Review: Ditching car OK with Net transit planners

SEATTLE (AP) -- As a New Yorker, I don't own a car, and I really hate driving.

So I challenged myself to avoid the driver's seat as much as possible during a recent West Coast trip, something made practical with all the online transit planners that have cropped up in recent years.

In the old days, I'd have to track down bus schedules and maps on paper to figure out where to go. I'd have to manually determine which transfers to take and where. Even if I did, I'd worry about catching a bus in the wrong direction.

The car usually won out, as my hatred of driving was far less severe than my intolerance for ending up stranded in an unfamiliar city.

Now, I can let the computer figure it all out for me. Services from Google Inc., individual transit agencies and other sites now cover many cities with decent transit systems. The sites work much like the online maps for driving directions: Plug in where you are and where want to go, and the computer spits back transit options.

The services are far more comprehensive today than they were just a few years ago.

With them, I devised a way from Seattle's Space Needle to a friend's house all by myself. I avoided driving my entire time in Los Angeles, that capital of motoring. I even found out a quicker route to the airport in my own city.

Google's transit planner is the most extensive I found, covering nearly 100 U.S. cities and regions from Albany, N.Y., to Winchester, Va., plus a handful of places in Canada, Taiwan, Italy and other countries. It works well with its existing maps for driving directions, so you can check all your options (including walking) with one search.

Google assumes that you are on your way out the door or are checking from a mobile device, and it lists transit options by their upcoming departure times, not necessarily the fastest ones overall.

But you can choose to search by arrival time instead. You can also plug in a future date. By clicking on a plus sign, you can also get walking directions to and from a bus stop.

Because Google is dependent on data it gets from individual transit agencies, there can be inconsistencies in the way information is presented.

For my trip from the Space Needle, Google told me to take the 30 bus north. If it weren't for the fact that First Avenue goes one way, I would have struggled to figure out which side of the road to board from. By contrast, Google told me to specifically look for "C23 Davie" on the front of a bus in Vancouver, British Columbia.

More frustrating than the inconsistencies are the gaps in coverage, which also can be blamed on a shortage of data available for Google to use. Major cities like Washington, D.C., and Boston are missing from Google's service, and Los Angeles' listings are limited to Metrolink trains.

Fortunately, many transit agencies, including those in D.C., Boston and Los Angeles, are recognizing that they can boost ridership and revenue by making it easier for people to get around. Many of the agencies' sites offer their own trip planners, even if they don't appear through Google Maps.

I used the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's SoCalTransport.org to plan several trips. Though a bit clunky to use, the system nicely integrates the agency's bus and rail options with the independently operated buses in neighboring Santa Monica and Culver City.

Unlike Google, SoCalTransport also offered fare information, though once it instructed me to buy a 30-cent transfer that didn't get honored on the bus.

A site called HopStop also supports Washington, Boston and other locations, including New York - and did so long before Google's service covered the nation's largest city.

It was through HopStop that I learned I've been taking a roundabout way to New York's Kennedy airport all these years. The site also offers cab options - though I use it primarily to gauge how much money I save by using public transit.

Both Google and HopStop managed to find a way from my Manhattan apartment to my parents' home in central New Jersey even though the trip involved two or three subway lines, a commuter train and a bus run by two separate transit agencies.

Between the two services, I like HopStop better. I could plan complex intercity trips, with transit options automatically generated on both ends. It found routes from my apartment to Washington's International Spy Museum and Chicago's Sears Towers via Amtrak and to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., using the bus that leaves from Chinatown in Manhattan.

And though HopStop doesn't let me search by arrival time, it factors in maintenance-related service changes on New York's subway system and lets me exclude buses and choose between less walking or fewer transfers.

One thing missing from the sites I tried is a sense of frequency. It's often more useful to know that a certain bus comes every 12 minutes than to know the next one is at 3:37 p.m. It's also useful to know how late the bus runs.

At Los Angeles' SoCalTransport site, an attempt to plan a late-night trip simply returned a message that no transit options were available, and I couldn't tell whether that meant not at all or not at that time. (I ended up begging a friend for a ride.)

These quibbles are minor. I'm simply happy that these services let me use public transit more often.

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On the Net:

http://transit.google.com

http://hopstop.com

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