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  1. Analysis
July 22, 2014

Apps for transport maps: connecting the dots in a complex ecosystem

Smartphone apps are transforming the way we travel, and the transport app eco-system is more fertile than ever. With web giants like Google rubbing shoulders with tiny start-ups to bring digital conveniences to passengers, a number of key trends have emerged in this fascinating market of innovators.

By Chris Lo

transport map app

It all started with smartphones. The flood of smartphones on to the market, and the apps they brought with them, has steadily expanded the internet-enabled options available to train travellers on the go. Today, smartphone app stores have fostered a flourishing ecosystem of public transport information and navigation software for a whole range of purposes, ranging from virtual ticketing to real-time train schedules.

The explosion of public transport apps is contributing to a surge in mass transit use in many countries, as users – especially those in younger, more tech-savvy demographics – make the switch from cars to trains, buses and metro systems, guided by their smartphones.

"As we look to the future, transportation systems – particularly public transit – will be built around the smartphone," American Public Transportation Association chairman Peter Varga told the Washington Post in October 2013, before listing some of the biggest disruptive changes that smartphones are bringing to public transport: "Smartphone charging stations on vehicles, fare collection via smartphones, WiFi, 4G, apps that connect public transit."

On the mapping and navigation front, smartphone apps are swiftly becoming the cement between the bricks and mortar of rail transport, offering increasingly convenient ways to take the guesswork out of navigating rail journeys and onward connections to other transport modes. As the transport app ecosystem continues to blossom, with tiny app developers rubbing shoulders with public transport agencies and web giants such as Google, distinct patterns of competition and co-operation are emerging in this fascinating market, which is turning out to be larger and more diverse than many might have thought possible.

Google Maps: still the king

In many ways, Google has played almost as large a role in the development of transport mapping apps as the smartphone itself. Just as the smartphone has provided a reliable platform on which apps can thrive, the company’s enviable Google Maps software has provided a platform for thousands of public transport agencies around the world to overlay their own data information services through its free Google Maps for Transit partnership programme.

"Google Maps for Transit is a truly innovative marriage of information and infrastructure," said former New York Governor David Paterson. "It is a perfect example of how the public and private sectors can partner together to benefit us all – and it didn’t cost New York taxpayers a penny."

Public transport maps are easy to take for granted but surprisingly difficult to master.

Building on these partnerships, Google is increasingly looking to transform its mapping software into a one-stop shop for transport information on a much wider scale. In May 2014, the company announced the integration of real-time transport information from across the whole of the UK into Google Maps, incorporating a number of user-friendly features. This extension of service from select cities to the entire national transport network is a reminder of Google’s dominance in this area, and the company clearly intends to keep it that way.

"In total, 17,000 different routes across the UK are featured, from Land’s End to John O’Groats," said Google product manager David Tattersall. "You’ll now know when the next trip is departing, how many stops and how far your walk is between each station. You can also pick your preferred method of travel and whether you’d rather walk less or make fewer transfers, so you can compare and choose the best option for you."

Finding a niche: impeccable design sets KickMap apart

Despite Google’s stranglehold on data-integrated mapping, the market for transport navigation apps has proven surprisingly accommodating to a wide range of players, large and small. While Google Maps’ globe-trotting expansion of its transit data services looks set to continue, there is still space for smaller rivals to find and exploit a niche. Different users expect different smartphone experiences depending on their own preferences and the circumstances of their journey.

Some products, such as the aesthetically brilliant KickMap, employ impeccable design to set themselves apart. KickMap takes smart thinking about transit map design and has applied it to complex metro systems like those in New York, London and Washington DC, creating clarity out of chaos. "The best [digital maps] scale the amount of information shown based on the zoom level: a simplified system-wide overview at first, with more and more detail added as you zoom into the map," transit map blogger Cameron Booth told Railway Technology in a recent interview. "I’ve done some beta-testing for the new KickMap London, Washington DC and Chicago iPhone apps, and this is something they implement very well."

For others, the secret is finding the right partner for back-up against the big boys. The developers of the Transit app, which provides real-time train and bus schedules for cities in North America and Europe, partnered with Apple – smarting from the failure of its own mapping software – to get top billing for Transit in the iOS app store, boosting downloads from around a thousand a day to 80,000 in a week.

Hyper-local expertise: Boston app showcase

"Smartphone apps are the cement between the bricks and mortar of rail transport."

Another reliable method of differentiation is to provide a hyper-local service, exploiting local expertise to provide superior features over a small but dense area like a city. This is an opportunity for transit authorities to create more services of their own, but as most are lured by the effective and risk-free option of partnering of Google, the onus generally falls to innovative third-party app developers to fill the void.

Many transit authorities are just as keen to publicise independent local transport apps as their own. In Boston, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) website features an ‘app showcase’ page highlighting dozens of independently developed apps alongside the official MBTA map and e-ticketing app.

Among the featured apps are MATransit developed by Ming Chow, which finds the user’s closest MBTA subway stations and gives the real-time train schedules for each stop; Commuter Alarm from Paper Knife Mobile, a creative alert system that will notify the user to avoid missed stops; and ProximiT by Randy Dailey and Jeff Lopes, which pushes train times to users as they approach their saved stations, without even having to open the app. With this suite of apps designed specifically for local users and transport systems, small-scale developers can provide a cumulative service that is unmatched by the big guns of the market.

Improving accessibility: Colour-blind Tube Map

The ever-expanding roster of transport apps also affords the opportunity to cater to passengers who may have been left out in the past. London-based creative agency 232 Studios and accessibility consultant Ian Hamilton recently partnered to create an app displaying a modified version of London’s colour-intensive Tube Map so that it is legible to those with colour-blindness or other visual impairments.

The app uses strongly contrasting colours and distinctive identifying patterns, along with a range of other options, to make it easy for colour-blind users to understand the Tube Map without having to open a separate PDF file from the official Transport for London website. The app recently won in the Travel & Tourism category at the 2014 UK Mobile & App Design Awards.

According to 232 Studios: "The existing black and white map is actually left over from the time before colour printing became cheaply available, it isn’t actually designed for colour-blindness, so the first enhancement was to produce something that was actually tailored to that audience, that combined colour with pattern to create something ideally suited to people who see in a restricted palette."

Moovit: building ‘crowd wisdom’

Smartphone apps are revolutionising the way we access information for our daily commute – as well as our vacations.

In a post-web 2.0 world, users expect more than to passively receive information; they expect to contribute. Social features have become an incredibly common theme for smartphone apps, and the transport sector is no exception. Taking a cue from community-based traffic app Waze, Israeli start-up Tranzmate launched Moovit in January 2012 as a similarly user-driven navigation app for public transport.

Moovit, which is available in more than 100 cities around the world, works on the power of the crowd, with users contributing anonymous data on the location and speed of their train or bus to create a live map. More active users can contribute reports on the service they’re using, alerting other passengers to overcrowded carriages, service-delaying accidents or even geographical inaccuracies on the map itself.

Tranzmate is now trying to build on the mass of data supplied by its users – generated from half a billion reports per month, according to founder and CEO Nir Erez – and announced in December 2013 that it had raised $28m to improve the ways in which it uses that data.

"We’re working now to try and advance our ability to locate the exact location of users while they are using the subway, especially because of the fact that subways are so important," Erez told tech site Gigaom in December. "Moovit provides directions, but there’s a lot of work that we’re doing on different kinds of sensors even if it isn’t an accurate GPS location."

Follow Chris Lo on Google+

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