Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Other Santa Monica Alternative Transportation News, Big Blue Bus Still Not On Google Transit, Continues To Repeatedly Push Back A Potential Launch, And Now A Petition Has Begun To Demand It Get Done

Santa Monica Bus 3

As the title of my blog obviously suggests, I write mostly about bikes. In the big picture though, all modes of transportation are interconnected, and if we want sustainable, and less auto-centric transportation for our cities, better and more user friendly public transit is an absolutely essential component of that. Buying a Prius won't save the world, but riding the bus would certainly help a lot. The Big Blue Bus offers a lot of great local service, as well important connections to key regional destinations like LAX, Downtown LA, and UCLA. I've depended on BBB long before I moved to Santa Monica, when I was going to college at Otis along the number 3 route and living in Westchester. The problem is the ol'BBB is still living in the past when it comes to how potential customers figure out transit service in 2010.

Increasingly in this web 2.0 world and smart phones becoming common place, mobile apps running open source, private or google data have largely replaced traditional time tables and route building for many transit users. MTA's old trip planner and route builder always sucked, for a number of reasons. So of course many rejoiced when they could finally use google transit instead. Burbank, OCTA and Metrolink were all a step ahead of L.A MTA in getting to Google. The old online Metro trip planner has all the other local agencies like Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus service as well, and is still around, but google has become the route builder of choice. The Bus Bench blog just yesterday did a look at some of the terrible route choices made by Metro Trip Planner compared to the new google recommendations.

Yet entire bus fleets have now dropped off the map many people use to figure out public transit now. It's because the data of some local agencies like Santa Monica is locked up in red tape. Though the majority of L.A. and SoCal transit agencies are on board now, save a few hold outs like Santa Monica.

This data gap creates serious repercussions for how people plan trips. To an old user of the Big Blue Bus, they obviously know BBB exists, and probably already know many of the routes, and how to track down the information. To the newer transit user, one unfamiliar with our system, perhaps tourists Santa Monica would like to attract to our little beach town, or drivers who haven't set foot on a bus in years but might want to give it a shot, they may skip over the very existence of our bus fleet as they browse google to find their way around. I know before I touch ground in new places, the first thing I do is look up routes on google and search for any iPhone apps for local transit service.

The #10 BBB is a hidden gem of transit service, running from Santa Monica to Downtown LA and back with no stops at any cities or neighborhoods in-between, running express right on the 10 freeway. For anyone using Google to plan their trip between downtown and Santa Monica, they will be directed to use inferior and slower service options with Metro that use transfers and slog through surface street traffic. The number 3 and 3 rapid are essential links between Santa Monica and the airport, and sadly one many google transit users may not realize exists.

Green LA Girl has covered this topic since she was still blogging for the LA Times. That was back in 2008. She followed up with BBB several times since, but the missing transit data is still lost in the shuffle. Obviously quite some time has passed now, and the list of cities that make their data available to Google has grown to include places you might not think would be ahead of "progressive" Santa Monica. Places like Covington Kentuky are now on Google Transit.

I've been told in an e-mail exchange by a representative from the Big Blue Bus that the Santa Monica hold up has to do with complicated contractual agreements with software venders. I'm sure other agencies had issues with data and software vendors, but have managed to work it out. Google has done all the real hard work of programming route building algorithms and a user friendly graphic interface, they just need the data in their format. Google has a big office right down the street from BBB headquarters. This shouldn't be so difficult.

To me the real sting comes from not only dropping the ball on making the transit data accessible, but constantly pushing back when they would finally get it done, when it seems apparent they have no idea when it's going to happen. July 6th 2009 it was announced that it was expected it to happen within the calender year.

I was getting frustrated with this whole thing my self recently after trying to plan some trips that used Metro and BBB, and I did not want to dig up the old Trip Planner beast. So I started writing in to complain and find out more. On June 16th of this year I was told "..we have reason to believe it might be available as early as the next two weeks". Fast forward to August 18th, and I was told after following up and making further complaints "..we are preparing to go live on Google Transit in the early part of September 2010".

We are on the last day of September now. Will it be early October, will it be Halloween? Christmas? Will our civilization be slipping down the backside of peak oil while Santa Monica is still figuring out how to make their transit data easily accessible for route building over the internet. When is it finally going to happen, for real?

On that note, a group of citizens have started to mobilize on this. Back in 2008 a group organized on Facebook to put pressure on Metro to provide their data to Google, back when that agency was still late to the Google party, and unsure it wanted to give up the information for another website to use. The group is now going after L.A. area local agency hold outs like Santa Monica and has now started a petition to get the Big Blue Bus to get their act together on providing it's transit data. And to be transparent about the process. I encourage everyone to sign it, although I think the petition's date of demanding a publicized plan with a launch date by 10/30/10 is going easy on the agensy considering how long they've already been working on this, and how many empty promises have already passed. Maybe if enough people sign it, they'll wake and realize what a serious priority this is for the transit using public.

If Santa Monica wants to really make this city sustainable, putting solar panels on the upgraded bus yard and maintenance facility is nice, but making transit service planning easily accessible to drivers is much better. Many drivers may never see the Big Blue Bus website, but already know how to navigate with google maps.  I'm no longer surprised when I talk to people who have lived a car centric and sheltered life in the L.A. area for years, and have no clue that we have train service in some places or that a subway even exists in L.A. So many people have no clue at all what's going on outside their car, and we aren't going to reach those people with timetable charts and archaic route building software from the 90's, buried in a website many people will never go to.


Alex said...

Why do we have to resort to petitions for force public agencies to do their job?

BBB: Dan D said...

Regarding your concerns about BBB not being on Google Transit yet, we had expected to go live a few months ago but encountered some software issues. We had to go to the people who developed the software to have this issue correct. We now think the issue has been resolved, and the data is currently with Google Transit for their review.

I thought you might also like to know Big Blue Bus is working to implement several new technology programs that will put transit information at riders fingers tips, and not just scheduled times, but real time info. We are working on a bus stop redevelopment program that will include real time signs at over 94 of our busiest bus stops in Santa Monica, a new automated voice automated system that will give cell phone users real time bus arrival info 24/7, a new website with trip planning function and real time information, a phone version of the website where web-enabled phones can get real time info, and aps for the i-phone and other devices. We’ll be sure to let you know when these become available.

Allon Percus said...

Perhaps I can add some perspective. On March 9, 2004 (no typo there), Kevin Keenan from Big Blue Bus sent me an e-mail regarding a project to make real-time bus arrival information available to the public on the BBB web site. The e-mail states: "The implementation will be phased-in and is scheduled to be completed by early 2005."

Generally I try to be an optimist. But given the dates above, you can well imagine that the pressures towards cynicism are monumental.

Juan Matute said...

Yes, the petition is lightly worded, not demanding. However, it builds awareness of the issue, and puts names on the problem. If Big Blue Bus does not definitively respond with a Go-Live Date on their web site or via press release (and appearing in the Santa Monica Daily Press) by 10/30/10, there will be escalation.

jericho1ne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jericho1ne said...

You could always bombard Big Blue Bus with your comments: