27 Sep 2008 8:00 am   //   Filed under: Technology, Transit

I think I can beat Google Maps

This week Google Maps began providing mass transit directions for the New York City metro area. Woo hoo!

Other sites have tried to offer transit directions for the city, but not like this. Google stitched together all the various local transit services, including the ones operated by the MTA, the Port Authority and New Jersey Transit.

I decided to put it to the test with a hard problem: Getting from Newark Airport to my neighborhood. You’re dealing with two states that operate multiple rail and bus services, and there’s no obvious way to do it. But it’s an important route because anybody traveling from out of town via the airports will try to use this service.

I know from experience that the best way to get from EWR to 11215 is to ride the Airtrain monorail to the NJ Transit train, then pick up the subway at Penn Station: A to the F.

Google Maps can’t make up its mind. It offers all kinds of directions depending on the time of day, claiming it can save you a minute or two by sending you on a bus to the PATH train at Newark Penn Station. One scenario involves connecting with two New Jersey buses from the airport to Port Authority. The Google computers are programmed with the exact scheduled departure times of the buses and subways, which is a little goofy since things tend to run off schedule. There’s also information missing. Sure, you can take a C train to Jay Street Borough Hall, but if an A comes first, take the A! And if you’ve just arrived at the New Jersey airport, do you need to buy a fare card? Can you pay in cash on the bus? How much? Do you need exact change? In coins?

A computer might be able to beat a human in chess. But it still can’t beat a well-informed transit rider in navigating New York.