Google to give Hub bus riders heads-up on arrival

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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Google plans to announce this morning that Boston will be among the first six cities worldwide to offer predicted arrival times for transit on Google Maps, with MBTA bus data expected to go live on the desktop and mobile mapping service by midday.

Although other real-time prediction applications already exist for the T, the ubiquity of Google Maps will make the bus system more convenient for tens of thousands of riders, said MBTA general manager Richard A. Davey.

The announcement is a clear sign of the T’s dramatic shift in its approach to the tech community since 2008, when the MBTA guarded data so carefully that it sued a group of MIT undergraduates who uncovered flaws in the CharlieCard automated fare system, to keep them from presenting their findings at a conference.

And the T was nowhere to be found when Google first joined with transit agencies more than five years ago to incorporate schedules and station locations into Google Maps.

The MBTA was not added until 2009, after other major cities like New York and Chicago, a lag that prompted 1,500 people to join a “Put the MBTA on Google Transit!!!’’ Facebook group.

“For the T, it’s a little bit of a coming of age,’’ Davey said. “Now, we’re one of the first and certainly the largest [transit agency] in the United States’’ to work with Google on predictions.

In addition to Boston, the real-time predictions will begin today on Google Maps for San Diego, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., as well as for Madrid and Turin, said Noam Ben-Haim, Google Maps product manager, in a phone interview from Zurich, where his development team is based.

He said they have been working to add predictive data to Google Maps for the past year, amid requests from riders and agencies alike.

About 200 million different mobile users now visit Google Maps at least once a month via Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, and other devices. That represents about 40 percent of all Google Maps searches, and mobile users are gaining on desktop surfers, said Anne Espiritu, Google spokeswoman.

Boston commuter rail and subway predictions will be next for Google Maps, though neither the company nor the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority revealed a target date.

But arrival predictions provide arguably the greatest benefit for bus customers, who outnumber commuter rail travelers more than 2 to 1, with nearly 400,000 daily riders spread out among nearly 200 routes and 8,000 stops.

While subway riders who miss their train typically wait only a few minutes for the next to arrive, bus riders sometimes wait an hour or more, particularly at night, on weekends, and on less popular routes. Boston traffic also wreaks havoc on printed schedules.

“It would just be nice if it was on time,’’ said Melissa Sabatino, thumbing her BlackBerry as she waited for the 16 bus to Forest Hills yesterday evening at JFK/UMass station, the first leg of an hourlong, two-bus commute from her job at a call center to her home in West Roxbury.

Sabatino, 30, said she consults the schedule before leaving, but often waits 20 minutes for the bus anyway.

“And then we complain when it’s late,’’ said Emily Rouse, 31, a co-worker with the same commute.

The T first opened GPS-based locations and predictions to developers for five bus routes in November 2009, part of a broader initiative from the Patrick administration to release raw data to open-source tinkerers and tech entrepreneurs.

A competition sponsored by the T spawned the first of an assortment of rider tools and applications now numbering more than 30 and covering the entire bus system, as well as the Red, Orange, and Blue subway lines, but not the Green.

Many of those applications are for smartphones, but they also include websites and physical installations, such as a blinking sign near the ice cream counter at the flagship JP Licks in Jamaica Plain, to let those waiting for the 39 bus know whether to savor their ice cream or sprint toward the bus stop.

In bad weather, nearly 1 in 4 bus riders now use one or more of those applications to inform their commutes, and some of the phone apps have been downloaded more than 20,000 times, meaning fewer riders engaging in the age-old practice of stepping over the curb and squinting toward the horizon.

Google Maps will make the information more widespread, putting it at the fingertips of those who have not sought out the applications or do not know they exist.

For the uninitiated, Google Maps allows Boston-area users to find locations and obtain recommended directions not just for those traveling by car but also by bicycle, on foot, or via transit. Many websites use it by default, and map results appear prominently even on regular Google searches.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at