Transit Apps vs Transit Maps

* Note: this was cross-posted to Invision Creative

App Vs Mapp

The city of Calgary’s transit agency is working on updating its website, the first rebuild in over a decade. And while the current website has a trip planner, there are complaints that it’s out of date or fails altogether. As part of the redesign, Calgary Transit plans to integrate Google’s transit functionality into their planner. This new site won’t be launched until later this year, but Calgary is already one of the more than 60 Canadian agencies that are providing transit data to Google.

In Canada and in many other parts of the world, Google has become a major player in public transit, both for service providers and riders. By developing a common format for transit data (GTFS) and encouraging public access to this information, agencies can quickly share information for both their own use and for third-party developers. For a transit customer, Google Maps provides instantly accessible data on a multitude of devices with a universally familiar user interface.

Though many agencies still use transit-specific software for providing customers with maps and schedules (such as HASTUS or Trapeze), it’s becoming increasingly common to see Google Transit integrated in some way for the public.

With the proliferation of smart phones, a transit user can also skip dealing with a website altogether and find their way around town with an app. Nothing beats the convenience of being able to plan a trip from anywhere you’re standing. Some agencies have their own apps, but, once again, Google Maps has their own app with transit data integrated (with the added bonus of being able to plan alternate modes of transportation such as cycling). Other transit specific apps are available that provide support for multiple agencies (which can be useful if you travel a lot) or more transit-specific functionality. Transit is one such app, with features such as real-time vehicle tracking, a nearby route locator, and support for over 60 regions worldwide.

Instant transit data is available anywhere you can get an internet connection, so is there still room in this world for the printed map?

A big piece of folded-up paper seems about as relevant today as hauling around a Discman or a roll of film. Updates are infrequent. For the directionally challenged, location services aren’t available. And planning a trip via printed timetables can be akin to writing a Master’s thesis about filing tax forms for a moon landing. But despite the numerous advantages of digital navigation, print maps remain vital to a transit agency.

  1. Digital information isn’t everywhere
    Last year, 57% of Canadians owned a smartphone. While that number is above the global average, it still means more than four out of 10 Canadians can’t be accessing data via a handheld device. Whether it’s a matter of income level or comfort with technology, printed maps will continue to be important to those who can’t – or won’t – own a smartphone. Even if users aren’t carrying a folded up piece in their pocket, there are still station diagrams, vehicle interior maps, neighbourhood wayfinding, schedule leaflets, and many other applications to consider. Additional tools to navigate a system can appeal to a wider audience.
  2. See the whole system
    Google Maps and other mapping software and trip planners are great for viewing how to get from point A to point B. But to get a sense of a transit system in its entirety, it’s far easier to see a full network laid out on a physical map. While Transit does show nearby routes, you can still only display one route at a time on a map. If you want to see, say, every route from one station, it’s far easier to trace this on a well designed print piece. A good system map is particularly useful to people new to a city and unfamiliar with their surroundings.
  3. Reduce clutter, improve clarity
    How good transit map is depends on its intended usage. A schedule leaflet might just show one route, in detail, to help people along that route find out where is the closest bus stop. A full network system map might show hundreds of bus routes or dozens of metro lines. As the amount of information on a map increases, it gets harder and harder to decipher a network. With a complex network, it’s best to use a map that’s more diagrammatic and less topographical. Removing cruft helps highlight what’s important: routes and destinations. Care must be taken though; remove too much information and a map can become unhelpful or unfriendly. A printed map allows an agency to decide exactly what to display. Digital solutions rarely allow this level of control.
  4. A brand opportunity
    A brand can be integrated into a transit map, or a transit map can even be the brand itself. Some transit maps have become icons. The London Underground map is famous around the world and often used as an element in many other design pieces – from annual reports to advertising to construction signage. Massimo Vignelli’s New York City map is in the Museum of Modern Art. Though it might be just a fraction of a transit system’s overall revenue, there is also money to be made in licensing map designs. New York City and London both make over $1 million annually with map-related merchandise. Just last week, Toronto opened an online store for TTC merchandise which includes a vintage poster of their earliest subway map. Transit maps are an excellent opportunity to show off design, and good design can help attract more riders.

Transit apps are incredibly convenient. With technology improving and better information accessibility, their usage will continue to increase (at least until the next big tech gimmick). But well-designed, well-thought-out maps remain vital to the success of a transit agency.


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