New Google Maps feature illustrates transit dependence in the SouthCoast

Last week I learned that all of Massachusetts’ Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) finally have routes and schedules integrated into Google Maps. That means that in addition to asking the application to help you navigate to your SouthCoast destination by car or on foot, you can also ask for directions using that bus icon:<image no longer available>

This is great news, because as the Urban Initiative/Center for Policy Analysis found in a 2010 phone survey, 48.9 percent of New Bedford residents who don’t ride the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SRTA) bus are not familiar with the frequency with which the bus arrives at the stops closest to their homes or workplaces. With Google Maps, you can find out–sort of.

The first problem I’ve found while using this new option is that individual stops are not entered into Google Maps. So instead of directing me to the bus stop nearest my house, Google Maps tells me to go to the bus terminal downtown. Something else that confuses me is that the way the routes appear on the map seem to imply that these are not your typical city buses–instead, they seem to have the ability to fly: <image no longer available>

This isn’t terribly helpful. What if I miss the bus at St. Luke’s hospital, which is the suggested stop, and need to hop on somewhere else instead? If the bus defies laws of traffic and gravity, I’m not sure what my backup plan could possibly be.

Putting my crankiness–which I prefer to call high expectations–aside, having SRTA information available to Google mappers is tremendously useful for one thing: hammering home the fact that our region is a very hard place to be transit dependent, because the limited number of bus routes and high degree of sprawl will invariably leave many stranded, or at least make their commutes impossibly long. For example, if I wanted to take the bus home from the Urban Initiative office at 6:00 today, I’d need to budget for an astounding one hour and twenty-two minutes of travel. That includes riding two different buses and walking 1.3 miles. Since I’m driving home instead, I’ll be able to cover the 3.8 miles in just 9 minutes.

If you’re wondering about the implications of this, I’ll direct you to the recently released study on opportunities for upward mobility. Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points to the role of sprawl, noting that income mobility in Atlanta is limited not by the number of jobs, but by the time it takes low-income residents to reach them.

Now, consider the fact that in 2010, 62 percent of SRTA riders in New Bedford reported having no access to a working vehicle. How does their dependence affect their access to good jobs and higher education? And what about those who live too far afield to ride the bus in the first place? We look forward to more conversation around these questions, the answers to which are essential for improving both economic development and quality of life in the SouthCoast.

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