Google Transit Directions got Lost

When recently trying to plan a trip to the airport, I realized that Google has over-optimized their transit directions. I assume much of this is downstream of the Google Maps upgrade announced at the recent IO conference. Or perhaps part of it is that Google’s dogfooders – their own employees using their products in real-world scenarios – don’t take public transit that much.

Recent example: I know the route I need to take to get from my house to the airport (26 to downtown, transfer to light rail), but I often use Google Maps' directions to figure out which bus I need to take to get to the airport at a given time. The 26 passes one block from my house and runs downtown every 30 minutes mid-day, but Google suggested I take the 26 and transfer to either the 40 or 16 or, what the hell, just walk to the eight blocks to the 16 and take that.

Perhaps the updated Maps with it’s spiffy new interface would find the correct route? The UI was much more polished, but it was still suggesting I take the 26 and transfer, or walk even farther to another bus and then transfer. For whatever reason the 40 is out of favor in Google’s brave new UX; I’m to transfer to the 21 instead.

The 26 follows the same route as the 40 or 16 once it hits downtown. In fact, all the light rail stations are served by all those bus routes. So why does Google want me to transfer? Doesn't the Google hive-brain know that every time you transfer you leave yourself open to a missed connection?  Guess not...

This hasn’t always been a problem. In a recent trip to Portland (car-free), Google guided me all over town on a mix of light rail, buses and walking. For the last several years, my family – especially my oldest who got an Orca card instead of yellow-bus transportation to high school – have used Google Maps religiously to plan transit-based trips around town. Clearly something changed recently.

I have two guesses as to Google’s recent transit mapping failures.

First, Google’s latest update to Maps prioritizes high frequency transit lines. However that criteria has been given too much clout – telling people to transfer from a bus they've already caught to another that may come more frequently. Both the 26 and the 16 end up at the same location so perhaps the differing routes have better or worse on-time records? My personal experience is that the 16, which travels down SR99 into downtown is slightly faster than the 26 which travels on Dexter for that same stretch. But any regular transit rider knows that the bus you’re on is worth two down the road.

My second guess occurred to me when I went to King County Metro’s site to check the actual schedule for the 26. Seems they’ve also spiffed up their site with a fancy redesign that doesn’t help the site visitor. Schedules are loaded via asynchronous calls (which may screw up Google’s spiders) and they’ve combined similar routes into the same timetable making the already-long-and-complicated schedules even harder to read. Haven’t they heard to fixed table headers so you can scroll through the dozens of entries and still see the stop locations?

Regardless, Google knows how to gather and parse data from web sites. I can't imagine that Metro's new layout is really the cause. Hopefully some Googlers will plot a course across town on transit and notice the quirks in their new algorithm. In the meantime, I'd say to use Bing's Maps, but their transit directions aren't much better. While Bing doesn't tell you to transfer, it doesn't seem to know that the 26 exists...

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