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I have 9 transit apps installed, including 1 for Portland, Oregon. Seven are reviewed here.

If you upgraded your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad this week, you’ll find yourself without transit directions in the built-in Maps application. Wednesday was the first day you could download and install the latest version of iOS 6, your iDevice’s operating system. The Maps app was previously powered by all things Google but in iOS 6 the app is powered by Apple-owned technologies and partner companies’ data. It’s been known for months that the new Maps app wouldn’t come with built-in transit directions. (However, Apple Maps does scan your phone for compatible transit apps and links you to them, or helps you find them in the App Store.)

Don’t fret, though, as there are several apps for free and purchase that take over transit directions duty. I’ll review six apps, some of which I downloaded after I started writing this post. Visit the CTA’s Transit Apps webpage for more apps.

See all the screenshots created for this post.

Buster (CTA)

Download for $1.99. Arrival times, no trip planning.

Buster has four features: a bus route list (from which you can find a specific stop), find bus stops near where you’re currently standing, favorite bus stops, and an interface to the CTA mobile Train Tracker website. The first three are quite standard among Chicago transit apps, but each has a unique way of helping you find “your” stops and bookmarking them.

Buster has a decent graphic design and sufficiently intuitive interface. For any stop, you can quickly switch to get bus arrival times for the opposite direction. It can show you the estimated arrival times for all buses at your favorite bus stop, or just the route you originally picked. You can also set an automatic alarm to notify you when the bus is estimated to arrive in 5, 10, or 15 minutes.

Unlike other apps for CTA information, Buster doesn’t have a dedicated interface for train arrival times. Instead it asks you to select the line and then loads the CTA’s website within the app. This is a convenient workaround for the developer not including a “designed” train tracker.

Read about Buster 3 and how it integrates with Apple Maps.

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Buster lets you rename favorites. See more screenshots of Buster.

Arrivals (CTA)

Download for free. Arrival times, no trip planning. 

The Arrivals app takes a different approach than Buster in showing one’s favorite stops. First, train stations can be added as favorites, which Buster cannot do. All of your favorites are listed on the main screen (let’s call it a dashboard): each box shows 1-3 estimated arrival times, up to 30 minutes out for buses and 20 minutes for trains – these are the limits of CTA’s tracking services. There are only four options on this dashboard: Refresh the estimated arrival times, add a bus stop, add a train station, or edit the dashboard (remove and reorder favorites).

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Arrivals places estimated arrival times directly into the dashboard, unlike Buster. 

TransitGenie (CTA and Metra)

Download for free. Trip planner and arrival times. 

TransitGenie is the most robust app, but the least pretty. It goes beyond simple arrival times and into routing. There’s an arrival screen where you can add your favorite bus stop (no trains). It lacks a “nearby” bus stop feature, but lets you find bus stops nearby after you select the bus route.

Where TransitGenie really shines is in providing directions, taking into account live estimated arrival times (instead of scheduled arrival times, like Google Maps does). Another neat feature is that once your route is selected, the app watches for changes in the real-time arrival times: if you miss your first trip leg, or connection, TransitGenie will recalculate the route. TransitGenie also considers that you may walk or bike to a train station or bus stop. With this consideration, TransitGenie tells you by what time you must leave your house for the first leg of the journey to be on time for the bus or train connections.

It even lets you select “accessibility” mode, routing you to train stations that have elevators and estimating that you travel slower in a wheelchair or on crutches than if you were biking or walking. TransitGenie can prioritize journeys by bus, train, both, or none (so giving you only walking and biking directions).

Like Google Maps, TransitGenie lets you find routes ahead of your trip. You can select a specific “arrive by” or “depart by” time. Lastly, TransitGenie incorporates Metra in route suggestions. TransitGenie was created by University of Illinois at Chicago students.

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The start screen on TransitGenie. See more TransitGenie screenshots.

Embark (Metra)

Download for free. Limited trip planner. No arrival times (Metra hasn’t yet made a public API). 

Embark Metra has a trip planner, like TransitGenie, but it only uses Metra. It cannot tell you how to get to the origin Metra station, or how to get to your final destination from the Metra station at which you alight. You must already know which station you will leave from and at which station you will arrive – you also have to know that a Metra train will run between those two stations; Embark cannot help you make transfers. Embark has three ways to select the station: search for it by name, locate one nearby, or select a route. Once you have selected your origin and destination, tap Plan Trip and you will be presented with a screen listing upcoming departure times (as well as the arrival time), the cost, and train trip duration. Tap on the train you plan to take to get three methods of sharing the trip with others (email, SMS, and Twitter) – this could be useful in quickly telling a friend when they should expect to meet you at the destination station.

Other features of Embark include a Massimo Vignelli-style system map (this means 45° angles and geographically skewed); a list of stations and scheduled departure times for that station; service advisories (none were showing at the time of this review, just “Good Service”); and Metra contact numbers and links to travel resources (bikes, service updates, car parking).

Embark also makes a CTA app (download now). It can only do station to station trip planning, not home to station to destination planning. The Embark apps don’t require an active internet connection as the schedules are stored on your device.

HopStop (CTA and Metra)

Free, download for iPad or download for iPhone and iPod touch. Limited trip planner. Has ads. Works in 62 cities in Canada and the United States. 

HopStop sets itself apart by working in more cities than Chicago. It also has nifty features like “calories burned” and CO2 saved. It has a step-by-step journey list, much better looking and easier to read than the one in TransitGenie.

Like Embark, the Metra trip planner requires you to know your origin and destination stations, and know that Metra runs trains between those two stations. When you try a route that doesn’t exist, you get a message saying “Schedule not found”. It should say, “Route doesn’t exist”. Also like Embark, HopStop can share your journey over Twitter, text message, or email. It doesn’t have a Metra system map. System maps exist only for 5 domestic transit systems, and London.

Like TransitGenie, HopStop lets you prioritize modes, ands adds “walking only” and taxi modes. It also has a feature under “vehicle options” for “private vehicles” and “express buses” that you can turn on and off – I haven’t seen how this affects trip planning results. HopStop can present journey directions to you in different languages (phrases like “walk west to Western Avenue” is translated into 8 languages). HopStop has schedules for the South Shore Line, but again, you must know to which station you want to travel.

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The trip directions list in HopStop. See more HopStop screenshots.

The Transit App (CTA, Metra, Pace)

Download for free. If you want to see more than 3 routes for any location, you must subscribe. Works in other cities in the United States and Canada. 

This is the newest app of the bunch and the only one I tested that claims to route on Pace (I didn’t test that). It has arrival times and trip planning, but also a few bugs (which the app developers are aware of). For example, at the Belmont Red-Purple-Brown lines station, live (but estimated) arrival times are only given for the Red Line. This is indicated by a small “wave” symbol next to the time (which is nearly invisible, but flashes when the time counts down).

Tap the bus or train route for a specific stop or station and the “dashboard” expands to show three options: switch directions at that stop or station (there’s a bug here), locate it on a map, and show all upcoming arrival times (again, look for the “wave” symbol to know if the time is estimated or scheduled).

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Red indicates an express bus route, just like a CTA bus stop sign.

The app uses the Foursquare database to find points of interest (as opposed to the Google Places database, but it uses Google Maps). Transit is wildly different in how the user moves through the tasks of each function. Instead of screens that move left or right (like many iOS apps, and like web pages), the app acts more like each function is just hiding behind the other. Tap the “directions” button (a right-angle arrow) and the dashboard fades away and a trip planner appears. Hit the “x” on the trip planner and the dashboard fades back in. At the bottom of the dashboard is your location. Tap it to switch to current location, a new location, or to a location you recently searched.

There’s one problem: the trip planner gave me bad directions. I asked The Transit App (er, Transit) to take me from the Belmont Red-Purple-Brown lines station to Chicago City Hall. It routed me on the Red Line to Jackson, then walked me over to a bus that takes me to Millennium Station, then walks me across Randolph Street to City Hall. I quit the app and tried the same trip again. The original route was replaced with one equally dumb.

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First example of getting bad directions to City Hall from the Belmont Red Line station. Second bad example for the same search. 

Bing

Download for free. Trip planner. Works across the country. 

This is probably the most similar to Google-powered Maps for iOS 5 and earlier. But it’s bad. Really bad. It’s very slow, doesn’t interpret locations well, and can’t always find directions (it wouldn’t route me from my current home in Chicago to where I used to live in Batavia). Whereas the Google-powered Maps app on iOS had two main functions – Search and Directions – Bing has you press the Layers button to get to Directions, with small tap targets (or maybe I just have fat fingers). While Bing Maps is known for having good aerial and bird’s eye view, its standard map is very ugly.

One thing that Bing does well is adding nice touches to the step-by-step directions. For example, as you scroll down the list, this advances the map and the symbols on the map. And below the instructions, it lists businesses or points of interest along the way, to strengthen your bearings. For transit directions, it said that if I went to a certain train station, I’d gone too far. When searching for a location, Bing does not list recently searched for locations.

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Bing couldn’t guess that I was in Chicago and start a search for these addresses there. 

Conclusions

For trip planning, I recommend HopStop and TransitGenie (TransitGenie is a must for those who require accessible CTA stations). Avoid Bing for its slowness but use it for its clever step-by-step journey instructions. Use Transit when their journey suggestions are more efficient.

For CTA arrival times, I recommend Arrivals, as it does bus and train natively. If you need an alarm for Bus Tracker, get Buster. For Metra schedules, I recommend Embark Metra.

Other apps

I’ve created an app for people who bike in Chicago, or want to bike. It provides a map and lot of resources for new and experienced cyclists alike. Download the Chicago Bike Map app for $0.99 or see a demo. The map includes CTA and Metra station location, and information about how to bring your bike aboard. It doesn’t have schedules or trip planning.

You can still load Google Maps and its transit and bicycling directions in Safari, just visit http://maps.google.com. It will prompt you to add the website as a home screen button for quicker access.

Suggest an app for the list below:

  • TransitTimes+ – Download for $2.99. Works in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

OpenPlans in New York City, the parent organization of Streetsblog, has raised money on a Kickstarter campaign to make a transit app that could plan trips for any transit agency in the country that offers GTFS data.

In October we reviewed two transit apps for the Android operating system.

Updated September 25 to better explain how transit directions are integrated into Apple Maps. 

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