Google may map Honolulu transit
By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Karen Blakeman
A trip-planning service briefly operated by TheBus last year is a thing of the past, but Honolulu eventually may be one of the cities on a new transit mapping site under development by Google.
Late last year, as gas prices were leapfrogging from $2 to $3 a gallon, TheBus launched a feature, "At Your Service," designed to meet the needs of O'ahu residents looking for an alternative to increasingly expensive car travel.
For about a month and a half beginning in mid-September, new bus riders were able to e-mail or call TheBus and get custom trip plans prepared for them.
In addition to step-by-step instructions — with maps — of where and when to catch each bus, the new riders also got fare information and other basic information about bus travel. Responses were sent within a few days by e-mail or regular mail.
The system provided more detailed responses than usually requested by regular bus users who call TheBus information line.
"Because we had so many new riders, we had to start from scratch," said Michelle Kennedy, manager of customer communications for O'ahu Transit Services, the company that operates TheBus.
"They wanted to know where the bus stops were located, how much it costs, where to buy passes — a one-minute call turned into 20 minutes," she said.
The "At Your Service" program kept the lines clear for the usual customers, Kennedy said, but with no new staff to handle the e-mails and mailings, the backlog became a little overwhelming.
"It was all internal staff," Kennedy said. "They really burned the hours, and everybody was tired. We stopped it because it really became too time-intensive."
Kennedy said the month and a half that the trip planning service was in operation — along with a newly designed Web site launched the first week of March — helped ease new customers through the ins and outs of public transportation.
Although most municipal public transportation services have trip planning services, attempts to get Honolulu to increase the budget for a full-time service have been unsuccessful, said Roger Morton, president and general manager of Oahu Transit.
But Google may soon offer an alternative.
The search engine, according to Google's Web site, is developing a public transportation version of what Google now offers for drivers on Google Local. It will tell users how to get where they are going using bus and other mass-transit systems, and allow them to calculate how much money might be saved over driving a car.
To date, only Portland, Ore., is online, but Google is working with other cities to provide access to their public transportation systems, according to the Web site.
Morton said Honolulu is one of those partner cities.
He said he can't say when the project may launch, and to date, there are no guarantees.
"They've been working with us for the past six to eight months," Morton said. "We have a signed agreement to work together, but there is no contract, and they are doing this for no cost. No money has changed hands."
He said Google is preparing a model of TheBus on Google Transit for Oahu Transit to examine.
Morton said he is very excited about the possibility.
"It's Google," he said. "They have a very good reputation, and just the fact that they are working with us makes us very pleased."
"They only have a handful of partners," he said.
Reach Karen Blakeman at email@example.com.