With permission from {ryan} on Flickr.

The 600 650

700 people who’ve signed our Google Transit petition have clearly made some waves over at Metro/WMATA. We Love DC noticed that WMATA put up a response. Their reasons boil down to:

  1. Google couldn’t display fares on their site.
  2. Google doesn’t have Ride-On, ART, etc. while the Metro trip planner does.
  3. Google’s contract put liability onto WMATA.
  4. Google wouldn’t pay.

The key item seems to be #4: Google wouldn’t pay. WMATA officials write:

Google is a for-profit company while Metro is a taxpayer subsidized public agency. Google wanted Metro’s transit data at no cost ... Given financial constraints, Metro officials are exploring whether there is a way for the transit agency to generate revenue in such a partnership.

Google search looks at wmata.com Web pages and helps users find pages within the site. Yet Google is a for-profit company. Why isn’t Metro refusing to let Google see their Web site, instead demanding payment?

This isn’t really about Google at all. It’s about openness. Metro should release the schedule data for anyone to use, whether for-profit companies or individual coders in their garages. If Metro insists Google should pay, then when the next person comes along with a great idea, Metro will insist they pay as well, since there’s a precedent set and a value. WMATA is a taxpayer-funded public agency. The knowledge of when trains and buses come belongs to us all, and Metro should set it free for anyone to use. If someone can make money off providing a free service to anyone, more power to them.

Looking at the other points one by one:

#1: Google couldn’t display fares. That doesn’t seem to stop New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Maryland, Fairfax, Loudoun, Alexandria, etc. Sure, having fares makes the display more useful. But how many people really choose a trip based on the fare? I don’t think, “Hm, $1.85 is too much, maybe I’ll walk.” And if people want the fares, they can go to the Metro site. The more options we have, the better; if some options have fares and others don’t, people who want fare information can use the ones that have it.

Besides, Google lets you see nearby businesses while the Metro Trip Planner doesn’t. Should Metro pull down their trip planner because it’s missing something? What about stairway entrances? Why is Metro the final arbiter of what information has to be on a trip planner and what doesn’t?

#2: Google doesn’t have every regional bus service. That sounds like a chicken-and-egg excuse if ever there was one. I’m sure if Metro jumped on board, then other local transit services in the region would be much more likely to participate. Since Metro has the data, they could even ask local agencies to let Metro release their schedule data (the same data in the Metro Trip Planner) along with its own.

#3: Google’s contract put liability onto WMATA. I find this very hard to believe, but I am trying to work with my contacts at Google to find out more details. (Metro officials could also answer the question by releasing Google’s proposed contract). Maybe Google asked Metro to indemnify them against liability from Metro giving them wrong schedule data. That seems to have been enough for 91 other transit agencies around the country.

WMATA could simply solve this problem by releasing their data under a standard license like Portland, SF’s BART, and Hampton Roads, VA have done. Then, if that’s not enough for Google, we can all go pressure Google to take the data. But I bet they would.

Full disclosure: I used to work at Google and still own some Google stock. I don’t believe that Google Transit has any meaningful influence whatsoever on the price of the stock.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.