Don’t you love squeezing into a jam-packed subway car, smushed up against the sliding doors, with one arm pinned down by your side as you grasp at a sweaty handrail with the other, while clutching a briefcase between your knees?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic equated large crowds with death traps, this was probably a nightmare scenario. Compare that to the bliss of discovering a serene, sparsely populated train car, with room to breathe and an abundance of seating.
Google knows. Its new Maps feature is smartly targeted at helping you achieve this nirvana by using the forces of artificial intelligence. On Wednesday, the company unveiled a product update that will provide crowdedness data on mass transit for over 10,000 networks in 100 different countries. Starting today, it will tell you “if your line is likely to have lots of open seats, hit full capacity, or be anywhere in between,” a post on its blog explained. “With this information you can decide whether you want to hop on board or wait for another train.”
Putting aside that some workers might not have the luxury of waiting for the next train, come hell or high water, it’s a nice thought. But maybe now you’re wondering, Wait—how exactly is Google getting this data? By having Google Glasses on everybody who walks in and out of the train car? Not exactly: “These predictions are made possible through our AI technology, contributions from people using Google Maps, and historical location trends that predict future crowdedness levels for transit lines all over the world,” the company wrote. Although if you’ve enabled location sharing with Google Maps, you’ve likely contributed to those “historical location trends” whether you know it or not.
In some major cities, Maps has already shown crowdedness estimates for public transport for years, but this rollout is a dramatic expansion. And more notably, it’s also testing a new feature that zeroes in with greater specificity, offering data on individual cars within a transit train. Currently, that capability only operates in New York and Sydney, Australia, for systems including New York’s Long Island Railroad and Sydney’s Transport for New South Wales.
The rollout comes as millions prepare to return to offices amid the Great Reopening, and travel soars closer to pre-pandemic levels. According to Google, mass transit searches on Maps have increased 50% compared to last year in the United States. The cities with the most crowded trains as of now include industrial hubs New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington D.C., and data shows that commutes skew early, with lines most packed between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
In addition to the transit data, Google revealed several other features, including a nostalgic tab that groups places you visited on past vacations, and more specific details for reviews, such as price ranges.