Just ran across this article written about the Virtual Earth powered Trip Planner for the New York City Transit in my Outlook inbox and want to quickly share. Regular readers will remember that I blogged on this some time ago, but this makes an interesting read and my Virtual Earth colleague, Kevin Adler, is quoted.

NYC Transit Uses Digital Maps and 3-D Modeling to Help Travelers

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Jun 20, 2008, By David Raths

I live in a suburb of Philadelphia. This morning as I planned a business trip to New York for next week, I went online to New York City Transit's Trip Planner to figure out how I would make my way from Penn Station to the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers at 7th Avenue and West 53rd Street.

Entering my starting point and destination quickly brought up several public transportation options along with walking directions from the closest subway stops.

New features recently added to the Trip Planner make the experience much more immersive for users and reduce the likelihood that visitors will end up calling Metropolitan Transit Authority's NYC Transit agency seeking help. The updated Trip Planner includes aerial and three-dimensional views of the city. Users can get now get walking directions and print walking maps from the closest subway stop to their destination. By using Microsoft Virtual Earth and map data from Navteq, NYC Transit says it is able to provide a more realistic view of the street grid than it previously could, making it easier for users to visualize the walking instructions.

More Detailed Maps
Like other public transit and departments of transportation around the country, NYC Transit is taking advantage of its own databases and enhanced mapping capability to empower citizens to take better advantage of transportation systems.

NYC Transit began offering the online Trip Planner in late 2006, when the agency switched the database software used by call takers in its own travel information center to a product called Transit Information System (ATIS), from Trapeze Software Inc. Agency staff wrote Trip Planner as an interface to the ATIS database and made the interface available online to the public.

"We needed a product that was scalable and Windows-based. At the same time, we realized we needed a good online tool," Fleuranges said. "We provide information to a huge number of users, so it was important to get in the game with trip planning."

A team from NYC Transit's staff of 16 Internet developers wrote Trip Planner as an interface to the ATIS database in 2006, said Sohaib Mallick, senior director of Internet technologies at NYC Transit. The same team worked on the Virtual Earth mapping upgrade and a feature that allows users to use Trip Planner from mobile devices.

Enhancements to Trip Planner using Microsoft's Virtual Earth platform allow for accurate 3D city modeling, Mallick said, and the map data from Navteq, a digital map provider, is much more detailed than the data previously provided by Trapeze. The new version makes zooming in and out easier as well. NYC Transit's Internet Technologies Group programmed the application to allow users to overlay the subway routes and stations on the street grid. The project to add Virtual Earth and Navteq features took the Internet team only a few weeks in January before going live in February 2008, Mallick said. Although he declined to provide detailed cost figures, Mallick did say the expense was minimal because the agency is on a transactional licensing model.

Fred Benjamin, assistant vice president for customer service, said the Trip Planner pays dividends to the agency. "Since December 2006 we have seen a 193 percent increase in unique visitors to our Web site," he said. "We had 1.3 million visitors in 2007 and 185,000 in January, so the number of customers we're serving keeps growing."

Additionally, people getting directions through self service instead of calling for help translates into cost savings, and Benjamin said his agency has started work to quantify them. For instance, the abandonment rate on calls-people who get tired of waiting on hold-has dropped dramatically. "This is allowing our call center to handle calls from substantially more people, and we can redeploy some staffers who previously answered phones."

Making the Portal Interactive
Trip Planner improvements are just one of many enhancements to NYC Transit's Web site. Riders can use Trip Planner not just from PCs but from mobile devices as well.

Through the portal, users can get real-time information about elevator and escalator outages. Alerts provide riders with information on unplanned disruptions in subway service, and users can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of planned construction work. Advisories, which detail information on planned service disruptions, are attached to all itinerary requests. Users can send e-mails directly to individuals assigned responsibility for customer service by rail line, and they can read the results of rider customer service report card survey results.

"With the portal we try to offer as much information as we can, because we recognize it has become a vital tool for people said Paul Fleuranges, NYC Transit's vice president of corporate communications. "We always offered directions and fare structures online, but we have made a big push in the last three years to improve on that."

Kevin Adler, geospatial solutions specialist from Microsoft, said one of the neat things to realize about the Trip Planner upgrade is that the agency "built it themselves and have made it much more of an immersive experience. They are not geospatial specialists, yet they can create something quite sophisticated-for instance, using a tool called Mapcruncher to overlay subway routes on city maps."

Adler said he likes to see public-sector customers able to innovate. For instance, in Texas both the El Paso and Houston areas have created portals that allow members of the public to check on traffic flow, accidents, camera views of highways, and message signs-with all data overlaid on maps.

"These examples are enabling public agencies to better expose their data to citizens," Adler said. The cities can visualize their data on top of our maps, and they can focus on their data."

Other transit agencies around the country are looking at ways to use GIS and global positioning system (GPS) technology to enhance their trip planners. For instance, TriMet, the public transit agency in the Portland, Ore., area has added a feature called TransitTracker that provides real-time bus and light-rail train arrival times that riders can access online, on the street and over the phone. By equipping every TriMet bus with a GPS transmitter, the agency can relay to users exactly how far a bus is from their stop.

Powered by Google Maps and map data from Tele Atlas, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Boston-area trip planner allows riders to add to their itinerary map landmarks such as museums, shopping centers and hospitals, with walking directions and their distance from the nearest subway stop.

NYC Transit's Mallick said his team is constantly looking for ways to improve their Trip Planner as well as other interactive features of the agency's portal. "We are always looking at the best and brightest in other regions for ideas," he said, "as well as at the newest technology on the market or about to come on the market."

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