MTA trip planner doesn't click, yet

GETTING THERE

June 23, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER

The folks at the Maryland Transit Administration are doing something extremely stupid - for which they should be commended.

If you go to the MTA's newly redesigned Web site (www.mtamaryland.com), you will see a tab for its new trip planner.

This Web-based service is a long time coming for the MTA. Many transit agencies of comparable size have had something similar for a long time. With those agencies, people can sign on 24/7 and get help in navigating their way around a complicated maze of bus and rail services without having to call a "service line" and listen to a half-hour of elevator music before finally talking with a human being.

The MTA trip planner online is a beta version of what it hopes to offer its customers. Or, as the MTA puts it, "We are still trying to work some of the bugs out of the system."

Ya think?

Let's say you're a Glen Burnie resident who lives within walking distance of the Cromwell light rail station. Your sainted mother, may she rest in peace, lies buried in the Meadowridge cemetery in Elkridge. Saturday is her birthday, an occasion upon which it is your practice to visit her grave. You don't have a car but you get a ride each year with your sister.

But Sis breaks her ankle. So you wonder whether public transit offers a way to get there. You fire up the computer and go to the MTA's trip planner for an answer. You type in Cromwell Station as your start and U.S. 1 and Meadowridge Road as destination, with a start time of 9 a.m.

And this is what it tells you:

First of all, you have to give up that foolish notion of getting there on a Saturday. Monday's good enough for you.

To get there, the MTA advises you to catch the light rail train departing from Cromwell at 7:01 p.m. Sunday and arriving at Pratt Street at 7:26 p.m.

There you catch a Route 35 bus heading in the direction of White Marsh as far as Franklin Square Hospital Center. Get off at 8:15 p.m., wait 34 minutes and connect with the Route 24 bus heading for the Whispering Woods Apartments.

When you get to Whispering Woods, stay on the bus until you come to the MARC train station at Martin State Airport and get off at 9:15 p.m.

I do hope you've brought a sleeping bag because the MTA trip planner figures you're going to camp out for eight hours and two minutes to catch a Washington-bound MARC Penn Line train at 5:17 a.m. Monday.

With a little luck, you'll be feeling well-rested when you pull into Union Station in Washington at 6:30 a.m. You'll have just long enough to get a coffee before you grab the 6:42 a.m. northbound MARC Camden Line train to Laurel.

Thirty minutes later you'll be pulling into Laurel, where you can catch the Route 320 bus toward Baltimore. At 7:46 a.m. Monday, you can disembark at your stop at U.S. 1 and Meadowridge, where you can walk to your destination if you don't mind the risk of becoming an occupant of the cemetery in your effort to cross pedestrian-deathtrap U.S. 1.

Travel time: 12 hours, 49 minutes. Sure, it's two days past your mother's birthday.

This whole journey would simply be an exercise in the absurdities of computer-driven logic were it not for the fact there is a perfectly valid transit alternative that would have brought you to Meadowridge by 10:30 a.m. Saturday and returned you the same day.

And why doesn't the MTA's trip planner tell you about this route? Well, one of the connections involves Howard Transit's Silver line between BWI and The Mall in Columbia, and the program doesn't include schedule information for suburban transit agencies.

Pretty dumb, no?

Well, not really.

What the MTA is doing is enlisting its most computer-savvy customers in debugging its system. It wants people to go online and to expose such absurd answers and missed connections and flawed logic. It's inviting members of the public to send messages to tripplannerfeedback@mtamaryland.com pointing out its flaws.

"We are an agency that lives for customer feedback," said spokeswoman Jawauna Greene. She said Google is still in the process of feeding the MTA's information into its Google Transit program. As customers inform the MTA of trip plans gone awry, the MTA tells Google.

Eventually, the MTA plans to move into a more customized Phase 2 trip planner based on Trapeze software, Greene said.

But for now we can all be beta testers. It isn't pretty, but it's the way bugs get worked out in the high-tech arena.

Surely, my readers can uncover some trip plans that are even more goofy than my example. Please share them with Getting There as well as the MTA.

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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