Thoughts On Transit In Apple Maps

(This article has been updated several times since I first wrote it. See the list of updates at the end.)

As you might recall from some of my earlier writing, I ride transit a lot. Now that I’m no longer working from home every day, I’m back to riding transit to work four or five days a week. I also have Apple devices, including MacBooks and iOS gadgets. And, like many people, I’m increasingly weirded out by Google (or Alphabet or some Venn diagram thereof) tracking everything everywhere, so I’m trying to avoid Google Maps.

So it’s nice that, for the first time since Apple punted Google Maps from iOS and built their own Maps app, that app will include transit directions, starting in a handful of major cities with the imminent OS X El Capitan and iOS 9 releases. The Washington, DC area, where I live, is one of the launch cities for transit in Apple Maps, as are many places I visit often, have visited recently, or will visit soon: Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Toronto, and San Francisco. (I’m hoping other places I seem to end up at least once a year, like Boston and Portland, will be added in future releases.)

I’ve been running the El Capitan and iOS 9 public betas for a few months, so I’ve seen a bit of how this was going to work, but New York was the only city that was live during the beta phase. The rest of the launch cities are now live, so I’ve had an opportunity to see how this is really going to work when it goes live for everyone who doesn’t live in New York.

The Interface: Google Maps and similar apps have defined the expected UI for transit routing already, and Apple Maps doesn’t deviate much from it. You enter your start and finish points, choose from a few route options, and get on your way. Where available, tapping a stop/station in the map will bring up a list of which routes stop there and estimated arrival times. One thing missing compared to some competitors is the option to specify more/less walking, fewer transfers, or to prefer buses/trains/light rail/etc. That’s not an option I used often in other apps, but some people might miss it.

Transit System Coverage: Coverage for different transit options in the launch cities is pretty comprehensive. In DC, you have Metrorail, Metrobus, Circulator, Ride On, ART, Fairfax Connector, DASH, PRTC, MTA commuter buses, RTA (former Howard Transit/Connect-A-Ride), MARC, VRE, and the DC Streetcar. In Baltimore, you’ve got the Metro Subway, Light Rail, MTA local buses, and Charm City Circulator. Of the list of agencies accepting smartcards in DC and Baltimore, that’s only missing Loudoun Transit, CUE, and TheBus.

Looking at other cities, Philadelphia has all of SEPTA’s services, plus PATCO. New York has all of MTA’s buses and subways, LIRR, Metro-North, PATH, the Staten Island Ferry and SI Railway, and NY Waterway. In between, all of NJ Transit’s local buses, light rail, and commuter rail look to be available. Chicago has the L, CTA and Pace buses, and Metra. The Bay Area has BART, Muni metro, all of the local bus systems, VTA light rail, Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay ferries, Caltrain, and (yes, even) the cable cars. In Toronto, all of the TTC buses, subways, and streetcars are there, as are GO Transit trains and buses; I’m told many of the regional operators in the Toronto area are there too, but I didn’t look. Airport trains at JFK, EWR, and SFO are also included.

If one of the reasons Apple took this long to add transit info to Maps is because they wanted to be sure it was a comprehensive offering, they’ve succeeded. They’ve included nearly everything a transit rider would ride in the launch cities.

Nomenclature: With one exception (which I’ll get to shortly), Apple has also identified each station with the logo of the agency offering it, and the same names and colors the agencies use. For instance, BART stations are shown with the “ba” logo, and the lines are colored the same as on the official BART map, but because no one in the City calls BART lines by those colors, Apple Maps doesn’t either. SEPTA uses different logos for the Market-Frankford Line and the Broad Street Line, and so does Apple Maps. Even the bus stop symbols are colored much like the agencies that run them (gray with red stripes for Metrobus, gold for MTA buses based on the flag logo, etc.)

The one exception is that Metrorail lines are identified properly by color, but not by the abbreviations that Metro uses. Apple Maps uses single letters: R for red, O for orange, etc. Metro uses double letters: RD for red, OR for orange, etc. This has the potential to be confusing for visitors who want to know when the next “B train” is. However, I don’t think this is a huge deal because Apple did get the colors right, and everyone calls the lines by colors instead of the double-letter abbreviations.

Map Display: Before starting a trip, you can view a map with rail lines highlighted (but not buses, because that would be way too busy to be useful.) When in transit mode, streets and roads that are not likely to be relevant (such as freeways) are dimmed, as are highway route numbers. Street names are still shown, since you’ll likely need to know which street you walk down after you get off transit. Overall, it’s a pretty useful view.

One thing Apple highlighted in their demonstrations is that they show the layout of train stations, including where the entrances and exits are. This is really useful for large, complex underground stations like Times Square or the City Hall/15th Street/Suburban Station concourse in Philly. It may be less useful for things like street-level light rail platforms, but at least Apple is consistent about it.

Other Little Things: A few other minor observations:

  • The 34th St-Hudson Yards 7 train station in New York is shown, even though it doesn’t officially open until tomorrow. If you try to route to it today, Maps will correctly tell you the 7 train ends at Times Square. Future-proofing is good, but present-proofing is even better.
  • The SEPTA regional rail station immediately east of Suburban is called Jefferson in Apple Maps, even if most locals still call it Market East. Not a complaint – Apple should be using the official names for things – but an indication of Apple’s data being up-to-date, as this is a fairly recent change.
  • When routing and finding the nearest stop/station to start from, Apple Maps seems to go at least partially on what station you can walk to over paths shown on the map, not strictly on straight-line distance from your current location. This is important; the nearest Metrobus stop that I can legally walk to from my home is not the same as the nearest Metrobus stop as the crow flies. Other routing apps tend to get this wrong.

What I’d Change: All in all, this is a solid first offering by Apple, which they can iterate on to make the service even better. Here’s what I’d do:

  • Add more cities, obviously. Of places I’ve visited with complex transit systems, I’d add Boston, Los Angeles, Montréal, Seattle, and Portland (maybe in that order, maybe not.) And, of course, more coverage outside North America, but Apple tends to start closer to home.
  • Be a little more clear when multiple services converge on one
    spot.
    Newark Penn Station, for instance, is a terminal for the Newark City Subway and PATH, and a major station for NJ Transit rail. In my testing, I sometimes had trouble seeing the icons for all three services.
  • Add fare information, especially for the systems like Metrorail and BART that don’t run on a flat fare system. For fare systems that theoretically support Apple Pay (Ventra and, soon, SEPTA Key) they could indicate that as well.
  • Consider adding Amtrak. Whether or not Amtrak qualifies as mass
    transit is a debate that could be interesting, but I’m not going to engage in it here. Apple Maps does have the Amtrak Capital Corridor in San Jose and the East Bay, which is essentially a commuter rail line anyway, but I’d also add Acela and other Northeast Corridor services, and the various Illinois services centered on Chicago. (And, if LA/San Diego and Seattle/Portland ever make it into Apple Maps, I’d add the Pacific Surfliners and Cascades too.)
  • Fix the Metrorail single-letters thing. It’s a minor detail, but Apple is known for attention to minor details, and so many minor details about Apple Maps transit are so well done. This should be a relatively simple fix.

Updates

  • Apple has added many new cities since this article was written, including all of the cities I suggested.
  • The Metrorail single-letters thing has been fixed, as has the spacing of multiple service icons at a single location. I really like how Apple is not just letting this feature sit “completed”, but is iterating and improving it as time goes on.
  • The DC Streetcar (about which I’ve written a bit) started revenue service on February 27th. Apple Maps included the Streetcar’s service on day one. Nicely done.
  • CUE and TheBus stops now appear on Apple Maps as of June 19, 2016. As of July 17, TheBus schedule information is in the app as well!