What's the best iPhone bus tracking app?
After the "NextBus" iPhone app disappeared last year, bus riders found themselves searching for a new app to track the locations of buses. Since then, a host of new apps have appeared to fill the void. But is there such a thing as the "perfect" app for iPhone owners?
I tested 4 iPhone apps to see which one made it easiest to find bus information: NextBus by Cubic, DC Next Bus by Junebot, BusTrackDC by Jason Rosenbaum, and iCommute DC Lite by AppTight, the reincarnation of the previous NextBus application.
Three of these apps are available for free from the iTunes Store, while NextBus's is actually a website whose shortcut you can place on your home screen.
These apps' user interfaces fall into two categories: map-based and text-based. The map-based apps make it easier to find bus stops, and they are handy when you aren't sure where the nearest bus stop might be or the buses that pass through. However, map-based apps are more difficult to use in spots with many bus stops close together.
Meanwhile, more experienced bus riders who already know the location of bus stops or which bus route to take may prefer a text-based app. You can quickly filter through unnecessary information to get prediction times for a specific route.
Some apps have other regional bus systems besides Metrobus, such as Circulator, Ride On, and ART, while many don't.
Both map-based apps, BusTrackDC and DC Next Bus, automatically find your location on a map in relation to surrounding bus stops. They use standard map pins to represent bus stops; you can see what routes serve each pin by tapping on them.
This works well except in areas with numerous bus stops and routes in the same area, such as Silver Spring or downtown DC. The map pins are so close together it becomes frustrating to obtain information on the intended bus route, let alone the direction.
Meanwhile, on both apps I sometimes got "No Prediction" for various bus routes, but if I touched a different bus stop location farther down the street along the same bus route, I could get a timed prediction. DC Next Bus has the option to turn on Ride On data but says that it's unreliable, while neither app provides DC Circulator information.
The two text-based apps, iCommute DC Lite and NextBus, are designed differently. Users of the defunct "NextBus" app, will find the interface of iCommute DC Lite very familiar, since the creators of the old NextBus app built iCommuteDC Lite.
If it's confusing that one app called NextBus went away and its developers now call the app iCommute DC Lite while there's another option called NextBus by Cubic, you're not alone. It's because there were 2 companies called NextBus which had split apart years ago. The one that ran the real-time predictions on the WMATA site (also called "NextBus") provided data to the other; the 2nd one licensed it to the people who now make iCommuteDC.
The relationship ended, the app died, and the developers rebuilt the app with a new name and a data feed direct from the first NextBus company, which around the same time was bought by Cubic, maker of the SmarTrip system and other transit technology.
iCommuteDC Lite gives you two ways to view information: you can see stops nearby your current location, or pick a specific agency and then a route from that agency. This app supports many transportation agencies, including Metrobus, DC Circulator, ART, and CUE.
If you select stops based on your location, the app only displays a route number and not which operator the route corresponds with.
Nextbus by Cubic has a simpler, more readable format, using the whole screen to display the bus routes nearest you. Once you select a route and desired direction, the app opens up a map with the real-time location of each bus along that route, something none of the other apps do.
This app also provides alerts to current problems or delays with each transit provider. It also works outside of the DC Metro area, providing bus information on the Charm City Circulator, Collegetown Shuttle, JHMI Shuttle, and the University of Maryland shuttle buses in Baltimore. However, this app only shows systems that contract with NextBus/Cubic, which means Arlington ART and Ride On don't appear.
During testing, I encountered times when the NextBus by Cubic app had predictions for some Metrobus lines, while other apps returned "No Prediction." All of the Metrobus data ultimately comes from the same transponders on the buses, so it should be identical, but since NextBus/Cubic is WMATA's vendor, if any errors creep into the WMATA API then they might affect all apps but not NextBus.
WMATA spokesperson Brian Anderson says that a March data feed included some incorrect stop ID numbers, which can affect apps that use a particular method of accessing stop IDs. Anderson was able to confirm that one specific example I sent over, for the 96 bus in Adams Morgan, was a consequence of this problem. He said WMATA staff are working to correct the data and coordinating closely with developers to help them with any problems.
NextBus by Cubic's data isn't perfect, either. At one point, for example, the Metrobus S2 and S4 routes didn't appear even while standing at an S2/S4 stop on Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. The well-known problems with "ghost buses" and other common errors in the actual predictions will also affect all apps.
Which app should you use?
All four apps have their strengths and weaknesses. You may want to install more than one, and can use a text-based app when you know what bus you want and a map-based app when you don't.
Especially for experienced riders, NextBus by Cubic is hard to beat for usability. Its text-based interface is easy to read, quick to filter information for all operators, and offers more bus systems than the other apps. It also sometimes returned predictions when the others did not.
Riders who use multiple bus systems may also need more than one app. If you want to ride the DC Circulator, BusTrackDC or DC Next Bus won't help you. NextBus by Cubic has the greatest number of bus systems, but not ART and Ride On.
Have you tried these apps? Which one do you find most useful for your daily commuting needs?
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