What I envy about Sydney – Google Transit

By on

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 12.36.01 PM

It’s rare for me to admit this, given that I am from the wonderful city of Melbourne. But there is one tiny thing about Sydney that I envy the most. Melbourne may be the home of sport and culture, the home for PAX Australia and the NBN’s operations centre, the birthplace of television in Australia, and internationally known for being one of the most livable cities in the world. However, you guys over at Sydney have Google Maps Transit integration.

Yes, it is a relatively minor thing compared to what we have in Melbourne. However, as a frequent visitor to your city when there is a big press thing that I am able to attend, I can easily get to point A to point B with public transport and walking without getting lost. I can which stations I need to get off and the latest trains to arrive from the nearest station right from the Google Maps app on my Galaxy S3.

For me, Google Maps is a lifesaver.

This is largely possible because Transport for NSW has made sure that their timetable data is publicly available for developers. That is something that Public Transport Victoria – our state’s equivalent – has not done.

This pretty much means that Transport for NSW doesn’t need to spend hours on developing an app for many platforms. It allows third-party developers to do it themselves. For instance, TripView has made sure that iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry users can access train, ferry and bus timetable information. Transport for NSW also has a journey planner app on Android or iOS – but if you’re on Windows Phone, then you can simply go to Google Maps and plot your journey that way.

In Melbourne, unless you are on iOS, only “journey planning” app is the PTV website. And it is just crap. There is no mapping layer – and if you want a map of a certain place, then you have to download a PDF, which may or may not download onto your phone. And not all timetable information for Melbourne’s vast network of trains, trams and buses are on all platforms – especially with buses.

To their credit, PTV is apparently working on putting their official app on more platforms (and hopefully replace the god-awful Android app they have currently listed on the Google Play Store). A spokesperson for PTV said that there will be “a new range of digital products for a number of platforms to be released in the coming year.”

However, I do hope it’s not just a port of their iOS app.

The quality of the information is also a big issue with third-party Melbourne-centric timetable apps. I find that Train Trapper is often accurate. Others, like TripGo – which claims to have Melbourne support for all forms of public transport – often has missing data. I tested it out with the route I usually take to university – for me, it’s a simple bus ride direct from my house to Monash. TripGo didn’t show that route. Instead, it opted to take me to one bus, get off, and take another bus. It did take me to the destination, but it was far longer than my usual route.

In order to be accurate, they need access to the timetable information. PTV does give it out. But, unlike Sydney, it is not publicly available for developers in a standard format.

So, why isn’t it?

“It’s important to note that public transport timetables are not a static dataset – each week timetables can change for reasons including maintenance and major works, extra services for special events or holiday timetables. It would be crucial that any third party wanting to provide PTV timetable data to commuters also committed to providing all updates in a timely manner,” according to the spokesperson.

This is one of the reported reasons why PTV is hesitant on putting their data on Google Maps. However, it seems to be a non-issue when implementing this for Google Maps. We can look at Sydney, for example. Transport for NSW says in their media release that they update their data every week. PTV tends to announce major works, alterations and extra services a few weeks before they are to occur – so having such changes isn’t an issue.

For other third-party developers, it may become an issue. If the timetable data is manually included (i.e. not downloaded from PTV themselves), then what happens if the developer simply has lost interest in continuing development? It’s rare that a developer wouldn’t download from the source, but it could happen.

However, it is indeed coming soon.

“PTV is actively working towards improvements that will support the release of public transport timetables in a standard file format, however it is too early to give a specific timeframe for the release of this data,” the spokesperson added.

Public transport information needs to be publicly available because its information that needs to be everywhere, regardless of platform. Sydney has done it right – give its data away in a variety of formats and let others distribute that on the numerous mobile platforms out there.

It’s a shame that Melbourne doesn’t do this. They say they’re working on it, but they’ve been saying that for a long time.