APTA | Passenger Transport
September 8, 2008

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New Technologies Make Trip Planning Easier Than Ever
By Maureen Minehan, Special to Passenger Transport

Recent technology developments are giving public transit systems the tools they need to provide their customers with faster, more accurate trip planning information whenever and wherever they need it. From the introduction of Google Transit to the online city transit guide HopStop, agencies nationwide are offering new ways for riders to travel more efficiently and to make the most out of their public transit experience.

In addition, upgrades to existing trip planning tools on transit system websites are reaching out to riders as never before, enabling them to get instant, real-time information on a variety of platforms as well as regional information across multiple transit systems. 

The makers of all these technologies are in agreement on a fundamental goal: to increase ridership on public transportation.

Google Transit
Consider Google Transit. The Internet search engine giant partnered with transit agencies throughout North America, Asia, and Europe to provide public transportation information to users of Google Maps. To date, 54 systems provided Google with their schedule, fare, and other information, which in turn became the tool users access in planning their trips.

From 13 cities and counties in California alone to Austin and Dallas, TX; Detroit and Ann Arbor, MI; Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio; statewide throughout Rhode Island; and Morgantown, WV—and more—Google continues to respond to agencies’ requests to help them aid their riders by adding more trip planning capability.  The latest addition?  Twin Cities’ Metro Transit, launched in time for the Republican National Convention.

If you are a transit agency, said Jessica Wei, a strategic partner development manager at Google who focuses on public transportation, you have three key reasons to partner with Google:  

  •  It’s a discovery portal for all transit agencies, delivering “choice” riders to an agency’s doorstep.
  • It’s a discovery path.  “Once people understand and know the public transit option is there, they are more likely to try it,” said Wei.
  • The service itself is free.

Internationally, riders can plan their trips using public transit—via Google Transit—in four Canadian cities; all of Japan, Austria, and Switzerland; in London and South East regions of England; and such cities as Moscow and Florence, Italy.

 “When users visit our site to find out how to get from Point A to Point B, if public transit is available, we show a public transit link that they can use to get trip information,” said Wei.  “Where available, we also show the cost of public transit compared to the fuel cost of driving and historical data on traffic patterns at the time of day when they want to make the trip.”

In addition, Google Transit has added a “Maps for Mobile” tool that allows users to retrieve point-to-point trip information on many mobile devices—even if the users find themselves in a strange city.  Google initially supported just BlackBerry smartphones, but it recently added support for Nokia’s S60 and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platforms.

HopStop.com, another aggregator of public transit information, allows users to deliver trip information via the web or text-enabled mobile devices.  It provides a range of mobile services options:  users can access HopStop through their device’s web-based browser; they can send a text message to HopStop with their starting and ending points and receive a text message back with directions; or, they can call a toll-free number, provide the addresses, and get directions sent directly to their phones.

Hopstop currently offers trip planning in eight areas: New York City; Boston; Chicago; San Francisco; New Jersey; Long Island; Washington, DC; and the “Metro North” region north of New York City.  Now reaching 1.5 million visitors per month, HopStop is looking to bring its service to more U.S. cities.  “We plan to expand into other major metropolitan markets as well, such as Philadelphia, Seattle, and Los Angeles,” said Chinedu Echeruo, chief executive officer and founder of HopStop.

Echeruo explained that he created HopStop after moving to New York City and encountering the complicated nature of traveling around large cities, for residents and visitors alike.  “I started thinking of a solution to the problem that would be easy to use,” he said.  “It’s taken us a long time to create such a platform, but what we have now works really well—and solves the problem of ‘how do I go from Point A to Point B in a large city?’”  In addition to its door-to-door subway and bus directions and maps, HopStop’s web site also offers its City Guide option, enabling users to search for restaurants, accommodations, and local sights.

Besides the added benefits of partnering with companies such as Google Transit and HopStop, transit agencies are also expanding customer service by upgrading and enhancing trip planning services offered on their own websites.

“Having a trip planner on your web site is just not enough anymore,” said Timothy Moore, web site manager for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District. “Transit customers are mobile by definition, and you need to be able to connect with them wherever they are, on whatever platform they're using. That’s why we offer trip planning services on a variety of platforms including Palm OS, Pocket PC/Windows Mobile, mobile wireless and, most recently, Apple iPod.”
For many transit agencies, third-party trip planning tools have long served as invaluable aids for better serving customers.  The Trapeze Group’s Transit Information module is one example. The latest version provides transit agencies with a web-based interface through which riders can plan trips and access schedule and additional transit information directly from the agencies’ sites—all in real time, and all instantly reflecting unexpected route changes, traffic delays, and other factors affecting transit schedules.  The Trapeze module also lets users see their results on their mobile devices through Web-based browsers and/or SMS text messaging.

“We’re able to provide accurate, real-time information vs. ‘this is what’s scheduled to happen’ and fine-tune the trip planning results users get,” said Matt Goddard, director of Global Product Management at Trapeze. “If an agency has preferred transfer points, for example, we can tailor the results to put the routes with preferred transfer points first.”
Trapeze also can provide regional transit information across multiple systems, so a person could, for example, map a route from St. Petersburg to Miami.

Another third party resource is GIRO Inc.’s HASTINFO, the trip planning and schedule information module of the venerable HASTUS technology.  Initially introduced in 1989 as installations for call centers exclusively, HASTINFO added its web version for self-service public access in 1998, and in 2005, developed a set of generic trip planning web pages for transit agency use.

Earlier this year, GIRO launched the latest enhancement of HASTINFO, which enables riders to use interactive map displays, powered by Microsoft’s Virtual Earth™ platform.  With it, users select origins and destinations by simply clicking on a stop/landmark on the screen of their computer or web-enabled wireless device. Once a request is submitted, HASTINFO updates the map to show the optimal transit route.

According to François Carignan, GIRO senior account manager, the latest release of HASTINFO is now being used by 16 transit systems, including Florida’s Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA). 

“This is our second year using HASTINFO and it has enabled us to give our customers 24/7 trip planning assistance, especially when our customer service staff is off duty,” said PSTA Customer Relations Manager Terry Parks.  “With rising fuel costs we’re seeing increased ridership, and this tool lets our customers get the best travel options … and lets them see the shortest distance, the fastest route and the fewest transfers to get where they’re going.” Parks added that PSTA offers HASTINFO in four languages:  English, Spanish, German, and French. 

Combining Forces
Fortunately, with so many interesting options available, transit agencies don’t need to choose one over the other. “It’s not mutually exclusive. Agencies shouldn’t look at Google Transit as a replacement for their own trip planners. Instead, they should look at Google as another channel for distribution,” Wei said.

Goddard agreed: “Google Transit and others can supplement what the agencies have. They are another medium to make information available to the public.”

As a demonstration of this interactivity, Trapeze offers users of its Transit Information products free access to Google Export service, which sends transit systems’ data to Google in the format it needs for inclusion in the Google Transit database.

“It’s another step in solving a business problem every agency has—how to push information out to the public in an easy way,” Goddard said.

GIRO also sees the synergy as beneficial.  “So far, Google appears to complement HASTINFO,” said Carignan, “and it seems to appeal to a different audience than an in-house trip planner.    Carignan also noted that to accommodate GIRO clients who wanted to upload their scheduled data to Google Transit, GIRO began providing a Google Transit interface for its recent software versions.

By greatly simplifying the process of traveling from one place to another—and making mobility more user-friendly (and dare we say) more fun—there’s no doubt that these technological developments will continue to play a critical role in enabling transit systems to provide more amenities to customers and to help make public transportation an essential part of their everyday lives.

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