If Clipper cards worked like credit cards, my do-it-all transit pass would be platinum. I utilize three different transit agencies in my work commute -- AC Transit, BART and VTA -- and generally spend more time on mass transit than a part-time bus driver.
So when Google (GOOG) rolled out a series of transit-related updates to its Google Maps mobile application this summer, I put it to the test to see if it could replace the mishmash of agency-specific transit apps I use on a daily basis to maneuver around the Bay Area. The verdict: No, because of one big flaw -- the lack of real-time departures. However, it is likely to replace the 511 Transit app for planning trips that require the use of more than one agency, and novice riders already familiar with the app will find the transit feature quite handy.
Google has added transit lines from hundreds of cities to Google Maps as of August, and its Bay Area offerings are extensive, including small services such as the Menlo Park Midday Shuttle (at Facebook workers' request, perhaps?). The biggest addition is schedules for all of the lines it offers, making finding departure times simple and transfers between agencies more predictable.
The most useful function -- finding transit stops near you, with instant information on when your ride will be there -- fits in with Google's overall plans to make the app a one-click check for what's around you. This function is a main focus with Maps and Search for Google, as recent acquisitions of Zagat and Frommer show that it wants to offer proprietary information on locations discovered through two of its most important offerings.
By allowing Google Maps to locate you with GPS and turning on the "Transit lines" layer, you can zoom in and see the stations nearest you, represented as small dots or icons of the transit agency. Clicking on a station gives you all the lines that service it and the times buses or trains are scheduled to depart in each direction. It is a lifesaver if you are in an unfamiliar neighborhood, as I typically am anywhere in San Francisco besides the Financial District.
By clicking the "Directions" tab, Google offers step-by-step directions for using different transit lines to travel dozens of miles along different transit corridors, similar to the service provided by 511 both online and in its mobile app.
I found very few differences between the two services, though I imagine there will be landmarks more easily understood by Google's search function than 511's. All the landmarks I attempted to search for directions to -- including well-known ones such as AT&T Park and less-visited locations such as the Mercury News office -- showed up in both, however. The speed of Google Maps and the ability to see options for places to visit nearby will probably cement this smooth functioning and attractive app as my go-to app for this type of search.
Neither 511 nor Google Maps has completely integrated the core function of most of the stand-alone, agency-specific transit apps, however: Real-time departures. While the Bay Area's rail agencies -- BART and Caltrain -- do an excellent job of sticking to their schedules and informing users via station announcements and tweets about their rare delays, buses face more problems with on-time performance, especially San Francisco's notoriously off-schedule Muni system.
While Google announced real-time departure information for Muni and other San Francisco transit in 2011, that service never appeared in my searches, and the few times I caught Muni, I was left waiting beyond the time originally quoted. In the East Bay, times provided by Google Maps were always the same as the posted departure schedule for buses and trains.
A real-world example of problems with the service relying on schedules instead of real-time departures: While returning from a recent San Francisco Giants game, I used Google Maps to plot my way home. I live in Alameda almost directly in the middle of the path of AC Transit's 51A route between Oakland's 12th Street and Fruitvale BART stations, so I can catch the bus at either station and get home at roughly the same time. Google Maps suggested I take a BART train to Fruitvale and catch the bus there, even though the train to 12th Street left 10 minutes earlier.
The reason: The 51A was scheduled to leave 12th Street only 2 minutes after the BART train arrived, a gap that Google Maps did not believe I would make. However, by accessing an app that uses real-time departures -- the AC Transit-specific app of AnyStop, which uses NextBus technology -- I found that the bus was running 2 minutes late, giving me 4 minutes to get upstairs, exit the station and walk to the bus stop. I went with this route instead, made the bus with a minute to spare and got home about 20 minutes earlier than I would have following the Google Maps app's suggestion.
Specific apps offer other advantages, such as quicker access to specific stops. Apps such as NextBus and BART Mobile allow a user to mark favorite stops and access departure information in two or three quick clicks. While Google Maps offers a similar service -- users can star their favorite places or turn on history -- they typically take twice the time to access.
These problems will aggravate hard-core transit riders always looking to shave time off their commutes more than part-time riders, who will appreciate the ease-of-use and likely not sweat a few extra minutes they wouldn't know they could have saved. The service will also be useful for drivers who use Google Maps for turn-by-turn directions, as the transit service will offer familiarity when they need to hop a bus instead.
In the future, Google could fully integrate real-time destinations using GPS technology, and even add cool features such as being able to see exactly where the bus or train you want to catch is on the map, moving along in real-time. When or if that occurs, Google Maps could become the one-stop shop for this transit junkie. In the meantime, I will replace most of my 511 Transit usage with Google Maps (unless 511's real-time departures beta testing shows fruit) and turn to separate apps for other uses.
Contact Jeremy C. Owens at 408-920-5876; follow him at Twitter.com/mercbizbreak.