Road test: Google public transit maps on the iPhone

The most recent firmware upgrade to the iPhone brought significant improvement to the mapping functionality, specifically with the addition of Street View and Public Transportation overlays. You’ve probably already seen Street View while browsing through neighborhoods on your local Google Maps computer. Basically it shows you what any (urban) storefront looks like from the street and is a good cross reference for when you’re walking around on foot.

What about the Public Transportation tool? To find out, I decided to give the service a try while visiting San Francisco last weekend. Follow along for a quick road test.

Google maps with the 3G iPhone in and of itself is an excellent tool if you’re on foot in any urban environment. Need to find out where you are? Turn on the GPS, find out what corners you’re on and figure out what direction you’re going in. Type in your target address, place a pin and walk towards the pin.
If you wanted to take public transportation? Before, you had to navigate to the local public transportation website (ie, open up a Safari window and visit mbta.info) browse around, find a schedule and download it. It’s possible, but cumbersome, and you have to find a quiet corner to mess with your phone where nobody will disturb you.

With Google’s new functionality, however, schedules and fares are integrated into the map. So when you select the “Public Transportation” option from the top of the map menu, it uses your location, finds a bus/subway/train stop near you, gives you directions to the stop then gives you the departure time, schedule and fares.

Let this soak in for a second. It tells you exactly where you are, where you need to be, how to get there on public transportation, how much it will cost and when you’ll arrive. That is nothing short of amazing.

In San Francisco last weekend, I found myself in Alamo Square a few minutes before I needed to meet a colleague. Punching in “3292 22nd St” into Google Maps, I pressed the Public Transportation button and received the following:

“Departs a 1/18/09 10:21 AM, Arrives at 1/18/09, 10:46 AM — $1.50″
“Walk to Fillmore St & Hayes St”

And so the journey began. Seven minutes later I was on the 22 heading south on Fillmore, and before I knew it I was standing at Boogaloos, right on time.

Now, mind you that this is in the most technologically advanced city in the country on a clear, traffic free day. The Public Transportation option doesn’t work in all cities (cough, New York) and under all conditions. But if San Francisco is the marker by which the travel world will soon change, then a revolution is soon at hand.