Revisiting Mobile Transit Apps

Transit, WhichBus, and Google Maps for iOS

Transit, WhichBus, and Google Maps for iOS

Last summer I noted that Apple would be dropping transit directions from the iPhone’s maps application as they switched away from using Google services.  Around that time, Oran linked to a Kickstarter project (to which I donated) to create a trip planning app using OpenTripPlanner.  A few things have changed in the world of transit trip planning since then.

For one, the Kickstarter project has shut down and returned the funds to their backers (myself included). Meanwhile, a few trip planning tools have cropped up that are worth your time.  The three that I’ve tried are the new iOS Google Maps app, Transit, and WhichBus (which isn’t an app but a mobile-optimized website).  OneBusAway, of course, continues to provide great real-time arrival info and stop locations. I haven’t included it in this review because it’s not new, and doesn’t do trip planning.

A reminder from my previous post: a “transit app” generally has one or more of these three features:

  • a trip planner, that plots a route from point A to point B (perhaps involving separate transit agencies)
  • a stop locator, usually plotting the nearest stops on a map
  • real-time arrival information

First up is Google Maps, which brings Google’s legendary transit mapping data back to the iPhone. The app is overall quite good, with vector-based maps and turn-by-turn directions. If you log in to your Google account, your search history will be synced to Google Maps on the web. This is very Google-y: mostly useful; slightly creepy. Transit directions are very straightforward and exactly what you expect if you’re used to Google Maps on the web.  Like the web, you can also use the app to locate transit stops and see the schedule.  And, being Google, it supports transit information for many, many cities around the world. On the minus side, it lacks real-time arrival information and the stops are hard to find without zooming way, way in to the map.

WhichBus is the newest entrant on the scene. Put together during a “startup weekend,” the site has a pleasant design and a dead-simple interface, focusing on trip planning but with the added benefit of real-time arrival info. However, it has challenges with intersections, doesn’t appear to include Link in its results, and is limited to Seattle. It’s also not useful as a stop locator.

The one app that does try to integrate all three features above is Transit.  Attempting to do trip planning, stop locating and real-time arrival could make for a confusing interface, but Transit pulls it off by making some fairly novel design decisions.  In One Bus Away, for example, the user must drill into each stop to see the routes that are arriving at that stop. In Transit, however, one can see a listing of all routes stopping anywhere near your current location.  This is handy if you’re standing in between several potential stops and trying to decide which one will get you to your destination. It also avoids telling you if the bus is late and simply shows the estimated arrival time.

What’s more innovative about Transit, however, is the pricing model.  The free version provides access to the basic functionality, but a subscription is required to access some advanced features, like favoriting a route or viewing multiple route alternatives.  Subscriptions cost $0.99 per month or $4.99 per year.  If you’re a heavy-duty transit rider, it might be worth it.  The free version might even be enough for many transit riders.  The interface however, is fairly polarizing. You’ll either love it or hate it.  I love it.

Do you have a favorite transit app or website? Have you tried any of the three listed above? Let us know in the comments.

Comments

    • Matt L (aka Angry Transit Nerd) says

      Oh man, I’ve had a Lumia 920 for two months and I had no idea this app existed. Love it!

      • Matthew Johnson says

        It’s why I went with the lower spec’ed 822 instead of the HTC 8X. Nokia has gone all in on the Windows Phone platform so has come out with some pretty good proprietary apps.

  1. says

    I really like the idea of whichbus.org, and I’m hopeful for it, but the intersections problem still persists, and I don’t think they should have left beta with that problem. The lack of Link is also a huge problem.

    I’ve also noticed that for me, despite saying I want to leave “now” (or an hour ago at 10:15a, for that matter), it gives me schedules for after 3 p.m. today! It hasn’t once given me a schedule I’d ever consider using. I did a test schedule on Sunday, and it gave me routes that don’t run on weekends.

    It’s got a way to go, but the interface is pretty good, being flexible for regular computer use, or smartphone use. Again, I’m hopeful for it.

  2. says

    For now, I stick with metromobile.info, which is a mobile start page for Metro’s Trip Planner. You can store your common starting and ending points, and other preferences.

    • Matthew Johnson says

      I wouldn’t say anything is wrong with OBA (okay, losing Link sucks), it’s just that it does not have a trip planner built in. I’ll often use my Nokia Transit App to plan a trip for me, then use OBA during the trip.

    • Stephen F says

      No, I don’t think people are, but it’s becoming more of just one tool in the toolbox. I’ll use Google Maps for iPhone to do a rough trip plan. If I want immediate stop info, I may use the Transit App, or if I want live trip planning–it does that! But, far and away, OBA remains the most used transit app for me in the area. Part of that is that I can check things out by the stop level when I want to check a number of stops that I’m not near. I also use it primarily because CT- and PT-operated buses do not show up in the Transit App whereas they are scheduled in OBA.

  3. says

    I asked this in the news roundup, but does anyone know if there are any plans for a Windows 8/RT version of OBA (or Transit, for that matter)? With live tiles and the ability to snap the app to the side of the screen while doing something else, it would seem to be the ideal sort of platform for that sort of thing.

  4. Zach Shaner says

    I love the Transit App. It draws routes more clearly than OBA, it helps me choose instantly between the 2/3/27 for getting downtown, its trip planner handles things like Sounder/Link/Water Taxi far better than my experience with Google Transit, its real-time info matches OBA by +/- 1 minute, and it’s become my go-to instead of OBA when I’m in areas with only a few routes. If I’m standing at the Ballard Bridge choosing between RR-D and the 40, Transit shows me both at once. Downtown, I’ve found that there are so many routes that Transit’s interface becomes crowded. Maybe I just need to pay the $5/year to see more/better info.

    WhichBus is terrible. Two hypothetical trips at 5pm from Westlake to SeaTac Aiport failed miserably, the first telling me to take 120/560, and the second to wait until 2am, take the 280 to Bellevue, wait 3 hours, then take the first 560!

    • Stephen F says

      Problem is there is no CT, ET, and PT data in it yet. I heard from them that they plan to release PT later, perhaps CT as well.

      • says

        @Stephen we’d love to be able to support CT, ET and PT but unfortunately they all don’t have GTFS feeds, which is what we use to lay out the base of our data. They do have real-time data provided by OBA but, the way our app works, we can’t do anything with real-time data if the agency doesn’t have a static feed (for the record, this situation is particularly rare and Seattle is the only city where we’re seeing this). Hopefully they all release a public GTFS feed soon.

        Thanks for all the kind words about Transit, Zach! Support for car sharing services such as Car2Go would be nice, we already thought about this in the past. We might revisit this idea at some point in the future!

  5. d.p. says

    It also avoids telling you if the bus is late and simply shows the estimated arrival time.

    its real-time info matches OBA by +/- 1 minute…

    …choosing between RR-D and the 40, Transit shows me both at once.

    All of this implies that bad info kills its usefulness. And unfortunately, the restructured areas (at least) have been been petri dishes of bad info since September.

    The 40 invariably shows up as 5-8 minutes later than it actually is when it’s heading toward downtown Ballard from Crown Hill and 24th Ave. The real-time doesn’t correct itself to “now” until the moment it comes swinging onto Market.

    Rely on it for when to walk to the bus stop, and you’re almost guaranteed to miss it. Use it for comparison where Zach is standing, and the comparison will be wrong!

    And then there are the routes that show up as 20-25 minutes late until they start to roll out of their terminals (44 lately, I’m looking at you). It’s annoying to have to correct for this on OBA, but by doing basic subtraction you usually can.

    But it sounds like Transit will leave you in the dark about a bus that might just be 2 minutes away. Not helpful!

    • djw says

      And then there are the routes that show up as 20-25 minutes late until they start to roll out of their terminals (44 lately, I’m looking at you).

      I have this problem with onebusaway for the 28 at 8th and 85th. It’ll list as 20+ minutes late, until about 5 minutes before it’s scheduled arrival, until it’s suddenly on time.

      • David L says

        OBA doesn’t deal gracefully at all with buses at their terminals. If the bus stops short of what the software thinks the terminal is, it will just get “later” and “later” until it leaves the terminal, when it will suddenly be correct. You’re catching the 28 less than five minutes from its terminal, so that’s what you’re seeing.

        I have exactly the same problem catching the 41, my second-most-used bus, at 125th and Lake City. I have no idea when the bus is coming until 3 minutes before it comes.

      • d.p. says

        But it sounds like the “Transit” app is using the same data, and not even telling you that it differs to an untrustworthy degree from the schedule. It’s a recipe for undetected buses and phantom buses — someone looking for anything at Ballard & Market or choosing between RR and the 40 at Leary & 15th will get garbage info, with no way to correct for it.

        I’ll pass.

      • Oran Viriyincy says

        You can see the entire schedule for a route (clock icon) at a stop in the Transit app. There’s currently no way to turn off “real-time predictions” unless you download the data for offline use and turn off your data connection.

      • djw says

        That explains why this problem got a lot worse after the re-org, when they cut the north tail of the 28. Now that it terminates about 15 blocks north it’s less reliable. Any signs they might be able to figure out a fix for that problem?

      • d.p. says

        It doesn’t explain why the real-time is so awful at estimating the vector of a 40 coming down 24th. It never had that problem with the 18.

      • says

        Real time predictions in Seattle will be improved a bit in our upcoming 1.5.3 update. But unfortunately a lot of the issues you guys are reporting have to do with the agencies themselves, not OBA nor us (or any other app that uses the OBA data). Some of these agencies don’t even have their vehicles equipped with GPS but instead use some kind of wheel rotation counters (don’t know the exact word, sorry). All this to say that some of these predictions are far from accurate… but it’s best we can get for now.

      • d.p. says

        Right, Sam.

        My point was that this often-garbage input data should require you to report the discrepancy between schedule and real-time anywhere the latter appears, because often the real-time is garbage enough that the schedule is more helpful.

        This is especially true near the beginnings of many routes.

        In Frank’s words, your app
        avoids telling you if the bus is late and simply shows the estimated arrival time.

        This is not a good thing where I am.

      • says

        @dp in the particular case of Seattle, I agree that it would be good to display scheduled departures next to the real-time prediction. However, in some other cities (for instance San Francisco), the buses don’t follow schedules *at all*, so displaying that extra bit of information wouldn’t do anything other than adding noise to the UI. It’s also quite hard for us to know whether or not a real-time data source is accurate enough that it can replace the scheduled departures completely. That being said, we’ll discuss this internally and decide what should be done to accommodate the Seattle use case.

  6. CyclistMike says

    While it doesn’t do route planning, “Transit Seattle” is my preferred RT transit tracking app for the W8 Phone. You can pin routes/stations to your home screen for quick access, unlike OBA. Since I have the 8x, I’m still waiting on a feature rich planning app like Nokia maps and Google Maps (Android and iPhone). It would help out greatly when visiting cities I’m not overly familiar with.

  7. S. Morris Rose says

    Note that Google Maps does support real-time info where the agencies have chosen to open their real-time data (and will sign an agreement basically promising to keep it open). Why KCM hasn’t chosen to open their data is a mystery. I guess riders haven’t made their voices heard loudly enough or in the right places. There is no technical reason they couldn’t open it. Did I mention that the agency, particularly their leadership, needs to hear from riders?

    WhichBus has realtime data only because they get it, awkwardly, from OneBusAway. Why? Because that’s the only way to get it.

  8. John Bailo says

    Need a ride? Poll by world’s largest taxi app Hailo finds cabs often drive empty

    60 percent of cab drivers spend between a quarter and half of their shifts without passengers and many work more than 60 hours a week just to make ends meet.

    The amount of time cabs spend empty is an issue around the world. With nearly 14,000 drivers, cabs in New York City spend nearly 40 percent of their time empty. In Toronto, taxis drive empty 60 percent of the time, and even in London, with its highly regarded taxi system, drivers on shift are looking for passengers 40 percent of the time.

    PR Newswire (http://s.tt/1yAcg)

    • Nathanael says

      Well-known. This is partly due to lack of centralized planning (yes, Virginia, central planning is good for transportation systems). The radio dispatchers ameliorate the problem but don’t eliminate it.

  9. Brent says

    Not everyone can afford a priceyphone. When it comes to the transit dependent, that demographic problem is magnified. The Luddite in me still refuses to get one, especially if it means I’ll be reading email all day.

    I’d love to see more real-time-arrival signs at stations and key stops. But let me suggest a way to feed two birds with one seed: Have RTA signs at stations show the arrival time of the next train on the top line, and go through the arrival times of the various buses with nearby stops on the lower line(s). I’d prefer for ST to be patient with working out the bugs so they can get joint train/bus RTA signs that won’t end up being replaced a couple years later.

    Oh, and deploy maps showing the ways to the nearest bus stops.

      • John Bailo says

        I went to Mexico a week ago I found the cheapest way to have cell service was with a prepaid ATT Go Phone which I got for $10 at BestBuy. (ATT are the only US company without roaming charges for Can/Mex. There are horror stories about people bringing their cells and getting billed hundreds of dollars!)

        This is the standard clam shell I had abandoned for a smart phone years ago…however the things I liked about it compared to my smartphone was the very small pocket sized foot print, and the battery life..used it all week without recharging!

        The thing I didn’t miss was taking five minutes to type out a text message on the 0-9 keypad! I guess we used to say less in SMS back then…

      • Mike Orr says

        I’m selective with techonogy, so I got my first cell phone in 2000 and whenever it breaks I buy the cheapest one. I’ll get a smartphone when I feel the need for one but so far that hasn’t happened. Yes, I love its small size and long battery charge. Writing texts takes like a minute per line and I don’t really want to receive texts, so I tell my friends to call me if they want to talk to me. I would block texting entirely except it comes in useful for flight-delay updates.

    • David L says

      The problem of access to smartphones is rapidly getting less severe. It’s far from solved, but we are in a hugely better place than we were just a year ago.

      One year ago, you were basically paying $200 down and $80/month with a 2-year contract. Now there are more options. You can get a “free” phone with a $50-$60/month postpaid plan. You can get a $200 unsubsidized phone with a $40 prepaid plan. (It won’t be the greatest on earth, but it will run OBA.) Give it a couple more years, and only the very poorest won’t be able to afford phones that can run these sorts of tools.

      • Bernie says

        Call OneBusAway, enter the stop number and a voice tells you what number bus and when it is coming. Voice, a feature most phones have that hardly anyone seems to realize… Now, if they only still had dials I’d be willing to pay more than $5 a month :=

      • djw says

        When I’m at a huge stop downtown, I almost always call instead of using the app, because you don’t have loading time issues.

      • Nathanael says

        The current prices (in the US) are still completely outrageous. As a price-conscious buyer, I have been avoiding getting a cellphone of any kind as long as possible.

      • David L says

        I don’t think the prepaid prices are outrageous. Phones are rather advanced devices incorporating lots of discrete electronic components — of course the unsubsidized price for them is relatively high. And the prepaid plans are comparable to those in the rest of the world.

        The real challenge is to shift the US to the prepaid, unsubsidized model, the way the rest of the world has been since cell phones became common.

      • Mike Orr says

        The prepaid plans are OK if you never talk more than an hour or two per month. But if you ever reach enough minutes to compare to a monthly plan (e.g., 400 minutes or so), you find you’re paying four times as much per minute as you would have if you’d just gotten the monthly plan.

  10. asdf says

    I recently switched from an Android phone to a Windows Phone and I’ve been disappointed by the lack of attention paid by Bing Maps to multi-modal transportation options.

    For example, you zoom in on a street, you can see where a bus stop is located, but you can’t click the stop to look at the schedule and see when this bus is actually going to come. (In Google Maps for the Android, you could). Then, Bing Maps pretends all bike or pedestrian paths that aren’t accessible to cars don’t exist. For example, if you ask for walking directions from Bothell to Seattle, Bing tells you to walk along highway 522! By contrast, Google recognizes the Burke-Gilman, most other major trails, and even some of the staircases.

    They seem to care very much about making turn by turn driving directions easy to get. But, Microsoft is sending a clear message through their built-in apps that any transportation modes other than driving is a much lower priority.

    Also, the Android platform has a wonderful app called Taxi Magic that I use at least once a month to book rides for trips when I’m in a hurry that transit does a sufficiently poor job of handling. On the Windows Phone, no such app exists as far as I can tell (please correct me if I’m wrong). So, when I want to book a cab, I actually take out my old Android phone and run the app over Wi-Fi.

    I am very much pleased that OneBusAway does work in the Windows Phone and I use it quite frequently. But it doesn’t answer questions like how late a particular bus runs on a given day, which the Android Google Maps client used to do for me.

    Overall, I feel that the experience of the Windows Phone from the perspective of a multi-modal transportation user is significantly inferior to Android. I hope this will change in the future, as the Windows Phone is still a great phone overall. But I guess for this to happen, people have to stop thinking of multi-modal users of Windows phones as edge cases on top of edge cases.

    • asdf says

      I am also disappointed that there is no Zipcar app for the Windows phone, unlike Android and iPhone.

  11. SMP Belltown says

    I guess that I’m an outlieror something, but I used Busview.org for about 9 years, and I was always pleased with its coverage and impressed by its versatility. (It’s a PC-based system). Last week I went to the site to see if there were any routes still being covered after last year’s gutting, and to my surprise there was a moving icon for a #32 bus leaving Fremont for Uptown. The bus arrived at my stop just when Busview indicated it would. I’m still not sure why Busview never seemed to get much respect.

  12. says

    Hi Frank, thanks for covering WhichBus. A couple of clarifications: 1) We are hooked up to King County Metro so a little bit more than just Seattle, but yes, we’re just local for the time being. 2) We’re publishing a fix for intersections this weekend, thanks for the feedback. 3) The iPhone app has JUST been approved by Apple and we’ll be releasing it this weekend! We’re also working on apps for the other major platforms.

  13. says

    Doesn’t plan out your trip but it tells you-most of the time-how many minutes away is the next bus to your stop. I use it to select which route I am going when I can see which bus I can take that is nearest to my stop, or if it already has gone by.



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