How to Go, Part 2: Public Transit Apps

Apple's iPhone is unveiled at a press conference in central London, 18 September 2007. generic AFP/Getty Images

This story was written by CNET's Rafe Needleman.
In July, I wrote a column about products for navigating in a car. Today I'm looking at solutions for public transit.

Google is the most aggressive company in the transit planning business. If you ask Google Maps for directions, by default it will route you by car, but you can also ask it to give you directions for travel on foot or by public transit. In many metro areas, it will even direct you among different transit systems (from a local bus line to a commuter rail system, for example). Google Maps has transit data for 400 cities, many of them outside the U.S.

Google Maps has some tricks up its sleeves, as well. For example, if you click on an icon for a train station, Maps will highlight the train lines running through it.

To get the data that powers the transit routing, Google has also been instrumental in the creation of a standard that transit agencies can use to share information. However, the only data that Google Maps can use today is schedule data. Google doesn't know where trains and buses actually are, and thus can't tell you when you need to really get to the station to catch your transit vehicle - only when you should if the system you're riding respects its timetables. As city dwellers know, on many metro transit systems, timetables are pure fiction.

There's another system that can tell you -- with varying degrees of accuracy -- not when your bus is scheduled to show up at your stop, but when it actually will, based on its actual physical location and a computer system that predicts how long it will take for it to get from where it is to where you are. A company called Nextbus, Inc. collects this data from transit vehicles in a few dozen metro areas in the U.S. and, in addition to shipping the data back to the transit agencies that have contracts with Nextbus, it also makes its predictions available on the Nextbus.com Web site. Nextbus' coverage is patchy, though. In many regions where it has transit coverage, it doesn't have data on all the services. But for many people it's worth a quick look at Nextbus in the morning, before they head out the door to go to work.

Many U.S. city transit systems also have their own Web sites that will help you find your way from point to point. Search for "transit routing" plus your city name (e.g., "transit routing Atlanta") to find the service near you. It's also worth looking at HopStop, a clean app that provides routing in nine U.S. cities, as well as Paris and London. There's an iPhone app for it, too.

Going mobile
But transit data is only of limited use when you're sitting in front of your PC or laptop. The really interesting -- and more useful -- transit apps are the ones you can access from your mobile phone, when you're out there standing in the rain wondering where your ride is.

Nextbus arrival predictions are available via voice and text message in some locations -- visit the Nextbus.com site on your computer to get the access codes. For example, in my town, San Francisco, there's a voice system you can get to via mobile phone by dialing 511. In other regions, you can text message Nextbus and send it a code to get current arrival predictions for a given transit stop.

You can also access Nextbus data from a smartphone with a Web browser. There's a stripped-down mobile version of the site that gets you just the basic prediction data.

A better bet, if you have a smartphone like an Apple iPhone, is to get a dedicated transit app. You might have to pay a few bucks, but for commuters, some of these apps are incredibly useful.

Here in San Francisco, for example, there's Routesy, a straightforward app that will show you arrival time information for any San Francisco MUNI (bus or streetcar) or BART (local rapid transit) vehicle at any stop. The app uses the iPhone GPS data to automatically give you data related to the closest stop by default. The challenge is that the Nextbus data that Routesy uses isn't perfectly reliable, although for some particular bus routes it's better than for others -- commuters learn quickly what data they can trust.

A bumpy ride
San Francisco residents are lucky to have Routesy at all, though, as the app's route to the iPhone was detoured and delayed. In a twisted tale, the app was made available for iPhone users, then it stopped working, then it was pulled from the Apple approved application list, and then, only recently, did it re-emerge, working and Apple-approved. The creator of the app says Nextbus Information Systems -- which is not the same as Nextbus Inc., the company that collects the raw transit data -- claimed it had a license for the prediction data. NBIS managed to convince Apple that the Nextbus app was infringing on its rights, and got the app pulled from the store. It's a convoluted tale and I have not spoken to people on all sides of it, so I do not believe I know enough yet to judge the players in this drama.

What we do know is that this story, in variations, is playing out in metro areas across the country. In New York, for example, the MTA is putting the brakes on the iPhone app StationStops, claiming copyright of the MTA's schedule data.

Routsey, in contrast, only lives on in San Francisco due to an effort by the city to enforce the position that data created by publicly-funded agencies, even if they outsource some operations to private companies (like Nextbus, Inc.), is the public's property.

The drama in other cities: In Chicago, a programmer reverse-engineered the data format from the transit authority there to create new transit apps. In Portland, Oregon, however, openness on the part of the local transit agency has attracted many developers. There are over 25 apps that use the public TriMet data stream, including clever smartphone apps like iNap, which will alert the sleeping transit commuter as he nears his destination. You don't see that kind of loopy but useful app coming from buttoned-down transit agencies.

Heads up
The next step in transit apps is "augmented reality" apps -- programs that let you, essentially, look through a camera-equipped smartphone to see directions and transit information overlaid on the live video of what you're looking at.

AcrossAir makes such apps. Currently there are apps for London and New York subways that overlay information about close-by stops on the live video of what your camera is looking at. The apps only work on the newest iPhone, the 3GS, since it's the only model with a compass in it. Apps like these are likely to proliferate, because they have potential to become not just very useful, but great advertising platforms -- when you're looking at virtual signposts for your local tube stop, you might eventually get a coffee shop ad in your view as well.

Special thanks for Allen Stern, author of the Inside Transit blog, for being a resource for this story.
By Rafe Needleman

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