CTA's Google trip planner leaves commuters on their own at the border

James "PJ" Vernon wanted to see the tulips at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

Like many savvy commuters, Vernon went to the Internet first, mapping out his route from Uptown on a brand new Google Maps/CTA trip planner for navigating the city's public transit system.

Up and running since April, the Google Maps/CTA trip planner worked perfectly - up to a point.

Then Vernon, 34, a volunteer missionary worker at Cornerstone Community Outreach in Uptown, discovered what some area travelers are beginning to figure out.

It's a system that gets high marks for in-city travels, but its lack of coordination with the regional transportation system leaves commuters on their own outside the city's borders.

"As far as the CTA transportation, Google's got it down pretty good," said Vernon, who moved to Chicago from Florida in April. Vernon used the system to search directions from Wilson and Sheridan to the Metra stop at Lawrence and Ravenswood.

But Google didn't tell Vernon about the rest of his route. For that, Vernon needed suburban Metra and Pace connections, which he figured out with the help of a friend and the Chicago Botanic Garden's website.

Because the Chicago Transit Authority joined with Google without involving the Regional Transit Authority or other transit agencies, Pace bus and Metra train data is absent from the new system.

In January the Illinois Legislature passed a law requiring Chicago area transit agencies to coordinate under the RTA in a region-wide plan involving sales, marketing, advertising and information programs.

Steve Schlickman, executive director of the RTA, says this should have meant including the RTA in the CTA's plans to launch the trip planner. 

"We are trying to sensitize the service boards as best we can that the spirit of the law is to be coordinated and open about our marketing, and in this case the CTA was not, " Schlickman said. 

From the CTA's perspective, the partnership with Google is still a plus. "The CTA saw this as a good opportunity to provide an additional service to customers at no cost," spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski said in an e-mail response. She did not address questions as to why the agency did not attempt to coordinate with the RTA.

Without Metra and Pace connections, Google users can type in a specific location, day and time and get accurate transit routes within Chicago, but not to the Brookfield Zoo or Ravinia Park, for example.

Starting from Madison and Canal Streets in Chicago, Google's instructions call for a 40-minute walk from North Riverside Mall for the last part of a trip to the Brookfield Zoo in Cook County's western suburbs.

In comparison, the RTA's trip planner, which includes CTA, Metra and Pace information, shows a faster, easier route via the Metra Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line and Pace bus.

Even within the city, Google routes commuters to long bus rides where speedier Metra trains are available.

RTA statistics show that more than 4,800 people from the South Side communities of Brainerd, Beverly Hills and Morgan Park ride the Rock Island District Metra train every weekday.

Google advises reaching these areas by subway and bus because it doesn't have Metra data in its system. Going from LaSalle and Van Buren to 95th and Wood Street in Beverly Hills takes 24 minutes via Metra, versus about an hour using the CTA Red Line and a bus.

Commuters can get complete travel information through the RTA's toll free telephone system at 836-7000 or its Internet trip planner.

Schlickman said Metra will be providing their route data to Google eventually.

Patrick Wilmot, a media representative from Pace, which provides bus service throughout Chicago's suburbs, said his agency is planning to integrate their data with Google as well, but doesn't have a specific date yet.

Wilmot says financial difficulties and the need to obtain a software partner's legal permission to share data had slowed efforts to work with Google, but now these blocks are gone.

"We are supportive of the effort to bring Pace information to Google Maps. People who use transit will tell you time and time again that easily accessible information is critical, and this service is an excellent way to accomplish that," Wilmot said.

In addition, the RTA will launch a new online trip planner in August that will enable travelers to compare various modes of getting around, including walking, driving, public transit and even bicycling. The new system is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation as a demonstration project for other cities to model.

The RTA's "multimodal" trip planner will give transit data for all CTA, Metra and Pace vehicles within Chicago and northeastern Illinois. It will also feature consolidated, real-time alerts from CTA, Metra, Pace, IDOT and tollways.