guest post: nate wessel on why google transit will never be enough for small to medium-sized systems

Nate Wessel lives in Cincinnati, Ohio where for the last few years he's been working to improve public understanding of the local transit system. In 2011 he designed and published his own map of the system  and he now writes the Cincinnati Transit Blog. Nate has a degree in urban planning from the University of Cincinnati from where he graduated this past June.


I've heard quite a few times that Google Transit and similar technologies have made hand-rendered transit maps outdated. Being myself a maker of hand-made, tangible maps and having spent the last couple of years physically working with a lot of maps, I find myself with a bit of a gut reaction to this common claim.  It's more than just a reaction to an existential threat though. My reaction is to an idea that would toss the baby out with the bathwater. Not only are lovingly created, tangible transit maps incredibly valuable to our understanding of the cities we live in, they're essential to the widespread use of transit. We'll need to go back to basics.

What do maps do? What are maps? Why are they?

Maps are like Cliffs-Notes for the physical world. We don't have time to read the whole book but we still need to get an idea what it's about before the test. You'll probably never manage to explore the entirety of one mid-size city let alone a country or the whole world. Yet we still want to see what's out there, where we could go if we wanted to and what we'd find when we got there. Understanding the shape and nature of the whole world or even one city through direct physical experience is a practical impossibility.

We all need an understanding of the world beyond our fingertips; that's absolutely essential to modern human existence. It's why we have novels, to pick one example. A story from another life lets us share an experience we haven't yet had and perhaps never will. It lets us plumb the depths (and heights) of our own emotions and thoughts by momentarily opening ourselves up to the author's. We don't necessarily have to go there ourselves to learn something of love or sorrow(or downtown). Our innate curiosity pulls us to see what's possible in the world and within ourselves.

The same goes for everything on TV, in print, and many things on the internet. Most media lets us reach beyond our own personal experience to learn something of the world we can't see directly. We absolutely need these things. They give us an understanding of the broader world and let us contextualize our own existence. They show us what's normal, and more importantly what's possible for ourselves; where we can go and what we can do. Kids can't dream of being astronauts if they've never heard of one. We can't speak seriously of knights in shining armour and chivalry and honor and of other deeply interesting ideas until we've read of their existence and felt something of it ourselves. In exactly the same way maps show us what's possible in the physical world. They tell us that Spain is a place in Europe, that Queens is connected to Manhattan by subways and bridges, and that it's not similarly connected to Britain. We can't think of taking transit until we know what transit does and doesn't.

The other critical thing maps (and some other media)do is provide us with answers to specific questions. These might be:

  • "Which line can I take to Queens?"
  • "Are there coffee shops within walking distance of my current location?"
  • "Exactly how much will the bus cost?"

Filling this need for specific information is in part why the encyclopedia was so revolutionary during the Renaissance and why the internet can be so powerful today. The amount of precise information available to people is just exploding. The age of science and empiricism has given us the idea of bulk 'information' as something that can succinctly and precisely answer an isolated question. "Where is the nearest bike shop?" We now keep stock of them in a Google database that can return the answer in milliseconds. Often you can ask the most esoteric questions of the Internet and find a succinct and satisfying answer in less than a minute. That's stupendously useful for travellers and college students with deadlines.

So maps (and other media generally) have two big functions: First to inform broadly and second to answer specifically. The informative function must necessarily precede the precise answering function. We need to know what's generally possible before we can know what exactly to ask. We need to know that transit is even an option before we can ask how exactly to use it.

Answering specific questions with specific answers is what Google Transit does well. Here's how it works:

  • You tell Google Transit your location and exactly where you want to go.
  • You tell it when you want to go there(usually now).
  • It decides exactly the fastest way to do it, with perhaps a second option if it's a close call.
  • It puts this exact path on a map and narrates directions like "turn left" or "wait here".

In many circumstances, this is quite useful. Many people, if they're taking a one-time trip to somewhere they don't normally go, will just want a quick answer; if the trip is possible, a computerized map can tell them exactly how to get there and exactly how to get back. That's often a very handy thing.

But Google Transit totally misses the first function of maps: informing us about the world, sating our curiosity, and showing us the possible. Google transit doesn't tell us anything about where transit goes generally. It makes us ask questions like "how do I get from exactly  here to exactly there right now?"

Without a basic understanding of what's possible it's left to hope that "here" is a decent place to start and that "there" is even a realistic possibility. Downtown Cincinnati for example has transit operating on just about every street, but you can't even spot it in the Google Transit interface before inquiring about a specific trip.


When we ask questions without knowing that a reasonable answer even exists, we're sometimes confronted with answers like "no results" or "there's one trip three days from now at 3:29am". Without a broader understanding of how the whole thing works, we don't know what to ask or if the answer we got doesn't sound right. Worse, when we get these disappointing answers to the wrong questions, we get confused and frustrated. Transit users need more guidance than "not possible" or "how about Tuesday?"give us. Also, some specific answers that serve us well for the moment will be misleading in the future. Here for example…


…Google Transit suggests we take the #19 northward, but says nothing of the invisible #17 that runs parallel to it at more than twice the frequency. You can easily imagine someone who's once looked up their route on Google Transit regularly letting a #17 pass by while they wait for a #19 and complain about headways. Similar situations must happen a thousand times a day.

Exploring a transit system with Google Transit is like blind men trying to understand an elephant by touch. This part is thick, this part is bumpy, we don't know how any of the parts attach to each other, and the whole thing is constantly, inexplicably moving. A thoughtfully hand-rendered transit map tells us what the elephant really is. It doesn't go into detail about the dimensions of it's toenails, but tells us of it's overall size, shape and temperament. It tells us that you might be able to ride the thing and that you probably don't want to try poking it with a sharp stick. Once we know these basics we can begin to ask exactly what the trunk is for.

That's why hand-rendered system maps continue to be completely relevant in the heyday of the computer. A map like that of DC's Metro tells us more about the city and how to use the transit system than any GTFS feed ever could on it's own.


A hand-rendered map must necessarily simplify a system, showing only some lines and only some landmarks. To do so it makes value judgements, something a computer has never yet been capable of. It does most of the hard work of understanding for us because a map-maker must understand the transit system before he can make a map of it; it's not just a matter of dumping all the routes into a GIS program. That deeper understanding of the transit system is an experience most people don't yet have and it's exactly what they're looking for when they explore a system map. Similarly, when they explore a novel they may be looking for a deeper understanding of the human condition, history, or their own lives. In either case, they're most essentially looking for their possibilities. "What is there?" "What is within my reach?" What is possible for me?

It seems like most big American cities put these questions, at least so far as transit is concerned, largely to rest decades ago with their famous metro maps but that many small and mid-sized cities, particularly those that primarily use buses, provide little if any coherent, holistic map of how their system operates. They often seem content with either no system maps at all or only topographically accurate maps that de-emphasise and confuse the areas that can benefit from transit the most: those that are dense and well served by multiple lines.


Dense areas by definition get less space than their human value warrants on a topographically accurate map. Every famous transit map, whether it's DC's or New York's or London's does just the opposite; exploding dense, important areas like Downtown Manhattan and condensing suburban service. They do this not only because that makes them easier to draw, but because that emphasis on the dense is typically the actual emphasis of the transit system itself. A map that embodies the logic of a transit system is one that tells us most truly how the system works and most basically what we can do with it. We need something of that understanding before Google Transit can work well. We need to know what the elephant is.

But that deep understanding of a transit system and of a city is so different for each system that no computer program could ever yet describe every system well.  Google maps can't yet do it. It's something that just can't be automated.

Google Transit can give us the answers but it can't give us the questions. And that's why it will never be enough for a transit agency to publish schedules to Google Transit without also publishing a substantial and thoughtfully developed system map made by people who are more than passingly familiar with the transit system and with the city.




9 Responses to guest post: nate wessel on why google transit will never be enough for small to medium-sized systems

  1. Robert Wightman April 9, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    I am trying to plan a fall trip to Europe with my wife doing a lot by Eurail. I cannot find a map or system schedule, even a line by line schedule. I can find the times of trains between pairs of cities but but I can’t find what routes they takes and what other stops they make. This is great if all you want to do is go from A to B but we want to explore and this isn’t helpful.
    I now know how long it takes to get from A to B and how often the train runs but I will leave the finer grained detail until I am in Europe. Hopefully I will be able to find route maps and schedules.
    The things that I want in a map are frequency of service, hours of service and speed of service. Sometimes it is faster to take a circuitous rather than direct route if it uses faster and more frequent lines. All of this should be in a decent map

  2. Louis April 9, 2013 at 9:02 pm #

    Robert, go o line and buy the European Rail Timetable’s most recent addition. I has full maps and all trains and schedules. It is indespinsible and great for planning and geeking out.
    Nate, great post. I think a very interesting decision is the one some transit agencies (including New Orleans RTA) make when they decide that the bus map has to show every grocery store , place of interest, attraction, park, and every single street in the city, when they could be focusing on developing a marketing tool like your Cincinnati map. Before Katrina, the New Orleans RTA had twice the lines and the map was twice as simple.

  3. Richard Layman April 10, 2013 at 3:22 am #

    If you haven’t already, you might want to read up on maps and cartography. And even check out old road maps to see how they communicated information about local landmarks and places to see.
    But wrt transit maps, another element you neglected to mention is that maps and printed transit information products are also marketing devices.

  4. Eric April 10, 2013 at 7:55 am #

    Non-topographical subway maps are good for finding your way within the the subway system, or for getting to landmarks whose existence can be deduced from the map (i.e. “Union Station”, “Pentagon”). If you want to get to any place which does not have a station named after it, you must also look at a topographic street map to find the closest station.
    In general, bus travel does not fit that model. Stops are very frequent and are not named, while people’s destinations are diffuse and unlabeled (like their house, or the closest strip mall). For these purposes, topographic maps are absolutely necessary. (As a demonstration, pick a random house address in suburb Cincinnati. Find the bus route which goes closest to that house. Now imagine trying to do that on a map where all bus routes are evenly spaced straight lines.)
    In the Cincinnati bus map you show a picture of, the central areas (especially north of downtown) should be zoomed in a little more, so that routes on different streets do not come so close to touching each other. Other than that, the map is great. The different colors make it easy to trace a route, and since no street has more than 2 or 3 routes on it, it isn’t too hard to get information on each route and find the overall frequency. If the routes on this map look convoluted and inconvenient, it is likely because the routes themselves need to be optimized into more of a grid, not because the map is bad.

  5. Neil April 10, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    This post is a bit wordy, but your point is well taken. Claims of obsolescence are usually overstated, and transit maps are an example of this. Still, you do gloss over the transformational power the Google Transit has had. System maps which once were the absolutely indispensable tool for end users, are now only a tool for better understanding the system.
    And this is a good thing. Many people lack the spatial sense to be able to translate map information into useful information. Whatever their means of travel, they know the routes they know and branching out beyond that is difficult, usually requiring someone to lead them through it. Tools like Google Transit open up more route opportunities for this group of people, and make them more likely to choose transit over a private car as a result.
    It’s not perfect: when I planned out my boss’s transit route home, Google recommends transferring from the train to bus at the first intersection point with her route. But if you stay on the train for 3 more stops, you can catch the same bus while avoiding a 4 story stair climb and an busy road prone to traffic jams. Knowing the system better was useful, but she could still have gotten home based on the automated tool, which is critical to converting a non-transit user into a transit user.

  6. Yuri Popov April 10, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

    There are many more flaws with Google Transit or similar “ready solutions”. I wrote extensively about them about half a year ago:

  7. Miles Bader April 10, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    Certainly point-to-point services like Google’s directions are not a replacement for non-point-to-point services like traditional system maps. This is not surprising … :]
    But focusing on Google directions only seems a bit of a strawman. Why limit the discussion to “Google transit versus hand-drawn maps”? Those are not the only two options.
    For instance the obvious response to this article is “What about a transit layer for google maps?” Google maps does have “show transit”, at least in some locations, although that particular feature is pretty rudimentary [as of yet]. But G.M.’s treatment of highways and major roads (sadly, roads receive a lot more attention!) is a much better example of what’s possible
    That wouldn’t be the same as a hand-drawn system map of the type you talk about, but it’s not really clear that the most distinctive features of hand-draw maps are really necessary given a zoomable dynamic G.M. style map. Much of the hard work of compressing and distorting (which would be hard [although not necessarily impossible] to automate well) is necessary mostly because of the limitations of physical paper, not because it necessarily yields a more usable result.
    I think abstract paper maps are often a beautiful thing, and good to have around—you don’t always have access to a phone/computer/whatever, and even if you do, they might not work, or you may simply not want to use them. But whether they’re really the best thing for average everyday use isn’t so clear….

  8. EngineerScotty April 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    As a computer professional, I must take some exception to the following:

    To do so it makes value judgements, something a computer has never yet been capable of.

    Of course computers can make “value judgements”–assuming the values to be be judged can be expressed algorithmically. Computerized expert systems are solving all sorts of algorithmically complex problems, in many complicated problem domains ranging from medical diagnosis, to automated driving of automobiles, to human language translations, to playing chess at a grandmaster level (and defeating the best human players in the world), to winning on Jeopardy (a decidedly different game than chess). Compared to many of these, figuring out how to best navigate a city’s public transportation system is easy stuff–assuming the relevant data is available. Just because current implementations are suboptimal, doesn’t mean that a transit wayfinding application cannot be programmed to prefer the frequent bus two blocks down to the hourly bus on the current street–unless, of course, the next infrequent bus is coming in five minutes.
    The difficulty is that often times, it is difficult to quantize, or express algorithmically, a person’s values. Ask yourself–what criteria would you use to choose between a closer, more infrequent service, and a parallel frequent service that requires more walking to reach? Your walking speed and level of fitness? The difference between the headways? Which bus will be there first according to the schedule? Which will be their first in actuality (a criterion that requires real-time arrival data, something that a static map cannot portray)? The speed and/or reliability of the two lines? Many people don’t know (or cannot express) their own algorithms for making this sort of decision–assuming they have one, rather than going with “gut feel” (essentially introducing some degree of non-determinism into the process), and then complain when an automated solution disagrees with their gut.
    Some of us, of course, will prefer to navigate the old fashioned way–with a map and a timetable. And these tools are valuable for a holistic understanding of a transit system. But for answering the question “how to I get from here to there, in this time frame”, wayfinding tools can and should exist that give correct and concise answers; generating such tools is hardly beyond the reach of computer science.

  9. Ben Pease April 20, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    This has probably been covered somewhere, but my big bugaboo is maps such as your Cincinnati example where downtown is drawn as blank box. The inset should take the weight off the center of the map but not entirely erase it. The main map should show the essentials of downtown, at least show thin routes so we can tell if lines entering the box cross through it or terminate in it.
    When planning a trip to a village outside Turin, Italy, I was delighted how much info there was on GTT’s website, much of it linked to a Google map layer. But as far as schedules, many of the rural routes run a couple times per day and each variation has its own schedule number (which does not relate to the numbers on the busses themselves – one could say the #5 is a suite of varations). When I tried looking up which busses serve specific stops before our trip (in California), I get dialogue boxes saying the next bus won’t be arriving for 12 hours (it’s nighttime in Italy). Also I was puzzled how people can take the bus to work but there were no buses after 2 PM. After a couple weeks I figured out there’s an entirely different #5 that comes back late in the day from an entirely different transit center.

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