By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009
Metro plans to post all its bus and rail schedules and routes on the transit agency's Web site starting Monday, a long-awaited move that will allow third parties such as Google Transit to use the data to offer online tools to help riders navigate the system.
Riders on the New York and San Francisco subway systems have access to such tools. In San Francisco, for example, two college students used rail schedule data from BART to create a free application (iBART) that riders can install on their iPhones to plan trips, said Timothy Moore, BART's webmaster. "It's super popular," he said. "With no in-house developer to create new applications, and in a time of extremely tight budgets, this is a great way to foster new services that directly benefit customers."
Metro's decision comes after an online petition drive by riders in the fall and after Metro and Google Transit were unable to reach an agreement last year to place Metro's information on the popular mapping tool. The Google tool allows users to plan their trips by car, foot or public transit. There are 115 transit agencies that participate in Google Transit, including the Maryland Transit Administration, the CUE bus system in Fairfax City, Alexandria's DASH bus service and Loudoun County Transit.
For the average Metro rider, the best way to get up-to-date and accurate bus and rail information is on the agency's Web site, www.wmata.com, said Emeka Moneme, Metro's chief administrative officer. Metro's online Trip Planner tells riders how to get from Point A to Point B on bus, rail or both. It includes information from all regional transit providers, such as Montgomery County's Ride On and the Fairfax County Connector.
Unlike online scheduling tools, transit agency Web sites often provide real-time information about service delays.
But some riders say Google's online tool is easier to use. "If I want to go from the Jackson Graham Building to Dupont Circle, I just right- click 'from here' and 'to here' and I get a pull-down menu that lets me do it 'by transit,' and it's a lot fewer clicks and displays in a map," said Michael Perkins, a Navy engineer and self-described "transit geek." Besides, he said, many people are familiar with Google because they use it to find driving directions.
Perkins helped organize the online petition drive, which flooded Metro board members with more than 700 e-mails late last year.
Rider interest helped "raise the profile" of the issue, said Metro board member Chris Zimmerman, adding that several members had been pushing the idea well before the petition campaign.
"Getting as much information to make transit easier to use is the most valuable way to improve the experience for riders," said Zimmerman, a Virginia member.
Riders applauded Metro's decision to make the data available to everyone, saying it was better than an exclusive agreement with Google with legal restrictions on the agency.
The decision means that any enterprising software developer could come up with an application for an online tool and that all riders would benefit, said David Alpert of greatergreaterwashington.org, a Washington-based blog on transportation and urban issues. The blog organized the petition drive. Alpert, the blog's creator and editor, is a former Google employee and owns Google stock.
For example, users must agree to exempt the transit agency from liability, something Google was unwilling to accept, Metro officials said. If, for example, corrupt data affected a user's computer system, Metro would not be held liable, officials said. Google officials declined to comment.
Users can download the information for free. But the agency, which is struggling to generate more revenue, is studying whether it could be used to make money in the future.
Transit agencies have been trying to make money on such deals for several years, BART's Moore said. But at some point, he said, "you have to weigh the benefits of good will and serving customers against the hope of revenue that is never materialized." The transit agencies that participate in Google Transit provide data for free.
Moore said that in the San Francisco Bay area, the free data have "created a situation where third-party developers are competing to see who can serve our customers best. It's unprecedented in a situation where there tend to be monopolistic controls over transit providers."
There are even transit camps, he said, where software developers spend a weekend discussing ways to use free schedule data to improve transit.
More government agencies are releasing raw data to the public because more people are relying on the Internet to become active in their communities and deal with the government, Alpert said. The District, for example, releases data about where fire stations are located, where crimes are reported and where permits have been issued for repaving streets.
Transportation agencies have a much greater effect on people's lives than the typical government agency, so providing information to the public helps Metro develop a better relationship with riders, he said.