There's an App for That

There's an App for That

// How Smartphone Tech is a Game-Changer for Transit Users

About a decade ago, one of my posts on social media got tens of thousands of shares. In the variety of forms I've posted it since then, it's achieved near-viral status.

"Forget about the hyperloop, robotaxis (or whatever the flavor-of-the-week future transport mode is)...

The real future of urban transport is:

21st century communications (smartphones, apps, GPS)

19th century technology (subways, wheelchairs, streetcars, buses, bicycles)

and age-old transport: walking."

Here's how it looked on the, ahem, platform formerly known as Twitter:

The main idea, for me, is that planning apps, helped by transponders on buses, subways, and trains, have been making the transit-riding experience a lot smoother. When you know when a bus or train is coming, a lot of the guesswork about riding transit disappears—you're not always peering down the street, or towards some point on the horizon, hoping against hope the city bus is going to appear. You can time your movements better, and maybe spend less time in the rain or cold or glaring sunlight (depending on where you happen to live).

One app in particular has changed my relationship with transit.

This summer, I spent a few days doing research in the northern Italian city of Bologna. This historic university town has no urban rail network to speak of, so without a bicycle or rental car, I had to rely on its trolley bus system. With a few exceptions—Tokyo comes to mind—metro systems are easier than bus networks for visitors to master: after a couple of minutes studying the lines on the map, you can quickly figure out which station to get off at. Buses are more daunting: I’m never quite sure if I’ve gotten on the right one, or if it’s going to lurch into a sidestreet and take a detour that will drop me off in some forlorn industrial district.

Though it was my first time in Bologna, I simply walked up to a stop, took out my smartphone, and called up the app, which not only showed me the route of the bus that would take me to my destination, but also showed me how many blocks away the next bus was, how crowded it was, and when, down to the minute, it was going to arrive. I arrived on time for my interviews that week, and saw sides of the city most visitors never get to see.

I had a similar experience in Saskatoon last autumn. When I arrived at the airport, I considered joining the taxi queue. But when I checked my smartphone, I saw that a downtown-bound bus was arriving in a quarter of an hour. That gave me time to wait inside the terminal—sparing me a few minutes of prairie chill—but also to realize that the same app allowed me to purchase and display a single-ride ticket. The bus arrived on time, I showed the driver my three-dollar ticket, and disembarked at a stop a couple of blocks from my hotel, thus saving the organizers of the talk I was giving a $24 taxi bill.

The app has also changed my day-to-day transit experience for the better. The bus closest to our family’s apartment in Montreal is the 161, which has an uncanny knack for flashing past at the top of the street when we’re just a little too far away to make a dash for the stop. Last time we rode it, though, I located a green-and-white icon on my phone’s homescreen, and saw that the next bus was eight stops away. That left my sons ten minutes to climb trees and hang from monkeybars in the mini-park next to the stop before the bus pulled up. Thirty seconds before it arrived, I noticed a man in his twenties saunter out of a nearby apartment, glance at his phone, and then step aboard, as smoothly as if he’d ordered an Uber or a taxi. He was clearly an old hand at optimizing route-planning apps.

In many North American cities, transit ridership has struggled to regain pre-pandemic levels. (Montreal, which also has one of the highest percentages of people who say they wouldn’t use a car even if money were no object, is a notable exception.) With more people working at home, and downtowns hollowing out—rather dramatically in San Francisco and Portland—transit agencies can no longer count on the standard residence-to-downtown commute, with its predictable and lucrative morning and afternoon peaks. Some cities are experiencing a “transit death spiral,” where declining ridership drives less-frequent service, leading many people to switch to private cars.

In this bleak landscape, the recent rise of route-planning apps is a bright spot. Google has long allowed users to plan transit trips on its Maps app. The British-based company Citymapper and the Israeli-developed Moovit (which is allied with the navigation app Waze, intended for car drivers) also offer smartphone-optimized transit planning apps.

But my go-to app—the one that served me so well in Bologna and Saskatoon, and that I rely on at home—is the Transit App, whose simple and robust interface quickly answers the question closest to the heart of many long-suffering transit users: When the hell is the next streetcar, train, or bus going to arrive?

The company’s global HQ turns out to be located just around the corner from my office, on the eighth-floor of a former shmatta-industry complex, in the Mile-End neighborhood. (Montreal is also home to Giro, which sells scheduling software in 29 countries, and Busbud, which allows users to plan inter-city bus trips, and is located in the same building as Transit.) Showing me around the loft-like workspace, Stephen Miller, Transit’s “policy lead,” said the company currently had 65 employees, but high demand from transit agencies meant they’d soon be expanding into neighboring offices.

My current options, including bikeshare. As you can see, I work in a transit-rich environment!

In a conference room, co-founders Sam Vermette and Guillaume Campagna explained how the app was born. When he was still in college, Campagna, who grew up in the east end neighborhood of Villeray, wanted to build a simple app for the newly-launched iPhone that would display a schedule of upcoming arrivals for any bus stop in Montreal. He built a “scraper,” a program that collected and collated all the information on the website of the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM). Vermette, who grew up in the West Island, rode buses to get to the Université de Montréal, where he was studying industrial design, and came to rely on the simple app Campagna had developed.

“I thought it was great,” Vermette said, “but with geolocation I knew it could be so much better.”

Their timing was excellent. Transit agencies, starting with Portland, Oregon’s TriMet, were inviting app developers to work with schedule data using an open-source standard known as GTFS, or “General Transit Feed Specification,” which has since become an industry norm. They decided to work together to produce a more sophisticated version of the Transit App, drawing on freely-available GTFS information. “We had a big stroke of luck,” explains Campagna. “Apple decided to drop Google Maps from the iPhone, and Apple Maps didn’t have a transit planning feature back then. Apple asked us to build a trip planner, and add a bunch of cities in time for the launch in September of 2012.” The app was free, but users could pay for premium features, and a Montreal-based venture capital fund provided the start-up money.

Transit now serves 300 cities, mostly in Canada and the United States, but with a significant presence in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and such populous Latin American metropolises as Buenos Aires and Mexico City. It’s been so successful that many cities have quietly retired their own trip-planning apps and let Transit fill the gap. Vermette and Campagna put regular users in the tens of millions, with up to one in three transit riders in some major cities relying on the app every day. Revenue comes from Royale, their $5-a-month premium service, and a share of ticketing revenue from smaller cities like Saskatoon (bigger cities are increasingly allowing riders to tap-on to buses and subways with credit cards). They’ve also “gamified” the app, awarding points and trophies for assiduous riders of certain lines.

I noticed that Vermette had a sticker reading “Cars Ruin Cities” on his laptop, and asked if his interest in transit was driven by environmental convictions. “I’ve never owned a car,” he replied. “We have two kids, and we mostly get around by cargo-bike, even in the winter.” Campagna adds: “We look at it like this: if something makes car-free living easier, we include it in the app.” In Montreal, in addition to transit information, users are offered options for rideshare, taxis, Communauto (a made-in-Quebec carshare system), and Bixi, its bikeshare network, which this year started operating in the winter months.

As a transit rider, though, the app’s appeal for me is simple: it allows real-time tracking of vehicles currently on the road. Throughout the 2010s, transit agencies gradually started adding GPS transponders to their buses, and sharing the location-tracking pings with app developers. Incredibly, the Transit App even indicates how crowded a bus is, thanks to passenger counters or, in some cities, sensors that measure the weight of the vehicles. Vermette explains that the app is also helping some agencies improve service: in San Francisco, for example, users can report dirty or damaged bus shelters. By using the “Go” button when you board, the app tracks and reports on your progress, providing information on detours and further boosting the app’s accuracy.

“I’m a big fan of the Transit App,” says Jarrett Walker, the Portland-based author of the book Human Transit, and an in-demand consultant who has helped redesign the bus networks of Miami and Houston. “I use it all over the world; it’s kind of my default. For a variety of reasons, transit, especially buses, can’t always run meticulously to schedule. Real-time information has made it possible to plan around what the service is actually doing rather than what the service is supposed to be doing. And in the post-Covid world, transit ridership is increasingly going to be occasional ridership, which means people are going to be more likely to look up a route they’re navigating for the first time.”


There's only one app I've seen that surpasses Transit App. It's the SBB App, offered by Switzerland's national railway service. I used it during a six-week stay in the canton of Vaud in 2022, and I was blown away. Using the EasyRide feature, you confirm your current location, then pick your destination. You swipe right when you get to the train station (or board the train), and it automatically calculates the cheapest available fare. If an inspector comes by, you show the app. When you finish your trip, which can of course involve a few connections, you swipe left, the trip ends, and your credit card gets charged via the app. Even if you forget to swipe, the GPS figures out you’ve stopped moving on a train and charges accordingly. It even works on regional bus, tram, and ferry systems.

Now, no app (not even a Swiss one!) can substitute for robust and reliable transit service. Many cities in Asia and Latin America offer Bus Rapid Transit, where buses operate like subways on the street, running at high frequencies in dedicated lanes; in such cities as Guangzhou, Bogotá, and Istanbul, you never need to glance at your phone, because another bus is always on the way. Ambitious transit expansions are in the works in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, but in too many cities in North America, the frequency, reliability, and span of bus service remains decidedly sparse. In the midst of a climate crisis, planning apps add an empowering tool to the kit of those determined to rein in their share of pollution and congestion.

And, as a parent, I’m grateful that the Transit App allows me to answer the all-too-familiar question, “Dad, when’s the bus coming?” with the confident response: “Right about…now.”

(Parts of this post appeared in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on March 16, 2024. Many people weren't able to read it, because of the paywall. This post is free—but I'll hope you'll consider becoming a subscriber, which will give you access to all Straphanger posts, past and present.)

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