Things that made it possible for me to sell my car

I hit the one year mark of not owning a car last month. Several things made it possible to sell my beloved black Prius:

* Living in cities with great public transit (Portland and San Francisco)
* The intarwebs on my phone (Blackberry 8100)
* Zipcar
* Telecommuting
* Google Maps on my phone
* Safeway grocery delivery

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.

8 thoughts on “Things that made it possible for me to sell my car”

  1. Car Free Happy Hour

    You may be interested in this – the last/only one I came to had a NextMuni/NextBus developer as well as someone working on Google Transit. Zeitgeist, first Wednesdays, 6PM.

  2. I wish I had decent integrated public transport search engines for the UK. At the momement it’s very segmented and the data is not available to other people. There is currently a push to make public data freely available for people to mash-up, and some of that data will be transport information.

    I wonder where Google get the data from? I wonder if it comes in a standard format?

  3. While I lived with my parents further out in the suburbs, I was a mix of car and bus usage.

    Since I moved close to the city, I considered buying a car, esp as none of the zipcar/co-op programs have vehicles within 15 blocks of me, but I’ve just added cycling as the additional means. Transit is still my primary, unless it’s in a cross-wise direction that there are no effective buses to take (we have a lot more north/south routes than east-west ones). For groceries, I’m lucky in that it’s only 1.3km to a decent area of stores (the local “Little India” area) so I can just walk up or cycle w/ panniers depending on the weather.

    For finding my way, Vancouver only got Google Transit pretty late in the game, I used to carry the 3 bus schedule books with me, plus I have a really old Mapopolis map on my Visor Edge (it still works, I bought it used in 2002).

    Google Transit still screws up here often enough, one of the tricks we’ve noticed is ‘helping’ it by suggesting a better starting location.

    One other thing that happened as an offshoot of our Transit system adding Google Transit – they went to _every_ bus stop, and put a unique 5 digit number on the stop, and then advertised widely that you could text the number to ‘33333’ and get an answer about the next buses at that stop.

  4. my eensy laptop??

    which eensy laptop? I’m thinking of committing an act of commerce like that and would be interested to hear….

  5. Re: my eensy laptop??

    That was my Panasonic CF-R5, grey market from Japan. It’s like an EeePC with a larger screen and a higher price tag. The current generation, R7, is available here:

    http://geekstuff4u.com/index.php?cPath=22_50

    However, my current favorite laptop is the Airbook – not eensy, but very light and almost twice the screen size. And if you get the hard drive version (which you should, SSD is unreliable), it’s around $1800 – way more than the EeePC, but a perfectly reasonable middle-of-the-road laptop price. I have to carry around a larger purse now but it’s worth it. :)

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