We live in the age of the smartphone. Half of the people on a train are looking at their iPhone at any given time. Every kid in college wants to get rich making an app. Increasingly, we plan transit trips on our phones.
This has been an amazing thing for public transportation. My father recently told me about a trip he took to San Jose, where he got around exclusively by bus. Ten years ago, he would have never had the information available to plan these trips, or enough familiarity to navigate the city. Now he can ask his phone how to get somewhere, and it tells him what bus to take.
A visitor from San Jose to New Jersey would not have had the same experience.
San Jose is served by just a few transit providers- buses and light rail run by VTA, and trains run by Caltrain, ACE and Amtrak. Google gets the data for every bus and train in the city from these four sources.
But New Jersey isn’t that simple. In addition to NJ Transit, there are a several other private bus companies, like Coach USA, Decamp, and Academy, not to mention jitneys in North Jersey and Atlantic City, and dozens municipal, county, and university shuttles.
Only 8 transit providers in New Jersey provide their data to Google Transit, those being:
As well as the New York MTA and SEPTA, whose service touch New Jersey.
Only two of these are private companies. If you look for Coach USA, Decamp, A&C Bus, Academy, or local town-run bus services on Google Transit, you won’t find them.
That leads to situations like this:
I asked Google Transit for directions from the Livingston Mall to Midtown Manhattan on a weekday morning. It suggested bizarre combinations of NJ Transit buses and Amtrak, or walking a mile and then taking 4 different buses through Parsippany and Wayne. They would all take 2 hours.
Someone with any knowledge of local transit services would take Coach USA’s express bus from the Livingston Mall to the Port Authority, which takes about an hour. Or, that person would take Coach USA’s local bus to South Orange and then the train to Penn Station.
Both of these services are invisible to Google Transit. The problem only gets worse in somewhere like Jersey City, where half of the buses don’t show on Google.
Google Transit provides a useful service. It simplifies a complicated transportation system and gives people directions in an easy-to-use format. But it also cuts out several parts of the transportation system, and only providers directions for a fraction of it.
NJ Transit and PATH have professional planners who can collect and package data about their service. But jitney companies, municipalities, and even larger bus companies don’t have the resources to provide this kind of support to app developers.
The lack of complete data on transit providers in New Jersey is harmful. It keeps passengers from knowing their travel options, and hurts bus companies that depend on fares to survive.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. NJ Transit, as the state transit agency, could package all this information together into one package that contains all transit data in the entire state. NJT already provides private carriers other service, like passing on FTA funds to them.
Google Transit users, you have been warned!