I hit the one year mark of not owning a car last month. Several things made it possible to sell my beloved black Prius:
But when I was actually pondering the decision in June 2007, the clincher was Google Transit. At the time, it was in beta, but luckily Portland was one of the supported cities. Like many other cities, Portland had its own public transit trip planner, but it was exactly as clunky and difficult to use as every other municipal transit web site. It was often a race between typing in my start, destination, etc. and the arrival (and departure) of the bus I needed. On the other hand, Google Transit had occasional catastrophic bugs. In the end, I used a mish-mash of everything, including a paper print-out of the bus system and directions cached on my eensy laptop, to go from public transit novice (I’d ridden a bus maybe 10 times in my life till then) to non-car-owner in a month.
When I moved to San Francisco in December 2007, I had a lot to complain about with Google Transit. Fortunately San Francisco was supported by then, but SF MUNI was refusing to release transit schedules to Google at that point, so I could only plan trips using BART and Caltrain and had to use the infuriating SF municipal transit web site for everything else. Walking directions were unsupported. It was still painful to use through a mobile phone web browser. It wasn’t integrated with Google Maps on mobile. But after downloading the latest Google Maps for mobile today, all these problems are fixed and I can get public transit directions in a few seconds on my phone. Yessss!!
I still have some feature requests. One thing I learned from using multiple buggy beta transit systems is deep suspicion of computer-generated directions. When I get directions that don’t make obvious sense, I want to be able to compare them against several other routes. Sometimes I do want to pick a particular transit mode – though I like buses, it’s easier to work on my laptop on BART or Caltrain. I still have to use NextMuni since MUNI is so frequently off-schedule, which has the usual awful interface – it’d be nice to have that integrated too. I want to control the tradeoff between walking distance and total transit time – I’ll happily walk a mile to save 10 minutes, or 5 blocks to save a dollar. I prefer lines with more frequent service than less, even if I have to walk farther. Also I want automatic warning when several thousand drunk, ill-clad public transit novices are likely to infest the area I’m traveling through (c.f., Bay to Breakers, Halloween, New Year’s, Folsom Street Fair, etc.). That is all.
It’s been fun watching the evolution of Google’s navigation/maps/geo-whatchamahoozit software. I remember back in the day (wheeze!) when Dan Egnor’s location-aware search hack won the 2002 Google Programming Contest. I thought it was so cool that I spent several days downloading the monstrous databases to my SparcStation so I could run it – and then promptly destroyed my partition table while working on ZFS and had to reinstall. I remember talking to Googlers during the early beta days of Local and their shock upon learning that I actually used it for practical purposes, such as finding pizza delivery nearby. Now it’s all grown up *snif* and fully supported.
And if you have now or in the past worked on Google Transit, I owe you a beer. Email me.