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5 ways Google Maps can improve public transit for you | Popular Science

In some cities, hopping onto a train, bus, or ferry can be nightmarish, but it’s the only way millions of people have to move around every day. 

You could rely on experience and good luck to navigate these occasionally chaotic systems, but if you’re a Google Maps user, you can simply turn to the device in your pocket. Over the years, this well-known app has incorporated features that allow us to cheat the odds and improve our daily commutes. From combining trains, boats, taxis, and buses like a seasoned rider, to avoiding crowds and freezing subway cars, Google’s map platform has got you covered. 

Skip overcrowded and freezing transportation 

Recently Google Maps launched a new feature that helps commuters know beforehand how crowded the train, bus, or ferry they’re taking is.

When you choose your itinerary, you’ll see a What’s it like on board? question right below each transport’s name. You’ll see tags for temperature ranging from Freezing cold to Too hot: for crowdedness that go from Not crowded to At capacity, as well as Accessibility and Security on board

Knowing the level of crowding you’re about to deal with can help you decide whether it’s worth it to wait for the next train to get a seat, or, if you’re carrying large cargo, ensure no one looks at you with deadly eyes. 

Some stations also provide live information about how busy they are in general. In your itinerary, you’ll find this information in pink under Live, right below the name of the station or terminal you have to go to. Tap on it, and you’ll see a graph with the busiest hours during the day. Tap on Popular times at the top of your screen to see how busy hours change depending on the day of the week. 

[Related: 19 evidence-based solutions to New York City’s subway disaster]

Keep in mind that you won’t always find all of this information for every single ride. Google Maps makes predictions on crowdedness, for example, using artificial intelligence, historical location trends, and user input. The varied sources of data make it more likely that you’ll find information about how many people are riding the train at any given time, but temperature and security onboard depend on what users are telling the app. If there’s not enough data to go by (that is if not enough people have provided information) then Google Maps doesn’t display it. 

If you want to help source this information, Google Maps randomly prompts passengers to do so. But you can also add information proactively (or even correct what the app already provided) by tapping on the tags with a plus sign next to them and choosing one of the available options. 

If you live in New York City or Sydney, you’ll also be able to assess crowdedness at a train car level. Google is testing this feature in these cities and you’ll soon be able to see how to avoid the crowd and remain punctual at the same time. 

Stay where you are as long as you can

We’ve all been there: you’re out with friends having a jolly good time, but then you remember you are at the mercy of the train schedule. 

Avoid having to ask one of your friends to let you crash on their couch by letting Google Maps figure out your last chance at a ride back home. On Android and iOS devices, open the app, set your destination, and hit Directions. At the top of your screen, choose public transit (it’s the train icon, second from the left), and tap Depart at right below. From the pop-up window, choose Last and then Set or Done, depending on your operating system

The app will display a list of all possible ways to get to where you’re going starting from the one that will get you there the latest, so you can enjoy your friends some more and make sure you really have time for that last drink. 

Get there in time 

Don’t give your date any reason to be mad at you when you arrive: Make sure you get there on time by letting Google Maps tell you exactly when you should leave. 

Just as before, open the app, set your destination, hit Directions, and choose public transit. Tap on Depart at and choose Arrive by from the popup window. You can set it to the exact time of your date or even a couple minutes earlier if you want to be extra sure. When you’re finished, tap Set (or Done, depending on your operating system) and choose the itinerary that’s most convenient for you. Google Maps will then tell you the time you need to start your trip, accounting for distance and other variables, like transfers and how crowded public transportation is at that specific time of day. 

[Related: Affordable driverless cars could curb public transit]

To make sure you leave on time, create a Google Calendar event through Google Maps, so you’ll get notifications prior to your departure. Open your chosen itinerary, scroll all the way down, and tap on Add to Calendar. As with every other event in your schedule, you’ll get a default notification 10 minutes before you have to leave, but you’ll also be able to add more—five minutes before if you get easily distracted, one hour if you need to dress up, or whatever time frame that works for you. 

If you’re the kind of person who loves riding the train but wouldn’t be caught dead boarding a bus, know that you can eliminate entire modes of transportation from your Google Maps search.

First, open the app, set your destination, and tap Directions. At the top of your screen, tap on All modes to see a list with all the types of transportation the platform is considering for your route. By default, they are all always selected, so to rule out the possibility of having to step into a boat, for example, uncheck the box next to Ferry in the Android app. You can uncheck as many boxes as you like, and when you’re done, just tap on Apply at the bottom of your screen to refine your results. On iOS, select Options to see the modes and deselect the ones you don’t want. To finish, tap Apply.

Depending on variables like mobility, time, age, or even how much weight you’ll be carrying with you, you might choose a slower route that entails less walking, fewer transfers, or includes stations and transports with wheelchair accessibility. To reset your priorities on Android devices, enter your destination, then tap on Directions, followed by Best route. On iOS, after Directions hit Options, and choose Best route from the menu.

Doing this will open the route options window, which is set by default to Best route to provide an itinerary that hits the sweet spot between all variables. To prioritize one over the other, just tap the checkbox next to it and choose Apply.   

Share your location

For some people around the world, public transportation doesn’t seem like the safest place to be. Getting mugged, harassed, or worse, are sadly some of the experiences people have had when traveling through their cities. Any feature they can get to feel even slightly safer about their commute can make their day or even save their lives. 

If that’s your case, Google Maps offers the option to share your location with one or more people in your contacts, even if they don’t have a Google account. Doing so will allow them to track you in real time for a limited period of time while you’re in transit. 

To activate this feature on Android devices, tap your avatar in the top right corner of your screen and choose Location sharing. On iOS, open the app, tap your avatar, and under Location sharing, choose New share.    

[Related: How to share your location (without broadcasting it to the world)]

On the next screen, you’ll be able to choose who can track your whereabouts and for how long—it can go from one hour to three days, or whenever you proactively turn the feature off. Google Maps doesn’t only share your GPS location, but this is actually a good thing. When sharing your location on this platform, people tracking you will also be able to see how much battery you have left in your device, whether you’re walking or driving, and where you’ve just been. This information can be vital if something happens to you while on transit. 



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