WMATA trip planner.

Besides wanting to find out if they could get money from their data, Metro’s other stated reason for not working partnering Google was the quality and availability of Metro’s own trip planner. Sometimes, though, the trip planner gives bizarre results, even including riding a bus in a circle for an hour.

Most of the time, when I use the trip planner for rail trips, the results are fairly accurate. The interface is clunky but improving, and it seems to assume an unreasonably long time to make a transfer. This is probably a design decision to ensure that even the slowest-moving customers can catch their train.

But I recently was invited out to dinner at a restaurant at Fairfax Corner, out in the Fair Oaks area (see map). Using the Metro trip planner gave some interesting results, to say the least. If you’d like to try this, the search was from “Eastern Market” to “4250 Fairfax Corner Ave [Fairfax, VA]” leaving at 4:20pm on a workday. These were the trip planner’s suggestions:

  1. Take the Orange line to Vienna, wait 28 minutes to take the 623 past the restaurant (there’s a stop about 0.3 miles from the restaurant), then get off at a park and ride and wait 24 minutes for the 605 going back the way you came, stopping at the restaurant you passed. Total time: 1:59.

  2. Take the Orange line to West Falls Church, wait a few minutes and take the 505 to Reston, then wait 49 minutes to transfer to the 605 to the restaurant. Total time: 2:50.

  3. (This is the really funny one) Take the Orange line to Vienna, wait 9 minutes to take the CUE-GOLD bus in a closed loop, arriving back at Vienna, then wait 57 minutes to take the 621 to the restaurant. Total time: 3:03, of which almost two hours is pure waste. It might as well have said, “Go to the Ugly Mug and drink for an hour and a half, then take the Orange line.”

I looked into how stable this trip was, by varying the start time. Earlier departures resulted in earlier closed-loop rides on the CUE bus system, until the trip planner stopped providing that helpful suggestion (it only gave two options at that point). Later trips shifted to suggesting that instead of continuing on the Orange line to Vienna, I should get off at East Falls Church and take a bus (the 2) to Vienna (which takes 50 minutes instead of 10).

The real solution, after studying Fairfax Connector’s bus map (large PDF), three bus schedules and calling the customer service phone number, is to take itinerary #1, get off a little beyond the restaurant and walk back along the route. It’s less than a half mile and I’m in fair shape. That takes about an hour and a half.

Of course, it’s not a given that Google would do any better. But Google has the incentive and resources to get their trip planner right. They’re serving trip planner results for most of the country now, and problems with their search algorithm would affect many more riders than just Metro. Plus, with two trip planner choices, riders could use the better one. Maybe that’d be Metro’s.

Others were able to point out very strange results from the planner, such as the suggestion to take a bus, Green line and Yellow line trains from “Greenbelt Center SC” to Huntington Metro station. The routing was correct, but it took over 7 hours for the train to get from Greenbelt to Fort Totten, and over an hour to get from Fort Totten to Huntington (This showed up on a search on 8/17/2009).

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen? Is the trip planner helpful? Please share your funny and/or strange trip planner results in the comments. Update by David: Metro officials in charge of the Web site have expressed interest in getting more feedback on times the trip planner falls short or other ways to improve it. We’ll forward your useful bug reports and suggestions to them.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.