Tuesday, September 6, 2011

London Transport Maps: Google, Bus Mapper and TFL

Google recently released a Public Transport Directions in London mapping tool as part of Google Maps.  I thought it would be good to compare it to other London transport services (Transport for London and Busmapper) and discuss the usability in terms of UI, symbology, data and mobile use.

Transport for London: up to now the only transport directions tool covering multiple transport types (that I've come across anyhow) has been transport for London (TFL). Although it produces a zoomable map in the results you can't input your start and end points by creating points on a map.  Also, the output map is small on the screen surrounded by adverts and other chart junk elements I don't want to see (see screen grab below):

not that user friendly - I want to be able to expand the map easily and enter points directly onto it.

Google Maps:  The new Public Maps transport directions answers both of my criticisms of TFLs website; you can click to define points, type in post codes (UK zip codes) or type in other place identifiers to define your start and end points directly.  You can also expand the map easily and it already covers most of the page with no ads.  Neat!

User Interface - Adding Start/End isn't Easy: Whilst the expand screen arrow (actually termed 'hide panel') is pretty self explanatory it's not obvious how to add points to the map.  Expected behavior: two pins icons to be available in the control panel with some micro text saying 'drag to define trip'.  What you actually have to do is right click on the map and choose 'start journey' or 'end journey'.  Bus Mapper does it much better with some simple 'click twice' text advice.  See me do it in the clip below

(note that the orange circles denote a click but were added by my screen recorder).

Symbology:  Moving on from the UI to symbology, there is some good work in this service but also some aspects I hope Google sort out soon.  Discussion refers to the above screen shot or you can open the original map.  To reproduce the view above, turn on the transit layer and create pins as outlined above.
  • I like the angled labels (e.g. the label behind the green 'A' pin).  These enable a point to be labelled without overlying a nearby marker/label, unfortunately it seems the service isn't programmed to deliver this functionality.  For example, in the bottom right - the start (A) label could be separated from the 295 bus label if the angle went towards the bottom left rather than the top right.  
  • Label Lines not Points: While we're still talking about the labels it's counter intuitive that they point to bus stops rather than lines.   For example, in the screen shot the 295 bus route is shown as a blue line but its not labelled 295, the label points to the bus stop at the end.  
  • Colors for travel modes: Its useful that walking and transport are different colors (black and translucent blue respectively).  It would be nice to see different symbols for the lines for different travel modes, the tube line colours are known by most Londoners but I think this would get confusing because the suggested route would get mixed up with tube lines and other on screen elements.
Data - Missing Overland Train Info: The major problem I have with the transit map is that it misses out overland trains, on the map these appear as orange lines.  As an example, for the trip in the screen shot its actually much better to walk to Clapham Junction (covered by 295 label), then go by overland train to Kensington Olympia (East of Kensington) and then walk the last section.  Google not only doesn't include that mode of transport - it doesn't even tell you its not using it.   Not a fail but pretty serious problem for a journey planner - you could easily double your journey time as a result of not knowing about the overland route (buses can be very slow in London).

Mobile:  Comparing the Google map on my Mac to that on the iPhone there are a couple of things that stand out:
  • Consistency:  Why is the transport line blue on the Mac but purple on the iPhone?  It's not a huge issue but I can't see any reason not to get the colors spot on.

  • Step Through: When you have the route calculated Google Maps has a really nice feature that allows you to step through the directions.  A purple circle (see above) shows the transfer point and clicking the arrow (top right) steps you through the complete route animating the circle from transfer to transfer and automatically moving the screen.  Very slick and easy to use.
  • You Are Here:  Where the Google mobile map thrashes transport for London mobile enabled website is the blue 'you are here' indicator.  It's very useful for travelling, you don't necessarily know where you are when you start a trip so typing in a name or post code is difficult, much better to use the blue marker and drop a pin on the map.  Not having a decent map interface leaves transport for London dead in the water IMHO. 
Conclusion:  I haven't reviewed other transport apps for the iPhone in researching this review so there maybe services better than Google Maps transport for London out there.  Up to now I've been using transport for London and Google Maps is a huge improvement on that especially on the iPhone.  That being said, Google have work to do, I'd suggest adding the overland train routes is a priority.

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