Boston partners with Google Transit. Why the hold-up in DC?

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
A father and his son look at map of the Washington Metro system posted at a station in Washington, DC. This week, Boston became the latest city to adopt Google Transit. Why is DC lagging so far behind?

Good news for Bostonians: Massachusetts is finally joining the Google grid.

At a press conference on Thursday, MBTA officials announced a partnership with Google Transit, the mapping site that provides information on public transportation in hundreds of American cities. In major hubs such as New York, the site has been extraordinary popular, and for good reason – it helps users cut down on travel time, avoid delays, and sift through the clutter of the most complicated subway systems.

"This really makes a lot of information more accessible," Google Boston engineering director Steve Vinter said Thursday, according to the Boston Globe. "There are a lot of people like me who take the T to work but do not know much about the transit system outside of that." Google Transit will now provide data on boats, trains, and buses in Boston, as well as a complete look at the commuter rails which run out to other major towns and cities in Massachusetts.

"For locals and visitors alike, Google Transit makes it easier to search and discover public transportation options that get them into, around, and out of Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Quincy, Somerville, and the surrounding areas – or to travel to and from other MBTA-linked cities like Brockton, Gloucester, Lowell, Providence, and Worcester," Google's Sean Carlson wrote in a blog post yesterday.

Why not DC?

Google Transit already provides planning information for most of the major hubs across the country, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago. One city is conspicuously missing: Washington, DC. Carlson told the Monitor he couldn't comment on why DC did not participate in Google Transit (update below), but the topic has already received a good deal of attention from the Washington media.

Back in December, Greater Greater Washington blogger Michael Perkins recalled his quest to get answers from WMATA, the transit authority in DC:

At first, WMATA officials said that their scheduling information was "proprietary" and could not be shared with Google. Later, they told me that formatting the data in GTFS was time-consuming and not a priority for the WMATA staff. In June, General Manager John Catoe said in a Friday lunchtime chat that WMATA was working on it, but that the results were not accurate enough. (Since Transit would use the same data as WMATA's own trip planner, this explanation didn't hold water.) Finally, when I asked about it at the October board meeting, they said that they still needed to hammer out the legal agreements.

Eventually, Perkins got this response from Brett Tyler, the Director of Customer Service, at the WMATA:

Metro staff did explore some possibilities with Google, but ultimately we decided that forming a partnership with Google was not in our best interest from a business perspective. We do believe that Metro's newly redesigned Web site, at, improves customers' access to information about the Metro system. In addition, customers may get real-time information and bus and rail schedules directly on their cell phones or PDAs.

Then this year, the WMATA agreed to provide Google information on a very restricted basis. As of a week ago, a potential partnership was in a holding pattern – Google and the DC Metro have failed to reach an agreement on how to incorporate schedule data into the Google Transit engine. Many critics have faulted Google, claiming that the company has received the data from the WMATA. But Perkins says the problem is with the city:

[Their] terms are too draconian. Metro won't let you use their trademarks at all, and even the term "Metro" is a registered trademark according to the system maps. They also reserve the right to stop providing the data without notice, and to start charging for the use of the data at any time. Furthermore, Metro reserves the right to modify or revoke the agreement at any time.

Update: Google's Sean Carlson wrote us to say, "We're continually looking into adding more transit agencies to make the service as useful as possible to as many people as possible, but there are no specific partnerships to announce at this time."


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