Most of us have had to rely on King County Metro’s trip planner at some point, particularly when traveling to parts of the county we don’t know well. It works, most of the time, but isn’t always fun to use. Results come in a stark, dated-looking text format that requires a lot of interpretation. Control over itineraries is limited, and transfers are only skeletally explained — you are mostly on your own figuring out how to get from one leg to the next. As Google and other transit agencies have steadily improved trip planning tools, Metro’s planner has been showing its age. Experienced transit riders will often recommend using Sound Transit’s trip planner or Google Maps transit directions instead..
Metro has been working on this problem for some time, and now we can see the fruits of the agency’s labor. A beta version of an all-new trip planner is live. The new planner includes live maps based on the Google Maps engine; much more detailed directions; and lots of reference material. More screenshots and details follow below the jump, but the verdict is: Metro’s back in business. The new planner could use some refinement (as expected for a beta product), but it is once again competitive with the alternatives, and even occasional transit users shouldn’t hesitate to try it out now. It also includes goodies not strictly related to trip planning which may be even better than the trip planner itself; as we will see, it may be a more useful reference tool than the normal Metro site.
The core of the new trip planner is, naturally enough, the “Trip Planning” tab in the leftmost pane. By default, it allows you to enter your origin and destination addresses, and your choice of a desired departure or arrival date and time. The screenshot above shows the view you encounter when you first visit the planner.
Metro could learn from Google with respect to address entry. The system very much wants to see address input in its desired format. The only way I found to reliably get an address to be recognized was to partially enter the address, and then select the desired address from the gray pop-up menu that eventually appears. The system should be more flexible with respect to address syntax, and more eager to offer options.
(For purposes of this post, I used a totally nonsensical sample trip from Romio’s Pizza in Lake City to the Mercer Island Country Club during PM peak, chosen because it’s a long trip with multiple route options. All tests were done using Safari 6.0.5 on Mac OS X 10.8.4, but I’d expect similar results in any 2013-vintage browser.)
If you want more control over your results, you can expand the “Advanced Options” tab, which provides access to some additional parameters.
The preferred start and preferred end route options may be particularly useful for users who know part of their journey well, or who wish to transfer at a specific location in order to run errands. The choice of “shortest trip time” as the default sorting method is excellent, and will help riders learn when transferring between fast and frequent services may be faster than a one-seat ride. There should be an option to specify a maximum walking distance, not just to sort trips by walking distance; some riders may want the fastest trip consistent with a walk of 1/4 mile or less, for instance.
The results window shows possibly the best feature of the new trip planner: its use of color. Each leg of the trip is indicated with a differently colored line, and each transfer is indicated with a differently colored set of points.
The ability to zoom in on transfer points, and see precisely where both bus stops in a transfer are located, is particularly useful. Metro’s data, as a general rule, seems to provide slightly more accurate stop locations than Google’s.
The trip planner has reference tools incorporated, a welcome change from the old trip planner’s approach of providing links to schedules and landmarks that would kick you out of the planner entirely or open a new tab. Live schedules and (particularly) maps are actually far more useful than their fixed equivalents on the regular Metro site. Check out this wonderful map.
The schedule tool also gives extremely useful schedules. Is it bad that I’m rather disappointed in the regular Metro schedule material after using these tools snuck into a beta trip planner?
Similarly, the trip planner’s interface for viewing reroutes and service advisories is simple and quick, and more effective (if somewhat less complete) than the interface on the main Metro site.
Unfortunately, while the new interface is quite an improvement (and, I hope, a glimpse into how Metro is imagining the future of more of its website), some classic old trip planner flaws remain. In my limited testing, I’ve already managed to convince the planner to give me an absurd itinerary or two. Often, also, this planner (just like the old one) likes to pretend that an itinerary with a longer transfer wait but the same route is an “alternative,” something Google’s path-based planner is good at avoiding. The trip planner lists through-routes as “transfers,” which will imply to customers that they have three- or four-seat rides when the truth is not so alarming. I hope that once the new interface is working well Metro will be able to address these flaws in the future.
And, of course, the best trip planner in the world can’t sugarcoat network design issues…
Overall, Metro has done a fantastic job of updating one of its most important rider tools, and the signals the update is sending about where Metro’s dev team plans to go in the future are very encouraging. Try out the new trip planner, and please report any issues you see—developers can’t fix things they don’t know about.