For years and years, I got around via the city bus and a trusty paper SF Muni system map tucked into my messenger bag. When I needed to know what alternate routes were nearby, I could just reference my map; and when it started falling apart, I could just pick up another one for $3. But something my paper map could never pull off was telling me precisely how long I would have to wait before my bus came. Or what restaurants were along the route.
Now, I love a paper map as much as the next cartophile, but these days Google Maps helps me find my way. And there are more and more specialized apps for public transit coming to more and more cities across the globe. If you're looking to upgrade your public transit maps, check out these five free apps for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 that will help you navigate public transportation options. Now if only there were an app that explained public transit etiquette....
Available for over 45 major U.S. cities and metropolitan areas, Lumatic City Maps is slick and intuitive with some cool additional features that would be great when traveling to a new city or neighborhood. Upon opening the app, the initial screen displays a list of nearby transit routes, so with just two taps on your phone you can see scheduled departure times of various transit options near you.
In addition to the standard map view, Lumatic also offers a "stream view" with actual photos of main points along your route so it's stupidly easy to orient yourself (and find points of interest located nearby). Rather than selecting the transit tab at the top of the app, select the places tab which is a pretty fun discovery feature--even for your home city. The places tab shows you a list of everything from restaurants to local businesses and historical landmarks, including summaries and reviews aggregated from Facebook, Yelp, and Foursquare.
This is an app ideal for people like me who take public transportation everywhere, all the time and need to know when their bus, train, or ferry is coming, like right now. Roadify doesn't try to be a tourism app--it's robust and focused on delivering straight-up, real-time, official transit schedules and service alerts from all providers in the area alongside updates crowdsourced from fellow commuters via Twitter. You can quickly select the route you want and see the next five departure times in the direction of your choice.
You can also save favorite routes and stops for quick access, report delays, and search for nearby parking (an odd addition for a public transit app but handy nonetheless) all with just a couple of taps. The routing tool works fine for a specific address, or for public landmarks like parks, but does not recognize destinations such as restaurants by name. Right now it covers 8 major metropolitan areas including New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, but they are expanding and offer users the opportunity to suggest new cities.
The smiley face map pin icon for Moovit is totally appropriate as this user-friendly app features crowdsourced user reports on cleanliness, crowd levels, driver rankings, and more. It's packed with transit info for many international metropolitan areas from Perth to Paris, and 12 major U.S. cities. The in-app map also displays icons for nearby restaurants, points of interest, parking, and even ATMs. While at first glance the visual cues on the map may seem cluttered or overwhelming, once you've adjusted to them it's clear that all the details are purposeful and helpful.
You can filter your search by type of transit (bus, rail, metro, cable car, ferry), by fastest route, or fewest transfers; you can also tap on the transit stops on the map to see all routes traveling though that location and watch a tiny bus icon indicating your next ride's live progress toward your stop. If you choose the navigation option on your trip, Moovit will track your progress and alert you when to get off the bus, which is a pretty cool feature and especially useful on unfamiliar routes--and you don't have to have your nose in your phone the whole trip (although you do have to keep the app open). The app also lists all the stops along a route, so you can see how quickly yours is coming up. Moovit users can recommend alternate routes and lines if there's a better route, helping the app to provide better results for everyone.
You can't go wrong with iNextBus, the app version of the trusty NextBus.com website. It's a simple, reliable, real-time transit tracker that can tell you the departure times of nearby transit at a glance. Admittedly, aesthetically it's nothing to write home about, but it is very good at what it does and it couldn't be easier to use.
Available for a slew of U.S. and Canadian cities, the app provides all the same options and information--mainly an accurate estimation of the arrival time of buses at the specific stop you choose. It's a little quicker than accessing the NextBus.com website on your mobile browser, and has the added bonus of showing you multiple nearby routes at a glance. However, there are few bells and whistles here: no trip planner, no nearby restaurant or business information, and no information on crowd levels. This one's for the public transit pros, but it does include a map that shows all the stops along the route and your bus' GPS location, which is decently helpful.
The only transit app that was available for all mobile platforms, HopStop is seriously robust and covers a whopping 600+ U.S. and international cities. The trip planner is smart and fast--it recognized many destinations that others didn't--and it provides several transit routes as well as a taxi option with estimated fare and the ability to hail a cab via poundtaxi.com with one tap. A station map pinpoints up to nine stops in your immediate vicinity, which is helpful.
Some features are only available on certain versions of the app, however. For example, the Android version of the app doesn't display Muni Bus schedules (but does provide Muni Metro schedules). Likewise, transit maps were provided for BART services in the San Francisco Bay Area, but there were no maps for the Muni lines and transit advisories were only available for NYC Subways (again, in the Android version). It is also ad-supported but the banner is tiny and unobtrusive. This is a great app for people who travel to a variety of cities, and also features a live feed of information and feedback on the bus submitted by users--you can add your own report as well.