Where the best-laid travel plans are taking us

In the course of pioneering new ways to use the web, clever journey planners are treading paths that all sorts of site owners will be able to follow in the future.

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It’s a funny old world where I have to go to the German railways site to get a timetable for my regular journey within suburban London. But it’s also rather a good world: I like the idea that web users cannot afford to think in national terms if they want to get the most out of the medium.
Having touched on internationalism, let me get back to online journey planners. These are what I call ‘creepers’ – online features that are growing so unobtrusively that we can easily miss the distance they are covering.
The significance of clever journey planners goes way beyond their specific use. They are pioneering new ways to use the web – in particular its interactivity – and are thus treading paths all sorts of site owners will be able to use in the future.
The idea that interactivity can be exploited to help people find their way around was spotted early. Mapping systems such as MapQuest and MultiMap rode the dotcom boom and bust because they were so evidently useful. Rail companies launched interactive timetables seven years ago, and many of us now turn naturally to them rather than picking up the phone.

Two steps back, three steps forward

There have no been great leaps forward, and there has even been some faltering. For example, Shell has dropped the European version of its Geostar route planning system, directing visitors instead to Geostar’s rival, ViaMichelin (www.viamichelin.com). Geostar does still operate in South Africa (www.shellgeostar.co.za), for those who want to drive from Kimberley to Klerksdorp.
Some normally enterprising places have failed to make much progress at all. Tokyo’s Bureau of Transportation offers nothing more than downloadable subway maps, at least in its English version, while New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has similar maps alongside “Service Advisories, updated every Friday”. Not really stretching the medium.
But there is plenty of evidence of creeping development. Hong Kong’s famously efficient public transport system starts badly with a primitive hub site, but gets much better as you click links to specific companies. MTR, which runs the mass transit system, has an unpromising-looking site that does, however, have a good deal of functionality, including an interactive device that displays the minibus services feeding each station.
Amtrak, the main US rail operator, is consciously aping its airline rivals with a neat timetable and booking system on the home page. You will learn that it would take 67 hours to get from Atlanta to Salt Lake City, not including stops, but you can at least get a virtual tour of your sleeper compartment.

Europe on a faster track

Most of the action has been in Europe. Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) has long had a terrific interactive timetable, but it has been buffed and polished further since I last visited. Its Europe-wide coverage is unmatched. It is unfazed by a request to get me from Peckham Rye, in south-east London, to Odessa and now lets me specify that I want to carry a bicycle. The downloadable “personal timetable” system is a more significant improvement. Put in your regular journey and it will deliver a timetable that you can print, send to your Palm computer or download to your mobile phone.
The UK’s disjointed rail system may be something of a public joke, but the Association of Train Operating Companies is trying hard to pull it together with its National Rail site. The Journey Planner section is an adequate though unremarkable interactive timetable. But when linked to Service Alterations, which lists disruptions, and Live Departure Boards it becomes really quite powerful. The departure boards mimic the information shown on platforms, and are especially handy when fed through to a mobile phone: you can check whether your train is on time as you rush to the station. All three services have been available for a while; the developments have been in co-ordination, with far better cross-linking between them. It would be terrific if they were fully integrated.

Integrated transport planning

For proof that a disconnected transport system can give an excellent impression of integration, look at Transport for London’s Journey Planner. Put in an address, a postcode or a station for the arrival and departure point, and it will generate a number of choices involving rail, bus, underground, tram, foot and bicycle. You can even say how long you are prepared to ride a bike, and whether you need to avoid stairs or escalators. Click to generate maps of the beginning and end points to download or print out. And if you are travelling by Tube, use the interactive map to see what facilities each station has. These are remarkable things, and ones that reflect the Mayor of London’s admirable plan to make the transport system seem co-ordinated. Maybe they will even help bring reality into line with the perception.
I wondered, as I looked at this site, if it was a subtle part of the campaign to win the 2012 Olympics for London. The theory gains strength from its main rival, Paris, whose transport site is almost as strong as Transport for London’s. The simple query page generates sophisticated results, showing you how to travel from A to B using bus, train, tram or feet. The maps it generates are particularly clear, giving the route you should follow when you get off your train or bus. The interactive network map looks remarkably like Transport for London’s, though it covers buses as well as trains. And like its German – but not its British – equivalents, it is multilingual.
Foreign languages on sites such as these are something London’s transport bosses might contemplate if their city really wants the Olympic committee on its side.

First published 01 December, 2004
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