Greater Greater Washington

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?


Image from the author's phone.

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.


Left: BusTrackDC. Right: DC Next Bus.

Map-based apps

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.

Text-based apps

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.


iCommute DC Lite.

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.

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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Ryan Sigworth is an urban planner at the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. He bikes or takes public transit to work from his house in Adams Morgan, where he has lived car-free with his wife and cat since 2009. He is a cyclist, urbanist, and smart growth advocate who blogs on his personal blog, The DCyclist. 

Comments

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I just use the Nextbus web site. No need to take up additional memory for an "app", just use the web browser on your smartphone. You can bookmark the stops you use most often and just pull those up directly.

by Moose on Apr 30, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

When I was in DC I was a big fan of myTransit for its ability to store and customize favorites, but these days I'm a fan of the Transit app, which automatically shows you the transit routes nearest you (and bumps your favorites to the top). Both have a nominal fee, and Transit charges for a subscription, but I like what they've done a lot. The Transit app also offers directions and trip planning for iOS 6 Maps users.

One of these days I'm going to build my own app … I don't think any app out there uses the phone's location as well as it could.

by Omar on Apr 30, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

DC Metro Transit (for Android) works well. Otherwise I just use the nextbus website.

by Alan B. on Apr 30, 2013 1:01 pm • linkreport

Ever since the Next Bus DC app (now iCommute DC) stopped working, I have been using DC Next Bus. It works great for pinpointing stops near one's current location, but iCommute still comes in handy from time to time.

BusTrack DC offers basically the same functionality as DC Next Bus but I do not like that the app switches to an entirely new screen just to show the upcoming bus time prediction. DC Next Bus uses callout boxes on the map itself.

Ideally there would be an app that combines the best functionality of a navigation app like HopStop with bus tracking features.

by Scoot on Apr 30, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

@Moose

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] These apps barely take up a mb. Delete a few [pictures] and download a real app.

by Dolph Lungdren on Apr 30, 2013 1:27 pm • linkreport

Like Omar, I've been using Transit (http://thetransitapp.com/). It's not DC-specific, and it's great for giving you quick information about the next buses (or trains) at nearby stops. It also remembers which direction you take each line from various places, so if you open it work it should show you the bus/train you last used to get home, and at home it'll give you the opposite direction. Also, it looks great.

by Jay Tamboli on Apr 30, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

Thanks Omar and Jay,
I will check out the Transit app. Unfortunately, so many apps, so little time and space.

by Ryan Sigworth on Apr 30, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

There is absolutely no benefit to having an app for NextBus. All the data you need is coming from a server somewhere, so why bother with an app? Just bookmark your favorite stops using the Nextbus mobile site. Done and done.

by recyclist on Apr 30, 2013 2:07 pm • linkreport

Just bookmark your favorite stops using the Nextbus mobile site. Done and done.

In the former NextBus app (now iCommute DC) I bookmarked about 20 favorite stops, including those in the vicinity of my home, work, the grocery store, bars/restaurants, my S.O.'s home, near metro stops, etc. And that did not even include the bus lines that I favorited. I think a "power user" might find the Nextbus site to be somewhat inadequate, but people ought to use whatever system they feel most comfortable with.

by Scoot on Apr 30, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

Jay & Omar,

I downloaded the Transit app -- does its Direction tool use Nextbus data or simple schedules?

by Scoot on Apr 30, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

anybody got a favorite for Android?

by andy on Apr 30, 2013 3:05 pm • linkreport

Scoot,

I think the routing directions only use schedules, but the Nearby page uses real-time information when it can. I'm not 100% sure about the routing, though. You might want to email the developers to be sure.

by Jay Tamboli on Apr 30, 2013 3:26 pm • linkreport

@andy: I agree with @Alan B. that DC Metro Transit is worth the download. It was the best of the bunch when I tried everything I could find for Android about a year ago.

The Anystop apps are nice too, if you want a stand-alone app for one bus system (they have separate apps for Metrobus, the Circulator, CUE, etc.)

by c5karl on Apr 30, 2013 3:37 pm • linkreport

"AnyStop DC" (android) is back! (It died in December as well)

They have recently added all the metro stations, although I haven't compared it to the real time signage at the metro stations. I missed it a lot, but got by with using the DC Metro ap, although it's not as "pretty" as AnyStop.

by Tom A. on Apr 30, 2013 5:40 pm • linkreport

Thirding DC Metro Transit for Andriod. I've been using it for years and love it. I never used the "service nearby" because I'm an old curmudgeon who goes the same places all the time (j/k...kinda...but I just use Google Maps transit when I'm going somewhere new to find my route), but I just tried it and it did a nice job of locating all my nearby service. The only BIG missing item in the app is bus mapping, but, again, Google maps can tell you how to get there and DC Metro Transit can tell you exactly when.

by Ms. D on Apr 30, 2013 7:12 pm • linkreport

Another vote for DC Metro Transit for Driod!

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Apr 30, 2013 10:02 pm • linkreport

The answer is The Transit App (mentioned by others above). The interface is very intuitive, and easy to read. Also, the app seems to learn your commute patterns--in the morning it shows me northbound bus routes, and in the evening the routes automatically switch to southbound. The app includes bus and rail, and allows intuitive destination searches using data provided by Foursquare.

by Fabian on Apr 30, 2013 11:20 pm • linkreport

I like RideOn.

RideOn (Transit Route Information & Planning) App retrieves transit information, helps you plan your trip and get next bus or rail arrival information.

Features include:

Where Am I? - This handy feature uses the GPS in your phone to accurately find your location in the city and pinpoint the bus routes and rail lines close to your location.

Where's My Ride? - Get information on scheduled bus or rail arrivals. Personalize the app to your favorite routes for quick information right at your fingertips. Catch a ride in time!

Plan a trip - Enter your starting point and our RideOn App will find the best route for your trip and give you all the information you need to get to your destination quickly and easily.

by Tim on May 1, 2013 5:49 am • linkreport

I find the ride on app for android confusing and not always very functional, which is a shame because it clearly brings together a lit of really useful information.

I mostly just use nextbus.com, or bookmark the individual stops from nextbus.com that I use

by lucre on May 1, 2013 8:35 am • linkreport

Time estimates are helpful, but I'd rather be able to see the bus's current location on the map to be able to watch its progress.

by Chris S. on May 1, 2013 9:51 am • linkreport

I wanted to thank everyone for the constructive comments about the post. Sorry I am not a Android user but I am glad some discussion about that platform has occurred here.

by Ryan Sigworth on May 1, 2013 9:54 am • linkreport

iPhone definitely needs more crowdsourcing for people to find useful apps. At least the Android Market's search feature works properly so you can find similar apps - the iTunes Store search is pretty useless unless you know the title of the app you're looking for.

by MLD on May 1, 2013 10:17 am • linkreport

=v= Funny how people want apps for things that the web is more than adequate for, since it means losing a little privacy (mining your address book, for example) and adspew. The NextBus webapp has been chugging along and working fine for years, even making PC World's "12 best free mobile apps" list in 2012.

by Jym Dyer on May 1, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

As head of Business Development for NextBus I want to thank Ryan for his posting. Our web app (free and doesn't use up space on your phone)is well-liked but as advocates of Open Data we're also very happy that developers are building apps for the predictions we provide. In Boston and LA we sponsored contests to encourage third-party application developoment. We serve over 110 transit agencies across North America, including Toronto, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland (and many university shuttle systems, i.e. the University of Maryland) and our web app works with virtually all of them. So please use it when you travel.

by Larry Rosenshein on May 1, 2013 5:24 pm • linkreport

@Jym, the benefit of the DC Metro Transit app is that it combines train & bus info and lets me bookmark stations for both. It has internal ads, but they don't suck battery if the app is closed. There's also a paid ad-free version. I'm a pretty light user of my phone, so my battery lasts all day anyway, and I have plenty of space for the apps I want, because their number is relatively small.

by Ms. D on May 1, 2013 7:22 pm • linkreport

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