May 15, 2012
BOSTON — Those used to tracking the bus or train on their smartphones now have a new tool to help with the T. Last week, the MBTA announced that Google Maps now offers interior views of 24 stations on Android phones.
"One of our best partners has been Google and obviously they have incredible reach," said Josh Robin, director of innovation at the MBTA. "They approached us about being their first transportation partner" for station maps in the U.S.
Indoor maps were already available for a number of U.S. and Japanese airports and shopping centers. See [potentially not entirely up-to-date] list.
All the MBTA had to do was hand existing CAD drawings over to Google. "They do the cool part," Robin said. Cost to the MBTA: $0.
So they're cool. But are they useful?
"People that are new to the stations … will obviously use something like this more," Robin said. He thought they would also help people who need accessible paths and noted that some stations are particularly complex. "Downtown Crossing — you can go two to three blocks underground," he said. "You can see where the bathrooms are in South Station."
Two fans of the transportation/internet nexus came down on opposite sides of the question.
"I honestly think they're of limited usefulness," Laurie Deitemeyer said in an email. She tweets as @RideLikeCharlie and hadn't been able to get the feature to work on her Android phone yet.
Lower-tech wayfinders made more sense to her. "I think it would be much more effective to have station maps posted," she said. "That would be easier than taking out your phone and waiting for maps to load with limited underground service."
Indeed, this reporter's stab at viewing Harvard Station from its bus tunnel yielded nothing but a spinning beach ball. (InSite Wireless provides underground service, Robin said; individual carriers make their own deals with the company.)
However, Jason Bereza, who moved to the area in mid-January and blogs at The T Adventure, thought the maps would help "in the cases of stations with multiple exits and for finding things such as restrooms and customer service windows such as the time I got lost trying to find the one at Downtown Crossing," he said in an email.
Bereza would like to see additional labels where stations have multiple levels and different entrances for inbound and outbound trains, and to indicate which bus routes stop where. The latter "would've saved me the time I spent 15 minutes walking around Harvard Square trying to find the 1."
And perhaps there's a use above and beyond the prosaic commute. "If the purpose is not for people to find their way, but instead for people like me to look at station maps for fun so I can visualize them better, then they're probably awesome," Deitemeyer said.
WGBH NEWS FOCUS: THE MBTA