Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: Why Doesn’t Google Maps Know the Best Way to the Airport?

Until recently, if you stood outside the Clarendon Metro stop in Arlington, Va., and asked Google for transit directions to Washington Dulles International Airport, you’d be told to go east to reach the airport that sits some 20 miles to the west.

The suggested route would get you where you need to go eventually, but there’s a faster option that Google Maps just didn’t know about: taking Metro to the west end of the Silver Line and boarding the airport’s $5 Silver Line Express bus. It still doesn’t know about the cheapest option, catching one of two (albeit slower) Fairfax Connector buses at the end of the same line.

Instead, Google’s app directed you to take Metro a few stops in the other direction in order to transfer to the transit agency’s own airport bus—then hope it doesn’t get stuck in traffic on Interstate 66.

If your travel destination that day is in the outskirts of San Francisco, Google’s transit advice could mislead you a second time.

Instead of advising you to take one of the “Airporter” buses from San Francisco International Airport, Oakland International Airport, and San Jose International Airport to the north and south of the Bay Area, the app will propose a two- or three-step odyssey on Bay Area Rapid Transit rail and then local buses.

Transit access to airports is a problem in general across the U.S. Service is often less frequent and more expensive than other routes, and the distances involved make the options of a taxi or ride-hailing service that much more expensive. Google gaps like these make it worse, and about half the time the Google users will be out-of-towners less likely to know these airport-specific routes.

As Google describes things, putting those city-to-terminal routes into its mapping apps shouldn’t be that hard. A transit operator has to apply to be listed in Google Transit, publish its schedule in the standard General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) format, and have Google run some quality tests on that feed before factoring it into directions.

But some smaller transit operations don’t get to the first step. They don’t even know it’s an option. That’s the explanation for the absence of the D.C.-area’s Silver Line Express and the Airporter buses.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority launched the Silver Line Express when the first phase of Metro’s new line opened in July 2014 (before then, it ran a more expensive, less-frequent bus from the west end of the Orange Line). But the agency only began work to get that route on Google’s maps in January, spokesman Robert Yingling says via email.

“We got a reply within a week,” he says. MWAA has since uploaded the schedule and complied with the rest of Google’s requirements. In early October, Yingling couldn’t offer an estimate of when the route might appear in Google Maps, but by the 26th it had begun appearing in Google directions—with an extra 13 minutes’ walk incorrectly tacked on after the Dulles stop that deposits passengers right at the arrivals level.

Three Airporter services in the Bay Area, meanwhile, had not even gotten to that first step.

“Google has never reached out to us, but at the moment I don’t think we have our schedule in a compatible format,” David Hughes, charter manager at Marin Airporter, says via email. “We are currently working on a new website and we should have the formatting correct when it is published.”

Chris LeGrand, secretary and treasurer at Santa Rosa-based Airport Express, Inc., says he didn’t think the Sonoma County firm has gotten any invitation from Google either. He says the service did fine without the extra publicity: “I think we’re okay, to be honest with you.”

A third bus service didn’t know they could show up in Google navigation at all. “We did not know Google had that option and they have never invited us to participate,” Andre Planchon, president of Monterey Airbus operator Main Event Transportation, Inc says in an email. “I will pursue trying to get them to list us.”

But while smaller services like Planchon’s might benefit more from some Google exposure than the likes of BART, they shouldn’t expect to get a postcard or an email from the search giant. Historically, it’s only made time for hands-on outreach with large agencies like New York’s and Chicago’s.

Further, Fairfax Connector’s example. The agency posted a GTFS feed back in August of 2012, but it remains invisible in Google—even as Microsoft’s Bing does list it.

The reason why is an undocumented hurdle at Google’s end. The company asks transit operators to sign a contract with an indemnification clause that would protect Google from… something, but Google won’t say what.

When the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority signed an agreement with Google to put Metro trains and buses on Google Maps, coverage at the time described that clause—which WMATA was able to strike from the contract—as covering any defects in the data.

In 2013, a Google publicist said the company asked transit operators “to indemnify their ownership of IP rights in the data.” That doesn’t make much legal sense—schedules and listings aren’t copyrightable in the first place—but another publicist declined to explain it further in October.

As a result, Fairfax Connector routes show up in Bing Maps, where that contractual constraint doesn’t apply, but not in Google’s. Fairfax County has since turned to a third-party firm, Clever Devices, to usher its data into Google’s systems.

“We are pretty certain that the process will be complete in the next few months,” county spokeswoman Anna Nissinen says via email.

In the meantime, your best source for transit directions to or from an airport might just be the airport’s own site. Or you can choose a low-tech alternative: Stop by the Traveler’s Aid booth at an airport and ask a human for directions. But your handy Google Maps app might just not have what it takes.

This post has been updated.