NYC's new Trip Planner: promise and disappointment

Despite the hype, actual transit users fault new system for a lack of common sense, such as options for walking a little bit further.

No matter how many New Yorkers you ask for directions, you're unlikely to get the same answer. Unfortunately, the same has been true of the directions you get from NYC Transit's website. But now, The New York Post reports, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has quietly upgraded the quality of directions the site offers.

NYC Transit's new Trip Planner offers a simple interface, includes bus and subway routes and, crucially, provides schedule information.

Although a crop of Web sites have sprung up in recent years offering point-to-point directions, the new one takes into account up-to-the-minute service changes and many of the system's lesser-known idiosyncrasies. The new site makes planning a subway trip far simpler. It even takes into account variables such as walking distance and whether the route needs to be wheelchair accessible.

Of course, checking a transit database is on-the-street computing. You want to be able to stand on the platform and figure out which train you're taking or if there's an alternate train or bus that will get you around a delay. The MTA understands and is working on support for PDAs and phones, the Post says. There might even be in-station kiosks with the service.

It's not perfect yet, says the Post.

There are still some bugs to work out. The planner occasionally gets thrown off by how the starting and ending addresses are entered, and occasionally suggests getting off the subway and switching to a bus when a few more stops would bring riders within five blocks of their destination.

So what do the people say? Gawker.com gave some tenuous words of encouragement and asked readers to beta-test.

We've been playing around with the MTA's new Trip Planner, which not only provides routes when you enter starting point and destination info, but also gives estimated bus and subway arrival times, and so far . . . we hesitate to jinx this . . . it seems like it might be kind of awesome and actually useful, unlike anything else the MTA has ever done in its entire life.

Readers quickly dissed the results, though:

  • you must be joking. the thing is ... retarded. it doesn't understand what upper west side is. not as if i'll ever have a reason to go there. so never mind.
  • The only way to truly replicate the "token booth clerk giving you completely back-ass-wards directions" experience would be to have my speakers emit a teeth sucking sound.
  • Ew. The thing would rather make me take a rush hour L train than walk the extra 1/4 mile to the JMZ. The web form should have a check box for "I want to be packed in like a sardine and not know when the next train is coming, if ever"

Gawker's readers also shout out to HopStop.com, which seems to offer more options, such as walking more.

HopStop does seem to have a leg up on the MTA's version, and the 'send directions to phone' thing is top-notch. But it's good to see the MTA getting in the game.

The whole story goes to the question of whether a government agency can ever produce a better product than a start-up. The consensus here appears to be no. That seems surprising since the agency would have the most up-to-date information on schedule changes and delays. If readers' impressions are the ultimate judge, this seems to be a case of government IT being saddled with the same old factors that prevent flat-out success.