Home MTA Absurdity Testing the schedule for Google Transit and Trip Planner

Testing the schedule for Google Transit and Trip Planner

by Benjamin Kabak

Google Transit and the MTA’s Trip Planner are, potentially, two of the more useful New York City-based directional tools available online. Google Transit combines walking directions with transit information to provide users with accurate routes around the city, and both services incorporate the MTA’s schedules to offer up to-the-minute directions.

For these services, the options are really quite simple. Enter your address; enter a destination; enter a departure time; and voilà, directions. Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to rely on Google Maps on Blackberry — now with Transit directions — for the scheduling. I supposedly know which trains are leaving which station at what time.

But there’s a catch. I’ve noticed that these schedules aren’t exactly right. So I decided to do an unscientific test today. This evening, after watching the final Presidential Debate in Alphabet City, I ran the directions back to my place in Brooklyn. Common sense — and Google Maps — told me to hoof it to Union Square and take the 11:04 Q train. Works for me.

After a nice stroll from 11th and Ave. B to Union Square, I arrived at the Q platform at 11:02. “Phew. Two minutes to spare,” I thought to myself as I peered into the dark tunnels, expectantly waiting for a train to pass.

11:03 came and went. 11:04 came and went. And so did 11:05, 11:06, 11:07. After a few more minutes of empty tracks and desolate tunnels, at 11:12, an N train rolled into the station. This was, by the way, the first downtown train to pass through Union Square in the ten minutes I had been standing there. Two minutes later, an out-of-service R160 zoomed down the express tracks.

Finally, at 11:15 p.m., one minute before the scheduled 11:16 and 11 minutes after the 11:04 train that never showed should have arrived, a Brooklyn-bound Q arrived in Union Square. There was no rhyme or reason to it, and since the train originated just four stops away, getting the schedule right shouldn’t have been that hard. But it was.

Now, to be fair, it’s not always this bad. In the morning, the trains that pass through 7th Ave. on the Brighton line seem to be about two minutes earlier than scheduled, and these trains show up regularly. But my experiences tonight show the limitations of these new scheduling platforms.

Google Transit’s directions are great; Trip Planner provides an invaluable service. But if the schedules are inaccurate or if they divulge from reality such that I don’t know which scheduled train I bordered at 11:15 p.m. last night, they’ll only be useful to a point. But then again, who really relies on the published schedules for the subways in New York anyway?

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Michael E. Gruen October 16, 2008 - 2:20 am

Release early and iterate.

Maybe Mama Didn’t Say Knock You Out - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com October 16, 2008 - 12:15 pm

[…] Sarah Palin wigs for Orthodox ladies. [wcbstv.com via mcbrooklyn] An unscientific study that puts Google Transit and the MTA’s Trip Planner head-to-head. [2nd Ave Sagas] Frank Bruni searches for the Brigadoon of restaurants without much luck. Is Kurve […]

Patrick Di Justo October 16, 2008 - 12:31 pm

I think the last people to rely on a subway schedule were Mr. Blue, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, and Mr. Brown on the 6 line.

Benjamin Kabak October 16, 2008 - 12:38 pm

Excellent Taking of Pelham reference. Well done.

slr October 16, 2008 - 1:46 pm

MTA Trip Planner is the best. Hop Stop is second and Google comes in last. Its pretty bad (if traveling from battery park to queens it tells you to transfer from the 6 to the F without explaining that it’s an out of subway transfer. What if you were visiting, its confusing if you don’t know where you’re going and thats exactly the type of person that will be using the service.

R2 October 17, 2008 - 11:10 am

You’ve got to be kidding me! Obviously suggesting such an egregious transfer was done by a group of out-of-towners. Seriously, it would be helpful to consult some natives when doing this (at the very least)!

Could you imagine if someone who is not in top physical form attempting to perform said transfer: walk up to street level, then four blocks (three if at front of train) north, then descend into the depths of hell for the Queens-bound F!!! Seriously…..I can imagine the devil himself saying: “Damnnnnnn!!!

Chris October 16, 2008 - 2:18 pm

The trip planners can only tell you what the nominal schedule is. As you found out, the actual on-the-ground schedule only vaguely resembles that schedule. My thoughts on the need for trains to actually run on-schedule are in a previous comment.


RBC October 16, 2008 - 4:44 pm

ROFL @ Patrick DiJusto

I love “Taking of Pelham 1-2-3” – its a quintessential NY movie. My fav part is when the robbers announce they’re hijacking the train, all the passengers start laughing. Classic!

Josh October 17, 2008 - 12:26 pm

That last sentence said it. Does anybody actually look at subway schedules? If I go downstairs to grab the train, am I really thinking about catching the 12:30 4 train from Fulton Street? Or am I just thinking about catching the 4 train from Fulton Street?

Ian Turner October 17, 2008 - 1:35 pm

Google’s trip planner is wildly optimistic; it assumes an athletic walking speed and that all transit services always run on time. Hopstop makes much more reasonable assumptions, with the result that its time estimates are far more accurate. Main complaint about hopstop? For some reason it frequently lists longer itineraries before shorter ones.

Trips123 is useful when you want to use services other than MTA NYCT, but otherwise suffers from the same problems as Google.

Gil October 17, 2008 - 3:49 pm

I agree that the times are usually wrong, but I can’t really expect it to be right. I just want Google to have a checkmark option that takes into account “worst case scenario”.
For example, if I’m taking the 2/3 and then the 1 from Wall Street to 50th st, starting at 3:35 pm at the station, it currently tells me:

a) THIRTEEN MINUTES ON THE 3 TRAIN (There’s a 3 train leaving Wall St. at 3:37pm, arriving at Times Square at 3:50pm)
c) ONE MINUTE ON THE 1 TRAIN (There’s a 1 train leaving Times Square at 3:53 PM, arriving at 50th st. at 3:54 PM.)

But really I want to see this:
a) EIGHT MAX MINUTES WAITING (i.e., let’s say a 2/3 comes every eight minutes on average at this time of day)
b) THIRTEEN MINUTES ON THE 3 TRAIN (average time on a 2/3 train from Wall St. to Times Square)
c) FIVE MINUTES MAX WAITING (i.e., let’s say a 1 comes every five minutes at that time of day)
d) ONE MINUTE ON THE 1 TRAIN (average time on a 1 train from 42nd to 50th st)

Yeah, eight minutes isn’t a lot, but when you’re a new yorker and you mostly want Google Maps to tell you how long it takes to get somewhere (or what the fastest of two routes are), this would be the most useful thing.


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