King County’s media relations launched a full-court press to publicize the launch of their new Trip Planner app last week. Many people found it a surprising misallocation of resources given the underlying data problems. But how good is the app?

To this user of OneBusAway for his real-time data and Google Maps for his trip planning, the interface is (for the most part) pretty good, not noticeably better or worse than the alternatives. It adds some functions that don’t have a good mobile alternative. But the application is still hamstrung by a back end with deep technical flaws.

The Trip Planner App integrates four different functions: a trip planner (obviously), route schedules, real-time bus arrival, and Metro alerts. I’ll take them each in turn.

1) Trip Planner. Google Maps starts with a map, and there are a few additional taps to bring out transit and call up any time rather than right now. Trip Planner takes you right to the appropriate screen with Start, End, and time inputs. However — and this is crucial — it is much worse than Google at taking a random place name (e.g., “Facebook”) and turning it into a usable location. And only some of the screens replace internal route numbers (Link is the “599”) with their commonly known names.

Screenshot_2015-01-15-10-31-57What about the algorithm? The regional trip planning algorithm has longstanding, well-documented problems with nonsensical results, and my spot checking suggests that hasn’t changed. To get a taste of it, I asked Trip Planner to plan my evening commute from Lower Queen Anne to just west of the Columbia City Link station. Any sentient human would take any of a series of buses downtown and transfer to Link the rest of the way. Google Maps actually passed this little mini-Turing Test.

Trip Planner’s result encouraged me to say on the 33/27 and switch to the 8. This is because the path that involved Link is slower, and shown at right.

Getting off Link and switching to the 50 is crazy, but after checking the default Trip Planner settings, my home is actually more than the default 0.40 mile maximum walk from the Station. The settings force me to transfer to a bus anyway, so these results are at least understandable.

Screenshot_2015-01-15-10-25-27I tried again with a larger permitted walk. It again preferred the “faster” all-bus option, and the reasons are, uh, less encouraging (and depicted at left). Whatever algorithm it is that expects me to take Link from downtown to Othello, get out, and then backtrack one stop to Columbia City deserves to go to the scrap heap.

Verdict: Stick with Google Maps.

2) Route Schedules. This is what you need that you may not currently have. Metro’s existing schedule web pages are not mobile-friendly. The Transit App also does this in a somewhat different, but intuitive way.

The app is also tailored to show two different timepoints in column form, which makes it very easy to see your options. Bravo.

3) Next Departures. This is the direct competition for OneBusAway, and some of the interface differences are a matter of taste. Trip Planner brings up a list of nearby stops without forcing you to load a slow map, which has its advantages. It also has the ability to easily display arrivals for a time in the future, which is pretty nifty if you know you’re 10 minutes away from a stop.

On the other hand, there’s no way to filter routes, and as far as I can tell there’s no way to use the map to jump to stops that aren’t in your immediate vicinity. And this is built on the same flawed data feed as OBA, so various accuracy problems persist.

Trip Planner also doesn’t integrate Uber and Pronto like the TransitApp does, which makes little difference to me but may for others. TransitApp’s intriguing interface does a better job of integrating trip planning and real-time functions for people with less system knowledge and more focus on the right now.

I can see a case where a few minor improvements might make this better than OBA, but there even fewer changes necessary to make OBA the perfect real-time app. For now, I’m sticking with OneBusAway.

4) Alerts. This part of the app feels most incomplete; it just launches a browser instance pointing to Metro’s alerts page, which is unfriendly even on a desktop. I don’t understand why the Metro webpage can’t link each route page to the alerts specific to that route.

****

Trip Planner is a decent app that could become a great one. If you’re trying to reduce your home screen clutter then this is a single app that could do that for you, although in many respects it’s inferior to alternatives. Personally, I’m going to keep it handy to look up schedules, but it won’t change my habits for trip planning or real-time information.

38 Replies to “A Review of the New Trip Planner App”

  1. I have heard from visually impaired co-workers and friends that the new app is NOT fully compliant with the standards for this sort of thing, and that is a major and offensive problem for a government institution.

  2. Why didn’t they just dump resources and cash into One Bus Away and work to partner up in other ways?

    Why create a wholly new app and cause a fork? It seems so stupid and wasteful. A better play and smarter one would be to recruit the people who know what they are doing for each component already, bring them, and merge them into a team that can do this together.

    Less solo, more Avengers.

  3. Anyone know why the walking limit caps out at a mile? I would walk further if it would get me there faster.

    1. I’ve complained about this regarding the trip planner for Metro, to no avail (or, for that matter, response). How hard would it be to have a 1.25 and 1.5 mile setting available? Is it so crazy to think the percentage of the population willing to walk 1-1.5 miles if doing so saves time is so small as to be entirely negligible?

    2. This limitation is imposed by the backend trip planning engine (ATIS) that King County purchased from Trapeze. The software has a hard limit of 1 mile when looking for solutions.

  4. Wait I’m a little confused by the article. Did King County create it’s own, new transit app? If so, is is available yet? Or did they partner w/ this transitapp.org link in the article? Which by my guess has been around for a little bit looking at the cities it supports.

    1. Yes, King County did. It’s called “Trip Planner”, as the title clearly indicates. Transitapp is something else.

      1. Thank you for the link. Adding the link would’ve helped distinguish the difference, since the only link in the artilce is for TransitApp.org. Also, since a function of this new Trip Planner app is, well Trip Planner which is also a function of the KC Metro site tripplanner.kingcounty.gov.

  5. All trip planner algorithms seem to try to create 3 distinct trip options, rather than repeating the only rational trip choice. In the example above, the trip planner should always show you the nearest Bus –> Link connection as #1, the next Link train 10 minutes later as #2, and the one 10 minutes after that for #3. It might technically be faster to ride the 33 to 27 to 8 or whatever rather than wait for later Link trains, but most people would take the Occamite route and go with less trip complexity and higher reliability that a service like Link offers.

    1. The weirdest examples are those that create “3 distinct options” using the very same vehicles, but with nominally different transfer points. Nonsense.

      Discussions like this make me relieved to be a “visual” rather than “narrative” thinker when it comes to spatial memory and wayfinding. I will always prefer to locate myself and my potential paths on an internally-rendered map, and to dispense with the “this-then-this-then-this” linearity inherent in these fallible trip planners.

      Can’t stand narrative GPS in a car, either. I want a map, and to be able to visualize my destination upon it.

    2. Well, Bing maps sometimes gives me three of the same choice, but I usually consider that a bug and drop to Nokia / google.

  6. Whatever algorithm it is that expects me to take Link from downtown to Othello, get out, and then backtrack one stop to Columbia City deserves to go to the scrap heap.

    Google maps will sometimes ask you to backtrack as well. It really pays to look closely at results these things put out and verify it makes sense. I’ve sent in feedback on the most recent incident of this I encountered, but there have been times that it produced a madcap unnecessary loop to my trip, involving taking the Amtrak Thruway bus to Astoria, local transit to Kelso, and the Coast Starlight to finish the loop.

    One thing that happens with these is the “minimize walk” function can get out of hand. For example, around 2003 or 2004 TriMet’s trip planner would send someone on an hour long detour the person had the “least amount of walking” option selected and the system saw that it could save 20 feet of walking by using the bus route headed the other direction on the other side of the street. This may still be an issue but I make sure that box isn’t checked to avoid this.

    So, always verify the results before considering them believable.

  7. Good to know about the quick-access complete schedules. That is likely to be the only valid use for Metro’s new app for the foreseeable future.

  8. As for uses for Metro’s app compared to others, I assume it’s got Community Transit data, like the Metro and ST web planners do, and OBA and Google and Transit App and others don’t, which might make it useful for people that spend time in Snohomish County.

  9. It seems like TransitApp does everything except alerts in this app, but better. It even lets you choose favorite routes and it remembers which way you’re most likely to travel. When I’m at home, it shows the 49 toward the U District as the first bus. When I’m at work (at UW) it shows the 49 toward downtown via broadway as the first bus. It has trip planning, it has next departures, it has route schedules. It doesn’t depend on the map or choosing the right stop, and it’s easy and intuitive to look at the next several departures and to move the map and see departures for different stops. It includes bike shares too if that’s your thing. it kind of changed my life…

    I am a big supporter of king county metro, but I have to join the group that’s disappointed that resources have been put into an app when there is at least one option that already does all those things.

    1. I’m glad that TransitApp is working for you. It’s not my cup of tea but it’s a matter of taste.

    2. I think it is anunfortunate trend among many organizations that they think they need to develop an app when all they really need is a better mobile interface to what they have on their web site.

      It’s hard for me to imagine this thing storing and processing these plans entirely offline.

    1. I have found the TransitApp to be frustrating to use in Seattle, especially anywhere within 1.5 miles of downtown.

      This isn’t precisely the app designers’ fault, but their chosen method of displaying every possible route within a certain radius, rather than sorting by departure time or stop location or indicators of a route’s usefulness (such as frequency), interfaces uniquely awfully with Metro’s “legacy complexity” network. Between the density of overlapping routes, the plethora of part-time routes and outlier trips (like the one or two surface runs for tunnel routes), and the excessive stop density that is the bastard child of the first two problems, TransitApp’s real-time screen is just a jumble of irrelevant and unhelpful information, no matter how well or how poorly you are versed in Metro’s system structure.

      By contrast, I find TransitApp both intuitive and indispensable for navigating Vancouver TransLink, especially at night or when short on time. The orderliness of that city’s route structure seems to make all the difference.

      And in Boston, where network complexity is extremely minimal, both inherently (as a result of density) and by design, TransitApp’s quick and orderly results are as good or better than any of the myriad homegrown, MBTA-specific apps.

      Seattle is the only place I’ve tried TransitApp where it mostly fails to provide value. Thank god we have an existing app designed by people who knew Metro’s unique faults, and which sets of information accessed in which manner could help mitigate them.

      1. (But again, I’m looking for the “give me imminent departure” data, rather than for “trip planning” in the laborious-narrative sense.)

      2. Doesn’t favorites and the search bar help address the two primary concerns you had with The Transit App?

      3. Not if you care about going more than a couple of places in the course of your daily activities.*

        Also not if your muddled transit system offers six options to get where you want to go, each as mediocre as the next, but with your roll-the-dice best choice likely to shift on the basis of real-time data.**

        *(Something easily enabled by real transit, yet apparently foreign to those for whom Metro is all they’ve ever known.)

        **(Fragmentation and complexity strike again.)

    2. Google Maps can provide better live trip planning if KCM makes the data available in GTFS-realtime format. San Fransico and other cities already have it.

  10. I use a windows phone, and use the built in map directions or “Here Transit” for figuring out which bus to take to get me somewhere. Does this new transit app work on windows phones?

    Here’s one more vote to have them spend money on making the data good and in a good format so that the independent app infrastructure can develop good apps.

  11. Please try Funlidays app for plan your next trip. Funlidays is a trip planner that helps you to plan your trip and enjoy your vacation. Easy to organize your trips, find attractions and get directions. Funlidays has thousand of destinations. You can explore all the attractions that you are interested in and simply add it to the trip planner. Funlidays will help you to organize schedules, routes and present you those information.
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      1. There are many kinds of travel apps. If you want to find flights you can try SkyScanner or Expedia. Funlidays is a trip planner that help you to plan your trip itinarary. thanks.

      2. Wait, did the spambot actually reply to me?

        Or is “Willie” a real, live, human spammer with no sense of the irrelevance of his promoted app to the topic in question?

  12. While it may guess generally the direction I most often travel, I am frustrated by not seeing any immediate method of looking at transit in the other direction. I use the transit in my area to travel in both directions. OBA allows to choose the stop and direction and therefore is very useful. I wish this transit app listed all the buses in the area for both directions given its current design. I realize that of course you could bother with the trip planner to get the information on the other direction but it seems a waste of time when OBA will let me see what is up via map.

  13. I’ve been playing with the King County Metro app too and while most of your review is pretty good I feel you failed to mention a couple cool features. For example, the Alerts from the main menu actually has the links to all the individual transit agency rider alerts pages. Granted a full integration within the app functions would be ideal, I think we all know the complexities with just one agency’s data, let alone all across the region. I think it’s a helpful feature for what it’s worth. A one-stop shop so to speak. It would be nice if all agencies had mobile friendly sites though. The other really cool feature is in Next Departures. You can see the actual real time vehicle location on the map for a specific route!! Next Departures gives you the Scheduled and Estimated (real time) departures for a selected stop, then if you click View Map it shows the stop with the real time list now in left-to-right scrolling boxes along the bottom. If you select one of those boxes that has Est time available, it draws the route trace and displays the vehicle icon for the bus location! I’ve found that really awesome and helpful. I see the need for some design work and maybe decrease the amount of clicks to get to that feature, but really cool for now. Just my 2 cents.

  14. Thanks for the review. However, some of us aren’t knowledgeable enough to follow 100%. It would be helpful to have a table comparing the features of some of the major apps that are out there. For instance, I’ve been using OBA for a long time, but I’m not as familiar with the others, other than by name. Your article here helps a little. I do know that the agency up north has been sinking millions of taxpayer dollars into their own app for a couple of years now-it was featured on the back of their bus schedule book in 2013 (on the verge of being released, but still hasn’t), they spent money on that instead of using that money to stave off the painful cuts in service that they had just made. It didn’t make sense to have a separate app, inconveniencing customers to have to jump back and forth between apps. Recently, I was emailed about there being a beta test, but never saw the app. Of course, that same place also made the questionable expense of putting taxpayer money into making a video to try to get people-which ones are beyond me-to ride transit, thus priorities are a question for me.

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