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Will the MTA get on board with Google Transit? Maybe, officials say

December 3, 2008 |  3:00 pm

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There may be some movement on the is-Google-Transit-ever-coming-to-Los Angeles front: testing could begin in the first half of 2009, says a key official with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Google Transit is the popular service that allows users to easily plan and map trips on mass transit. With the cooperation of transit agencies, Google Transit has posted bus and/or train schedules for New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh. Click on the above map and you can see how Google Transit may help someone navigate a trip from Columbia University in New York City to the Union Square Cafe.

What do all those cities have in common? They're all big cities -- kind of like Los Angeles is a big city!

But, thus far, the MTA remains missing on Google Transit. Instead, the MTA has three online trip planners: its regular trip planner, a test version of the trip planner that has schedules for dozens of transit agencies in L.A. County, and a program that allows cellphone users to see how long until the next rapid bus arrives.

All three also have shortcomings. The regular planner can be fickle (unless you really dig long bus trips) and neither the regular nor test versions of the planner recognizes the name of a business as your present location (Google Transit usually does). And the rapid bus program provides schedules only for some stops.

Matt Raymond, the chief communications officer for the MTA, said he thought a pilot program with Google Transit could happen soon, but that the agency was still not firmly committed to a permanent relationship with Google even after months of talks between the two.

"I guess the bottom line is we want to provide our customers the best possible service," Raymond said. "Google is a for-profit entity, and we have to make sure that we have solid policies in how we give public information out."

Raymond said that the MTA still needed to resolve several issues. Among them are finding a way to provide frequent schedule updates to Google and finding a way to ensure that Google is providing MTA customers with accurate information about the best way to get from Point A to Point B.

The other big issue is the MTA's willingness to surrender publicly owned data, albeit data that has to be specially formatted by the MTA for use by Google. Raymond said that the trip planner feature on the MTA website gets up to 40 million hits a month, making it the most popular feature on the site. "It's a valuable tool and it's a main driver to our website," Raymond said. "If we want to use it as a future revenue stream, we don't know the impact of having all the information on a different system."

In other words, the MTA is considering putting advertising on its website, which is currently free of it. The trip planner generates the page views that could lure advertisers for the perpetually cash-strapped agency. Of course, the agency isn't quite as cash-strapped as it was Nov. 3, the day before 67.93% of voters approved a 30-year half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax hike expected to generate $30 billion to $40 billion for MTA and Caltrans projects.

In the meantime, OCTA in Orange County already has its bus schedules on Google Transit, as does the Burbank bus system. Metrolink went live on G.T. this month, and Big Blue Bus officials in Santa Monica say they're working on putting their bus info on G.T. too, but that their data is tied up with another vendor at the moment, an issue that must first be resolved.

The next big agency to go live on G.T. is likely to be Foothill Transit, one of the largest bus agencies in Los Angeles County.

"We've been in beta testing since August ,and we're almost done and we're hoping to be up and online with Google Transit in January or February," said Felicia Friesema, the spokeswoman for Foothill Transit. "We're really excited about it, and we're hoping that more transit agencies get on board because Google Transit in Los Angeles County will only be as good as the number of agencies that are on it."

With the holidays upon us, it's likely that many people will soon be unwrapping new smartphones that easily access the Internet and all its bells and whistles. If transit ridership remains high and gas prices spike, it will be mighty interesting to see whether consumers begin clamoring for a wider variety of transit information.

--Steve Hymon