Use Google to map out your own bus routes

A CARTA billboard on Inter-state 26 eastbound near the Rutledge Avenue exit signals changes for 2012.

The Interstate 26 east billboard with its image of a caterpillar and accompanying message, "Transforming Soon," is a sign of area bus service changes in store for 2012.

Beginning Monday, Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority customers can plan bus trips using Google Transit in addition to the route maps and schedules available on paper and online.

Google Transit works like MapQuest, which offers directions and travel times for drivers. Users will enter a starting point and destination to receive detailed, written directions on how to ride CARTA, including walking distances and times between bus stops.

A version of the bus route navigation tool will be available for mobile devices, such as smartphones.

Clemson Area Transit is the first bus service in the state to use Google Transit. There, the number of riders increased 20 percent in two years, officials said.

CARTA hopes Google Transit will attract new, tech-savvy riders who perhaps haven't tried the bus service before, said Christine Wilkinson, CARTA executive director.

Current CARTA customers are plugged into the digital world, even though they might not own or drive cars, she said.

"It's very common for everyone to have a cellphone," Wilkinson noted.

The transition from a cellphone to a smartphone is not a big leap pricewise, she said.

One industry group said the average smartphone price last year was $135.

The first week or two of Google Transit for CARTA will be a trial run. During that time, bus riders who want to try out the new service will go to www.google.com/transit. Afterward, the redesigned CARTA website, www.ridecarta.com, will have a link to Google Transit.

"We have to do a little bit of testing between our site and Google," she said.

The new CARTA website will be more informative and easier to navigate, she said.

In addition to being a navigation tool, Google Transit also provides the user with comparative costs for using the bus versus driving.

Detailed mapping and data collection necessary for the CARTA system to become part of Google Transit was done with help from the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, Wilkinson said.

CARTA also will offer Facebook updates and Twitter feeds for real-time information on bus service, she said.

CARTA spent $30,000 to redesign its website. Google provided Google Transit software for free, Wilkinson said.

CARTA will continue to have maps and printed route information for riders who prefer them. Last year, CARTA had more than 4 million riders. It is the biggest public transit agency in the state.