Visiting Seattle this past weekend, I found myself jealous of the Emerald City, and not just for their fine food and coffee options, or for the warm weather and gentle rain. No, what I found most amazing about Seattle was the wealth of transit options I had in the palm of my hand through Google Maps on my iPhone.
If you’ve ever tried to use the transit mode in DC, you know that it holds nothing but certain disappointment, and you find yourself trying to find directions another way. You muddle through the wmata.com website, you try to remember which bus route runs where, and which ones are named after streetcar routes, and if you’re like me, you can’t keep it all straight.
WMATA has committed to bringing Metrobus and Metrorail routes to Google Transit, but have missed deadline after deadline, first saying January of 2011, and then saying “any day now“. The project has foundered for reasons that WMATA isn’t discussing publicly. I do recognize that processing five rail lines, and 300 bus lines is a chunk of work, but after my weekend of wandering Seattle, and spending a chunk of money on fares, it’s awful hard to go back.
The easier you make it for someone to use public transit, the more likely they are to shrug off whatever fears they have about the bus and the metro and just hop on. Show someone that it takes just 25 minutes to get downtown on the G8 bus, or that they can easily move back and forth between the rail and bus systems, and you might make some converts simply because parking can be a nightmare in some parts of town.
Please, WMATA, make it easy for us to get around by exposing that data to Google. I know you’re worried about the times not being 100% right, or what happens if the fares change, but these are pains we can get through together, if you’re willing to just open up those tools. While Nextbus is tantalizing in its current state, it also doesn’t work about 30% of the time, either through errors of omission or errors of commission. People give it a hard time on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere, but that just shows how hungry we all are for working transit data.
As a tourist this weekend, I found myself farther and farther from the downtown core, into the neighborhoods of Seattle, despite the lack of the tourist-friendly rail systems of other bigger cities, and I chalk it all up to Google Transit never leaving me truly high and dry. I missed a bus here and there, but the ability to map out my options with a smart phone, or with a web browser at the hotel, gave me the tools that I needed to be fearless about transit.
As a city that gets a pretty large quantity of tourists, putting tools in their hands to explore the city means that they spend more time beyond the obvious hubs, and spend more money on transportation, which turns into a boost to fares that doesn’t necessarily require increasing capacity at rush hour, sounds like a pretty good investment of resources, even in a budget crunch.