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Traveling around Europe I grew to rely more and more on Google Maps (GMaps) public transport data. That is if I am in a new city and need to get from A to B, GMaps is normally very effective in generating a good route by bus/train/metro/tram.

Recently though we've been in Toulouse, where this is hardly the case. On multiple occasions GMaps had very limited or no information, and we were able to find much better options elsewhere (asking people around, local websites, etc). Not only us, it seems. Example: GMaps had literally no options for going from city center to the airport, even though it was very straightforward, few stops by metro and then tram.

That's fine, one cannot expect to have perfect coverage for such variably-sourced data everywhere. But I am having hard time figuring out how to prepare for that. So the question here is: knowing your destination city ahead of time, how to best figure out if GMaps has sufficient data for the area (and research alternative local apps/maps if it does not)? Or perhaps the whole premise is wrong, and one should never rely on just GMaps?

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    Typically Google Maps public transport data is supplied/updated/maintained directly by the public transport providers, so if the provider does not keep this data complete or up-to-date, then you're unlikely to get it from Google maps. The transport provider's website or app may be a better option – Midavalo Nov 11 at 16:03
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    One should never rely on just Google for anything. – Michael Hampton Nov 11 at 16:39
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    @MichaelHampton which is exactly the question: how do you find out if you can rely on it or not? – Calimo Nov 12 at 7:02
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    @MichaelHampton That's a bit extreme. I've relied on Google, when I've needed it, for all of my recent holidays and it's never disappointed. – camden_kid Nov 12 at 9:02
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    I believe what Michael Hampton wrote can also be phrased: "don't put all of your eggs in one basket". It's nothing specifically to do with Google, it's just common sense. – Aaron F Nov 12 at 10:18

10 Answers 10

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Try different apps

It is never good to rely on one single source of information. To verify the quality of GMaps transport info, try the same route with one or two different apps.

I usually prefer an app called Moovit - I have made good experiences all around Europe with this app.

Another angle is to research the local public transport company, as Joren suggested. They usually provide a wesite and/or mobile app to cross check results with the routes Google suggests.

Also, as I just realized, it seems that the Google Maps mobile app warns you, if they are not confident in their data:
Warning: The latest timetables are not available for this area

The text in the warning box says "The latest timetables are not available for this area".

  • I think the answers here basically show that at the moment there is no simple answer here (even though idea from @Calimo is great). Which means cross-checking with another source is necessary, which is what this answer says. Thanks! – Andrei Nov 12 at 13:46
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    I can fully support this. Each bigger city should have its own local public transportation app with way more reliable data than google. Some of them are even offline and still use gps to tell you which station is closest. For Asia (tested in South Korea and Hong Kong) there is naver with very good transportation help and way more restaurants than google. – Thomas Nov 12 at 14:04
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    Finding a reliable source to cross check against can provide its own difficulties... A third party source may have the same poor quality information as Google. If you try to use direct sources, you may miss some (for example, in my local area the big city has one public transit system with bus and light rail, but each suburb has its own local bus system with website and timetable and those are easy to miss). – user3067860 Nov 12 at 21:04
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Just try to build a route from railway station to your hotel, from airport to city center, etc. If some of these return results that look legitimate (i.e. not "one intercity bus per day" as noted above), you can expect that it's OK overall. I think that coverage is usually hit or miss.

If smoke test fails, maybe it's worth checking if there are local options for this, such as other mapping services or local transport authority web site, which may have better coverage.

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Uh oh.

The risk of using mapping apps for everything is you can lose the craft of how to do it "the old fashioned way".

Of course, it's not quite the old fashioned way; just as if pilots needed to stick-fly a 787, they would rely on navigational charts and Jeppeson books on their iPads instead of carrying 20 pounds of books. We don't need to collect paper maps and schedules at major terminals anymore, we can get them on the web.

So my advice is to stop letting Google do all your heavy lifting for you, and make it a habit to research transit in these cities "old school". That way you have a sense of the lay of the land before consulting Google.

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    I remember the pre-Google times... it was absolutely horrible. These days I shudder at the thought of having to use anything resembling the old paper maps. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Nov 12 at 9:12
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    One funny aspect of this. I was just thinking one old-fashioned way (before just trusting google maps) was to browse comments on the net, so you'd search "toulouse airport bus" etc. That's the old-fashioned way :) – Fattie Nov 12 at 14:15
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    @JonathanReez No. Actually, you are remembering the age before being able to download PDFs on a pocket sized mobile device. from inside a subway station. You still have that. The lost skill is orienteering and turning the spaghetti lines on a transit map into a viable route. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 12 at 16:13
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica B-star is way more effective than any human can be at planning routes :) – JonathanReez Supports Monica Nov 12 at 19:01
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    @JonathanReez Only if it works! Similarly, autopilots, RNAV, GPS approaches etc. are way more effective than stick flying the iron compass. But the old skills are lifesavers when the tech takes a holiday. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 12 at 19:36
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Here is a quick sniff test that will tell that information is not available for this city.

When you mouse over a public transport stop, you can sometimes see a list of lines that serve this stop. Here is an example with Paris Gare du Nord:

Paris Gare du Nord

Note the colored lines 26, 39, 43, 45 and 54 serving this station. If you click on the stop itself, more details will appear in the left hand side panel, including the same list of public transport lines in colorful rectangles. If you click on one you can see the next departures. You can also see colored lines underneath, representing the routes themselves.

This suggests the public transport companies are sharing their data with Google Maps.

If you compare with the metro station next to the Toulouse train station, you will see there is no line listed for this stop:

Toulouse Marengo SNCF

You can immediately tell that no information is available.

Here I took a stop near the main train station where public transport is most likely to be available. In the case of Paris Gare du Nord there are many metro/bus stops. Some of them have no associated lines, but you can quickly find an other one in the direct vicinity.

In the case of Toulouse, if you click on the "Toulouse Matabiau Train Station" station which is the main train station, you will see that information about trains is available. But you can immediately see you will get no information on local transports, at least for the metro.

I checked with a few cities I know, and this heuristic seems to hold pretty well. Of course you can only tell that information is not available. If there is some information, this solution doesn't tell you how reliable it is.

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    Nice idea, however this way you wouldn't know if all services are included (e.g. in Germany, sometimes S-Bahns are included, but not subways or similar) – Klaster Nov 12 at 8:24
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    Lovely idea: pick up a highly-likely-active junction, such as central station, and see if data is there. Thanks! – Andrei Nov 12 at 13:43
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    @Klaster: Sure, but this is a good sniff test quickly seeing whether the Google Maps recommendations are good enough to be useful. Perhaps it’s missing some services which would give you a 20mins route where Google Maps found a 30min route, but that’s not such a great loss. The main thing, as this answer shows, is how to tell when Google Maps is missing most of the available services. – PLL Nov 13 at 15:14
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An approach that has worked for me on several occasions is to start by searching for bespoke advice for a similar route. Many POIs like hotels, attractions and airports have on their website advice on "how to get to us from [insert other popular direction here]".

Even if I'm actually going to some really obscure address, if I can find a hotel in the same neighbourhood that says "from the airport, take this 30-minute metro and then a 5-minute ferry", I can then go with much more confidence to Google, and if its directions send me on a 90-minute string of bus connections it is immediately obvious that the ferry is missing from their database rather than that neighbourhood having woefully inconvenient public transport connections.

The bespoke information comes with the benefit of the comprehensive local knowledge of somebody who probably has to help lots of people make identical journeys on a regular basis, and Google (hopefully) then comes with the benefit of being able to join up those key routes and combine them with end-to-end walking directions and potentially even live service status.

If the latter is missing, there is a worthwhile third step which is to go to the website of the transport provider (usually reachable from Google's directions) which sometimes has live data that Google isn't relaying.

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As Midavalo noted in a comment, Google doesn't have complete data for all public transit systems everywhere.

To know if Google has enough data to construct a route for you, you can click on a bus, metro or tram stop, if it appears on the map at all, and look for "See departure board". For instance, if you click on the bus stop icon at the airport terminal arrivals area, the BlaBlaBus comes up with a departure board listed. If you do a public transit search that includes such routes, you will get results.

But if you click one of the metro or tram stops, you do not see a departure board. This means Google doesn't have data for these stops. If you do a public transit search that includes such routes, you won't get any results.

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For the specific case of Toulouse, tisseo (Public transport in Toulouse agglomeration) is using an open source platform for itinerary, routes display and such. Google approched them to include the public transports in google maps, but, if I remember correctly, they wanted tisseo to change their architecture to the google environment.

This was a few years back (maybe 4 or 5 years ago).

But, as said in the accepted answer, try using the local app. Tisseo has a good app/website

Source : a friend of mine is member of the dev team at tisseo

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You seem to be correct, wanting to go from the Toulouse Airport to Toulouse train station doesn't give alot of options, only 1 a day. It's not even a public transport bus.

Overview of 1 BlaBlabus a day traveling the route

By example, from Paris airport Charles de Gaulle to train station Paris Nord gives way more results. More and other public transport options

My suggestion would be to open google maps before you leave on a trip to see what results it can give. If you find there's lack of feedback, finding out what the local public transport company is and google them. In Toulouse this seems to be Tisséo, they offer multiple options:

The interactive map looks good.

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    Thanks! But here is the deal. If I look at a random route in GMaps at a place I haven't been before, there is no way for me to know if that's good or bad. "find there's lack of feedback" is very hard to see. So to phrase a question another way, ideally i'd like to be able to assess the quality of GMaps before going down a rabbit hole of comparing against local sources. If this is possible, of course. – Andrei Nov 11 at 14:12
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I usually try to get the specific application for a city (or country) and never rely on Google Maps for public transport (I do rely a lot on GM for general mapping and driving).

As an example, in the case of France that would be Vianavigo for the Paris region, JakDojade for several regions of Poland, etc. (to take recent cases)

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Google Maps relies on data made available by transit operators and some operators make this time table data available to the public. You could try searching for "General Transit Feed Specification" or "GFTS" and the city you are interested in.

If you find something that looks good (i.e. it's hosted by an official web site of the operator, local government data portal, etc.) then that might give you more confidence in the reliability of Google Maps transit planning.

Here are examples from Perth, Western Australia and Sydney, New South Wales:

https://www.transperth.wa.gov.au/About/Spatial-Data-Access

https://opendata.transport.nsw.gov.au/dataset/timetables-complete-gtfs

  • Never heard of GFTS before, thanks for sharing! – Andrei Nov 13 at 8:52

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