transit! That's very pathetic.

by Dave Murphy on Dec 13, 2008 4:53 am • linkreport

I think the reason is that WMATA will then loose the ability for it to track site usage. More specifically, the ability to measure how many people uses WMATA's site to do trip planning. Moving it to Google looses its ability to accurately measure that which may ultimately have a relationship with site funding.

by RedShirt on Dec 13, 2008 6:28 am • linkreport

The new iPhone software integrates Google transit into the interface. When you look up directions now, it just shows MTA commuter buses, and generates very awkward directions.

Its a shame, so many tourists and residents using their phones to try and find directions may just opt for a cab, instead of using transit.

by Erik on Dec 13, 2008 9:25 am • linkreport

I've not tried Google Transit, but WMATA's mobile device interface isn't that great. And using it requires a visit to Mapquest to get a neighborhood-level map, instead of written walking directions.

by Paul on Dec 13, 2008 9:26 am • linkreport

RedShirt,

Google would be fetching the feed. If WMATA really wanted to track usage, they could track usage on that feed and include it on their statistics.

I guess my major gripe here is Brett's response/their decision demonstrates that old pre-Internet control of information. Well you can view it on a PDA - blah who gives a crap. I want it in a billion different forms.

I'd feel little sympathetic for them if they had an open API to their tools.

by Will on Dec 13, 2008 9:32 am • linkreport

Metro is so hidebound, this is their response to everything. Recall how long it took to get 8-car trains and later operating hours.

by Paul on Dec 13, 2008 9:37 am • linkreport

One more example of how out of touch Metro "management" is with the needs of their customers.

by Betty Pawsheifer on Dec 13, 2008 10:37 am • linkreport

As I've said before, there needs to be a major housecleaning at Metro. This is outrageous.

by SG on Dec 13, 2008 10:50 am • linkreport

My comments to WMATA:

"We decided that forming a partnership with Google was not in our best interest from a business perspective".

You have got to be kidding me. You are *Public Transport* supported by *billions* of tax payer money. That means your business perspective should be way lower on your list than "customer convenience", "informing the public" and "making your time tables proprietary".

And by the way, please stop wasting your time on nonsense, and go fix the escalators at the Foggy Bottom station. They have been out since Summer.

by Jasper Nijdam on Dec 13, 2008 11:34 am • linkreport

Just had a reply from: Albert, Neil (EOM):

We'll consider your request.

----

That's it.

by Jasper on Dec 13, 2008 2:14 pm • linkreport

My thought on hearing this was that WMATA fears the loss of ad revenue from their website, as people forego it in favor of Google Maps. Then I realized their site doesn't (currently) have any ads, so go figure. Maybe they think that playing hardball will get Google to pay for the content. After all, they've got the money and that's what *traditional* web aggregators do. But Google (for better or worse) tends to set its own rules. On the other hand, I think Jasper's comment is off target: any large business endeavor has to focus on fiscal issues. Do do otherwise is mismanagement of the kind the commenters are complaining about.

by John on Dec 13, 2008 2:15 pm • linkreport

My bad: while not on the home page, the rest of the WMATA site most certainly DOES serve up advertising.

by John on Dec 13, 2008 2:17 pm • linkreport

I got the same: 'We'll consider your request.' Seems we're swamping their inbox!

by redline on Dec 13, 2008 3:27 pm • linkreport

I think it's pretty clear what they want. There are jobs at WMATA for people who build their website and provide information online. They are afraid that work will be seen as redundant if users have an easier, better interface to trip planning, and site viewership drops.

I do think it's true that transit agencies need effective, informative websites. Google can't replace the WMATA website. But this is, obviously, entirely the wrong way to deal with that concern.

by David desJardins on Dec 13, 2008 4:32 pm • linkreport

David desJardins has it in one -

The only reason I can come up with is career protectivism, IE someone is currently paid to run WMATA trip planner, and they don't believe that there is a career in running an invisible GTFS feed. They happen to be in a somewhat advisory position, and they are telling management that it's too hard.

PS: How'd we get so many davids around here?

by Squalish on Dec 13, 2008 4:49 pm • linkreport

David, You should go straight to the WMATA board with this issue. I.e., do an end run around those who might view it as either "to much work" or "job threatening". Isn't CM Graham still the DC rep on the WMATA board?

by Lance on Dec 13, 2008 6:02 pm • linkreport

David, You should go straight to the WMATA board with this issue. I.e., do an end run around those who might view it as either "to much work" or "job threatening". Isn't CM Graham still the DC rep on the WMATA board?

by Lance on Dec 13, 2008 6:02 pm • linkreport

Probably relatedly -- the DC Metro application for iPhone, a nice little "when's the next train coming?" application, has stopped working.

by cminus on Dec 13, 2008 6:10 pm • linkreport

Lance: I did go to the board with this. I gave public testimony in November about the delay in getting Google Transit off the ground, and I asked about the status to boardofdirectors@wmata.com. The petition is being sent to all board members as well as WMATA's general manager, John Catoe.

CM Graham is the DC representative on the board, and I am in contact with his staff about this and other WMATA issues.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 13, 2008 6:53 pm • linkreport

Google could build a screen scraper to get the WMATA data and nothing is preventing them from doing so that I can tell. in that sense, Metro isn't withholding anything. the data is available to Google, just not in the way that Google wants it. Google Transit is a cool application but I really don't see this as being such a big deal.

by pqresident on Dec 13, 2008 11:52 pm • linkreport

Just to play, I put in asking for directions from my house (in NE) to Taqueria DF (in Petworth) and it actually tells me to walk to Union Station (1hr2min), then catch the MARC to Silver Spring MD (13 min) and walk back to Petworth (58 min). Ouch.

It's about 20 min by walking/Metro/bus.

Not populating the rest of the system is a poor decision.

by Sophiagrrl on Dec 14, 2008 6:49 am • linkreport

My perspective (as a former Google engineer) is that you couldn't really build an adequately reliable application by screen scraping. That process is inherently error-prone because the site may change without notice. If I were still at Google, I wouldn't be willing to launch an application that is going to do trip planning for people if I don't have high confidence that the data it uses will be correct.

by David desJardins on Dec 14, 2008 6:50 am • linkreport

I'd only point out that transit schedules don't change often...it isn't real time or even near real time data you're going for here so polling via screen scraping *might* provide an acceptable level of confidence. but, point taken.

the other thought that came to mind is that without seeing the legal particulars, none of us speculators know what Google asked Metro to commit to or vice versa. as an example, an exclusivity clause is one condition that would make me raise my eyebrow as a Metro lawyer. we just don't know the details. although clearly, those details (as agreed to) didn't stop other transit agencies from signing up.

(a former data warehousing engineer for an unnamed DW ISV)

by pqresident on Dec 14, 2008 8:26 am • linkreport

Shall I compare Metro to the domestic auto companies? "If it quacks like a duck..."

by RedShirt on Dec 14, 2008 10:30 am • linkreport

@ John: Of course they have to keep their finances in check. But it is a ridiculous argument that their time tables would be proprietary. They should be happy with anybody willing to publish them. It would save metro money.

by Jasper on Dec 14, 2008 12:47 pm • linkreport

This page appears to have examples of the "legal particulars". The licenses don't appear to commit the agencies to anything in particular, they simply serve as legal protections for those agencies. The agencies also can clearly customize the licenses somewhat, as they deem appropriate.

http://code.google.com/p/googletransitdatafeed/wiki/PublicFeeds

by David desJardins on Dec 14, 2008 1:23 pm • linkreport

of course, whomever is doing the nextbus test run of some wmata routes is including a mashup of both google's and microsoft's mapping services with the bus routes.

i can look up the G2 or G8, for example, and it shows me a map of the route overlaid on a google map, with the locations of the buses on that map (represented by small tag icons). they move in real time up and down the streets.

how does that mesh with this statement from wmata?

by IMGoph on Dec 14, 2008 1:24 pm • linkreport

DC's Metro system would definitely benefit from this service. Not only would it make it much more convenient and accessible to use the Metro, subsequent increased use of the Metro might actually help the environment!

by Jennifer on Dec 14, 2008 10:49 pm • linkreport

It's a shame that DC Metro refuses to make their public data available. The excuses they give are bogus.

At the same time, one should ask: why this data should be given only to Google? Among all the agencies listed above who signed an agreement to provide data to Google, only a tiny fraction makes it available to general public and independent developers. Asking them for this data (unless you're a big name company) often takes months, and the result is not guaranteed. And despite saying that it is supporting open-source and information sharing (all that "don't be evil" talk), Google does very little to make this information available to everyone, even though this IS public information and it must be available to everyone, not just to Google.

So, now Google can get a feeling what is it like to be in a position many small companies providing similar services on their own.

My opinion: all public transit agencies must publish their data in GTFS and make it available to everyone from their websites, and this should be written in the law. Technically, encoding it into GTFS is very simple. This should simply be part of their work, not an option.

by dc_transit on Dec 14, 2008 11:22 pm • linkreport

The link above gives 17 transit agencies that do have completely public GTFS feeds.

by David desJardins on Dec 14, 2008 11:48 pm • linkreport

Oh really, where is NY MTA or Chicago Metra data publicly available?

by dc_transit on Dec 14, 2008 11:55 pm • linkreport

I didn't say anything about NYC or Chicago.

by David desJardins on Dec 15, 2008 12:06 am • linkreport

And I was referring to the list given in the article itself.

NYC MTA, Chicago METRA, SMARTA (and many others) all given Google access to their data. Everyone else is in a very different position, and this is what my post was about.

by dc_transit on Dec 15, 2008 12:12 am • linkreport

I don't believe that 17 agencies is a "tiny fraction" of those providing GTFS feeds to Google.

I would like it to be more. I'm not sure what Google could possibly do to increase the number.

by David desJardins on Dec 15, 2008 12:25 am • linkreport

i'm not sure that getting huffy at google for having coaxed only 20% of its signed-on agencies to open up their feeds to the public is the right strategy. i'd argue it's not their job.

we can yell at them for their abandonment of net neutrality, though. that'd even be enough for me to withdraw my support for google transit projects. net neutrality is too important.

by Peter on Dec 15, 2008 12:39 am • linkreport

Look at the list of all GTFS in the US (I am sure you know where to find it) and compare to your list. It is a tiny fraction, in my opinion.

What Google could do? It makes their transit planner available on many agencies websites, saving them costs and making their sites more appealing. It could make "open GTFS data" a requirement to providing their services, if it really wanted. But Google does not care.

This is why I am suggesting that it should be written into the law.

by dc_transit on Dec 15, 2008 12:40 am • linkreport

Do you really think that if Google refused to accept GTFS data from agencies that are only willing to provide it to them (or to others who sign their license) that that would cause those agencies to open their feeds?? I think it would just mean that Google Transit isn't available for those agencies. Which would mean people wouldn't use it. Which would mean they wouldn't see why it's important and useful. Which would mean less likelihood of public availability in the future, not more.

Maybe I'm biased (although I certainly have no involvement in this particular project), but I just don't see how the course of action you suggest would have the effect that you say that you want. I think that getting Google Transit to support as many systems as possible, thus serving as a proof-of-concept for the value of open transit data, is a far more effective way to create more open transit data in the future.

I definitely think it's important that Google should encourage data suppliers to make their feeds public, and not give them any inducement or incentive to do otherwise. But, as far as I can see, that's already the case.

by David desJardins on Dec 15, 2008 12:47 am • linkreport

Here is my point:

GTFS data should be available to everyone, not just to one company. In my opinion, Google could do more, but it's my opinion only. What is, after all, a reason an agency would agree to provide the data to Google, but refuse if asked to give it to everyone? Any secrets involved here? No.

To fix the situation, and simply to make it a fare play, it should be written into the law that GTFS must be made public.

by dc_transit on Dec 15, 2008 12:55 am • linkreport

To what I already said, I can add that I don't understand why employees of the 80% of US public transit agencies that spend their time to build and provide GTFS data exclusively to Google, should do so. They are employees of the state agencies, employed by the state, paid by our money. Why these people should spend their time to provide the data exclusively to Google, a private company? Not only this situation is not fair, it's very questionable. And it would only help if Google was more open about what goes into this deal.

by dc_transit on Dec 15, 2008 2:15 am • linkreport

dc_transit:

a) google does not do exclusive deals with transit agencies and b) google has no say in what an agency should do with its data.

every time an agency goes live on google transit, a new york attorney named david b rankin uses a freedom of information act request for the data that google gets. rankin's client, ian white, the ceo of urban mapping, packages the data up and resells it.

so if you want tons of public data, urban mapping will be happy to sell it to you. check out: http://urbanmapping.com/urbanware/mass-transit/coverage.html

is that fair?

by stop_the_nonsense on Dec 15, 2008 2:54 am • linkreport

stop_the_nonsense,

are you trying to use this forum to promote a website and sell something to me? Thanks, but I don't think this is the purpose of the discussion. Now we found someone who makes money on GTFS data not being open to the public. Great.

by dc_transit on Dec 15, 2008 3:03 am • linkreport

Google is not the issue here at all.

WMATA should be making their data available and easy to access via every mode of transmission. By not providing that via the conduit of Google Transit, they are failing at their mission. This is an incredibly short-sighted move on their part.

by Alex B. on Dec 15, 2008 9:23 am • linkreport

It sounds like this problem could be solved if Google agreed to not charge for this service or run ads concurrent with "hits" to this service. Being funded by the taxpayers, Metro has an obligation to go the extra mile to see that this info gets out there in ways that are most useful. And, being funded by the taxpayer, Google shouldn't be profiting from anything more than the goodwill it will generate by facilitating this public service.

I suspect though that the reason Metro isn't cooperating hasn't a thing to do with this issue ... but simply that the folks there don't want to add to their workload. Unlike private business where adding to workload is viewed as opportunity ... since it helps keep jobs around, government bureaucrats who already enjoy job stability, just view it as 'extra work' for them. That's why unfortunately you have to go to the top, the WMATA board, to get accomplished what should have been accomplished simply by asking once.

by Lance on Dec 15, 2008 11:19 am • linkreport

@ Peter {re:net neutrality}

The WSJ piece, stating Google abandoned net neutrality, is a farce. Sorry, but you've been tricked with F.U.D. by folks at WSJ. Both Lessig and Google have responded to the false charges - they are simply placing equipment in carrier locations, not paying for preferred access. Note this article where the WSJ "spokesman had no immediate response Monday. The story's reporters did not immediately return calls for comment".

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5inakDU6pK7luy0FB8P9hatlDRkfQD95372T01

by Todd A. on Dec 15, 2008 1:00 pm • linkreport

What about other area transit agencies? Montgomery County runs the largest suburban bus system in the region. Arlington, Loudon, Prince George's and others also run scheduled services that should be listed. Make Metro look like the odd man out, and maybe the other transit services will put pressure on them to come to their senses.

by Stanton Park on Dec 15, 2008 2:34 pm • linkreport

For the record, the CTA (chicago, primarily in the city) publishes bus and train data, and the Metra (regional heavy rail) also publish train data. Suburban bus transit (the Pace bus system) does not yet, but I can't imagine that isn't in the works.

In the SF Bay Area (granted, google's home), I can get directions between 5 different agencies without any hassles at all.

by dbt on Dec 16, 2008 5:02 am • linkreport

There are reasons for towns like Duluth, Lexington KY, Walla Walla, and Racine offer their information to Google. They get a trip planner for nothing.

WMATA, like most large metropolitan transit agencies, already provide customers with trip planning and schedule information via the web. WMATA's web trip planner has been in operational since 1999. Contrary to one post, WMATA's trip planner provides information for 15 of the regional agencies serving the greater DC area. The only major player not providing data to WMATA's trip planner is the MTA in Baltimore.

Look at it from WMATA's point of view for a moment. What's in it for them to expend the resources to provide Google with the data? WMATA's web site is providing over 1,000,000 trip plans per month and an equally large number of schedule look-ups. If Google will not provide usage statistics in return for the data then how does a manager gauge if supporting the Google data feed is "beneficial" to the agency? I think most anyone that knows the source of Google's revenue will understand why Google doesn't want to provide the agencies with stats.

Contrary to one post, the WMATA data is updated every few weeks to address service adjustments made by WMATA or one of the other agencies who's data is in the WMATA trip planner.

by mjf on Dec 19, 2008 1:58 pm • linkreport

One more thing. If you want greater Chicago regional trip planning and schedule information go to www.rtachicago.com. This trip planner provides Metra, CTA, Pace and Northern Indiana commuter rail. This trip planner has been around since 2000.

Feeding Google isn't as easy as you might think, especially for large agencies.

by mjf on Dec 19, 2008 2:07 pm • linkreport

Just?! This is a classic, "Hello, WAMATA, here's what you can do for Google." So the Google-opoly simply requires others to abide by their closed-system style rules to provide "free" info to those whose information they're capturing. Thank you Metro! "The feature, a free service by Google, just requires transit agencies to format their data in the Google Transit Feed Specification format and sign an agreement with Google."

by JNels on Dec 19, 2008 4:31 pm • linkreport

So the Google-opoly simply requires others to abide by their closed-system style rules

This is absurd. You might not want to export GTFS, but there's nothing "closed" about it.

by David desJardins on Dec 19, 2008 4:38 pm • linkreport

I only saw through David - 12/19/08 comments. Michal I suggest you have something at the top of the comments to say how substantive the comments are. The 'against' side has a few good points but those such as David's and yours greatly strengthen the support for wmata to do this.

When I see the rest of the comments, I'll look for Rider Advisory committee (or whatever its actual name is). The minutes at that page might have been updated recently, so I'll look for mention of this request and benifit to both local and visiting riders. We can also try to get DC councilmembers, MD/VA County council members and Congressmembers and State delegates/Senators involved. They could influence the board members and they give funds to wmata.

The COG Transportation boards should be involved as well.

by Jeff PG on Jan 30, 2009 1:03 pm • linkreport

Accountability to me is what may not be desired by transit systems. I asked the same question of our transit folks in Whatcom County Washington. I received a response that the transit information was proprietary. Not an entirely satisfactory answer.

I've decided it may be due to some accountability issues. Since, our transit schedule runs behind at times, which seems to be a natural state during rush hours, perhaps the transit authority wouldn't want to be held to account with missed connections and such.

Perhaps they want to reserve the right to place information on such an external schedule, which would help keep complaints to a minumum. On the other hand, if there is something which is being done which might be improved, perhaps transit systems ought to be held to account. After all, they are monopolies and it is understood that oversight is an undesirable irritant which nobody, that least of all monopolies desire. Sadly, monopolies need oversight the most, yet keeping information proprietary does little to enhance it.

by Czar on Feb 13, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

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