Google Maps recently rolled out a new feature that will help potential transit customers use bus services in cities that participate in Google Transit. You can now see the location of a bus stop in the Street View mode of Google Maps, as well as upcoming departures according to the published schedules.

This should reach the Washington area soon: WMATA says they are checking all of their data in advance of a January roll-out on Google Transit.

Image from Google Street View showing a bus stop in Portland, Oregon.

This feature is especially useful to people that are unfamiliar with the bus system, because it will let people see where their bus stop is while they are planning their trip.

Much of the time, the only information available is a line on a small map in a PDF file, and with Metro reducing the number of stops, it’s more important to know where the stops are. For some routes like the DC Circulator, the distance between stops can be a half mile, so walking to the route and then walking along the route until you get to the stop is not ideal.

WMATA has a feature right now which helps in this regard. Under the “Rider Tools” section of the website, you can find the “Service Nearby” link, which allows you to find bus stops near an address or landmark.

This produces a text description the stops in the database, which works for some riders, but it doesn’t give the same contextual clues that seeing the stop in a photo would. Some riders are good at navigating according to landmarks, so telling them their stop is at the corner of “NW P and NW 18TH ST” is less helpful than “in front of the gray and tan building next to the CVS.”

The Street View page will also show the next transit trips scheduled at the stop, which can give customers a sense of how frequently the service runs. If you click on a bus line shown, it opens a page specifically for that bus line, pointing out the schedule at that time of day, what other services run from that stop and some nearby stops that might have other service you’re interested in.

This is the kind of customer information that WMATA wouldn’t be able to afford to develop by themselves. Google has taken the information made available to them by transit agencies in a standard, open format, and has improved its usability for customers. Hopefully, WMATA will be able to keep their scheduled January 2011 launch of the Google Transit service.

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.