I remember being amazed when Mapquest came out in, what, 1997? How could it possibly know where my house was? How was it able to instantly come up with a route between Anchorage and Miami? The data seemed too vast and too messy to yield to computation, sort of like the internet itself.
Since then Google has redefined web-based maps, and the company continues to innovate. If you don’t live in a town with public transit, you may never have encountered their subway and bus directions. If you do live in a town with public transit, you should give the tool a spin. Integrated schedule information takes a huge amount of the unpleasant guesswork out of catching a bus.
Google walking directions use a proprietary algorithm to determine the best route on foot, and also proves pretty handy for planning bike routes. Although the system isn’t perfect for this use (one-way streets are a problem), it works pretty well. One notable gap, however, is pathways and pedestrian alleys that aren’t open to cars and therefore don’t exist at all in most mapping tools.
Now Google is making headway on that issue as well by gathering data via the Street View Trike:
You can check out some of its early handiwork here. Note the shape-changing cursor that gives the photos a feeling of depth and allow you to jump ahead to any point along the path. Google pulls off this trick using laser range finders to build up a three-dimensional overlay (more info here).
All of this tech wizardry is cool for its own sake, but it also has real implications for public transit. Transit choices are driven partly by cost and partly by convenience. Overcoming the convenience gap remains a major impediment to use. Getting better schedule and route info into people’s hands isn’t the only thing required to boost transit ridership, but, particularly as mobile internet devices proliferate, it is a potentially useful piece of the puzzle.