Streetscape in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Photo by Marcelo Druck/Flickr.

Streetscape in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Google Transit, a web-based transport app that recently became available in Porto Alegre, still faces many challenges. Photo by Marcelo Druck/Flickr.

Google Transit has come to the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Google Transit’s introduction to developing cities like Porto Alegre provides enormous potential benefits to urban residents by allowing them to plot a course from one location to another using multiple modes of public transport. This in turn makes it easier for people to conveniently choose sustainable transport options instead of resorting to private cars. However, early experiences in Porto Alegre have revealed several holes in the technological infrastructure of developing cities that impede the successful implementation of a digitally linked, multimodal transit network.

Two steps forward: An app that integrates transport options

The general idea of the Google Transit application is that it is an extension of Google Maps, and can be accessed through the normal Google Maps application. Users will enter both their starting and ending locations, and will then simply opt for the “public transportation” mode. Then, the application will compile bus, metro, and walking routes together to convey multimodal transit route options in a clear and accessible platform.

One step back: The challenge of implementation in developing cities

While this may sound nice, developing cities often lack technological platforms – like real-time GPS tracking on buses or 3G service that conveys real-time transit information. TheCityFix Brasil team tested out Google Transit by searching for a restaurant in the south of Porto Alegre in the Windmills neighborhood. The team testing the tool knew that the best route involved transferring buses near Santa Casa Hospital. The app, meanwhile, indicated a connection at Public Market or at Avenida da Silva Loureiro. This route would have taken fifteen minutes longer. Furthermore, walking routes pictured on Google Transit were often dangerous or nonexistent in real life. Issues like this will eventually discourage users from trusting the app, creating a missed opportunity to better integrate mobility options for urban residents. Mobile applications like Google Transit hold enormous potential for creating easy, interconnected transportation systems, but only if they are accessible and reliable.

The way forward: Urban infrastructure must support innovation

The solution cannot be one-sided. Transit operators, city planners, and every day riders all play a role in ensuring that the technological infrastructure of city systems are modern enough to support innovative apps like Google Transit. For example, bus companies must implement GPS tracking to provide real-time information and city planners must keep users informed of construction projects that alter route availability. Transit riders play an important role by providing feedback and ensuring that maps are responsive to changing times and city structure.

Additionally, open data platforms that can provide citizens with transit data are pivotal in moving mobile, connected transport systems further. With access to data, citizens can see for themselves where the greatest transit problems in the city are located, and have access to the data to code their own applications customized to the mobility needs of the individual city.

Google Transit holds a great deal of promise – particularly as cities like Porto Alegre prepare to play host to mega-events like the 2014 World Cup – but is not yet supported by urban infrastructure and systems that maximize its potential. Some people, however, are already looking ahead to the future and imagining what else data can do for Porto Alegre. Vanderlei Capellari, the head of Public Transportation and Circulation (EPTC) of Porto Alegre, already envisions a city where bike paths are also plotted on Google Transit. How do you think Google Transit can benefit developing cities? Leave your thoughts in the comment section!

This post was originally written in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil. Rachel Jaffe and Ryan Schleeter also contributed to this post.