Greater Greater Washington

NextBus DC iPhone app review

The key test for any new product is, "does this product perform the task that I bought it for?" If I buy a shirt, I ask if it fits right, looks good on me, and functions as clothing. The NextBus DC application, available on the iPhone app store, works. It's not quite perfect, but allows users to consistently access a good estimate of the wait time for a bus.

When you open the app, you will see six choices. The first three are self-explanatory: "Favorite Stops," "Favorite Routes," and "Nearby Stops." You can choose stops and routes to add to your Favorites while looking at the map for a route or the predictions for the wait time at a stop.

Nearby Stops uses the iPhone's built-in GPS to find bus stops within 1/16, 1/8, or 1/4 mile. This screen shows NextBus predictions for all bus lines that serve that stop. From that screen, you can press a button in the corner to display a map showing your location and the location of the bus stop. This feature is incredibly handy if you're lost or just don't know where to find the specific stop.

The second three choices on the opening screen correspond to bus systems in our region. WMATA's Metrobus, Prince George's County's The Bus, and the City of Fairfax's CUE are currently using NextBus technology. I don't ride the Prince George's or Fairfax systems, so only evaluated the WMATA area. (I live in Montgomery County and look forward to RideOn getting NextBus as well.) After tapping the WMATA MetroBus button, a list of all MetroBus routes pops up on the screen. A bar on the right makes it easy to skip to categories like "1-10," "80-97," or "S-V" rather than having to scroll through every route as you must on the NextBus mobile interface.

After finding your route, you can either select the name of the route itself, or either direction the route travels in. For example, your screen would look like:

S9 16th St. Express
North to Silver Spring Station
South to McPherson Square
Selecting "North to Silver Spring Station" or "South to McPherson Square" brings up a list of every bus stop that the S9 serves. After selecting a stop, a screen pops up that has NextBus predictions for every bus line that serves that stop.

On the other hand, if you select, "S9 16th St. Express," a scale map of the S9 appears on the screen. The map has red markers at each bus station. You can then zoom in and select one of the red markers to get to the screen that has NextBus predictions for all lines serving that stop.

Like most transit users, I know the bus routes that I regularly take, such as the Y5/7/8/9, the Q2, the 70/71/79, the S1/2/4/9, and the J2. I also am familiar with other major routes like the 30s, the X2, and the 16s. However, I don't really know bus lines in many other areas. In the past, I had to pull up WMATA's bus maps, zoom in, zoom out, and search around the PDF map to find a route and its path. It takes time to make sense of the map. The NextBus app's route map far more effective for learning this crucial information.

The app hooks into WMATA's NextBus webpage, so its predictions on bus wait times are the same as those on WMATA's website. During rush hour, the predictions were accurate within about two minutes. The largest deviations came when I could see bus down the street, but it was stuck in heavy car traffic or traffic lights. I found one anomaly when riding the Y line: I was tracking the bus I was riding from stop to stop, and it disappeared once. Thankfully, after hitting refresh, the bus reappeared at the next stop. In summary, the NextBus system works, and works even better if you refresh frequently.

The app could improve by letting the user switch from viewing predictions at a specific stop to the map for that line. Currently, you have to back up to the top to get the map. The app appears to be optimized for the new iPhone 3GS. I experienced slowdown with it on my iPhone 3G. At times it would slow down to a crawl and I'd have to just wait until it sorted itself out. The button presses were also less sensitive and responsive than in the iPhone OS itself. None of these small flaws killed the app's ability to accomplish its core task.

The NextBus DC app for the Apple iPhone is a breath of fresh air for bus users around our region. I found it useful and a great tool to better plan my time, since I have an accurate prediction of how much time I have until the next bus arrives. While it has its minor technical and design flaws, it most certainly does the job it was designed to do. I will be keeping it on my iPhone at all times and I recommend that you do the same. If you are a regular MetroBus, TheBus, or CUE rider (and I really hope that RideOn, ART, and the Circulator get NextBus installed soon) you won't go wrong with purchasing this app from the iPhone app store. It will make your life a little bit less stressful.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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Is there any way to get bus info by texting? I have a "friend" who can't afford an iPhone and doesn't want to waste minutes on WMATA's terrible voice recognition rideguide system. If I...he could just text a bus stop ID# or a bus route and get a response like Google 411, that would be much more useful to those of us with dumbphones.

by James M on Jul 31, 2009 1:34 pm • linkreport

From NextBus.com:

SMS
You can obtain prediction information via a cell phone or PDA by sending a text message specifying your stop or your location. The prediction information for your stop will be text messaged back to you in just a few seconds. You can also use SMS to setup Alerts to be automatically notified when your bus is a specified number of minutes away.

I used this when DASH was testing Nextbus on a couple lines, but they abandoned Nextbus around the same time that ART and WMATA (the first time around).

I think there's a real hazard buying this app: Nextbus has sent cease and desist orders to other app developers who have created similar apps in other cities. If you purchase this app, you might find it unsupported. Apple has been pulling several apps this week even after initially approving them. It's unlikely that developers will be able to refund the money.

For the iPhone, I think this app is also unnecessary, since NextBus has a fairly good mobile internet site, which I also used with DASH on my old Motorolla Razr. It worked well enough then, works even better now (though there were problems with data, the site functioned well).

And I think this is the heart of the matter. From what I gather, NextBus would rather (for whatever reason, I don't know) direct traffic to their web or other application, than to allow a third party access (and profit from) their data. I don't agree with them, but don't think it's worthwhile to purchase any of these apps either.....yet.

by Kevin Beekman on Jul 31, 2009 2:25 pm • linkreport

@Kevin: This app, as I understand it, has been released by Nextbus Information Systems, a licensee of Nextbus. It's based on the code from iCommute-SF, a previously indepenent iPhone app that has sinced paid a license fee.

I don't necessarily agree that Nextbus or NIS should "own" the data (or if they even do, under the contracts with transit services), but I don't think this application will be pulled down any time soon.

by Joey on Jul 31, 2009 2:32 pm • linkreport

The NextBusDC iPhone app was developed by NextBus Information Systems, as Joey mentioned. Therefore, there won't be licensing issues with NextBus.

by Cavan on Jul 31, 2009 2:46 pm • linkreport

On my phone, I have bookmarks to my favorite stops on my homepage. So it won't be particularly helpful on a daily basis. But it does look like it will benefit me most when I'm trying out a new line. Particularly considering how atrocious WMATA's bus maps are for the reasons you mention.

by Reid on Jul 31, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

OK, just downloaded it and tried it. It's very good. Certainly worth $2.99. I'll see whether I still use my shortcuts from the home page to my stops, or just use the NextBus App directly, which would take a couple extra clicks each time.

by Reid on Jul 31, 2009 3:36 pm • linkreport

I hope you're right...that there's finally an app that doesn't have licensing issues. But it's hard to figure out the players. Here's the article about the controversy: http://sfappeal.com/news/2009/06/who-owns-sfmta-arrival-data.php

by Kevin Beekman on Jul 31, 2009 9:40 pm • linkreport

I agree, this is a fine app, well worth the money. I really like the feature that will show you all predictions for any bus line that is due to arrive at a given stop, not just a specific one. I regularly use the 90 buses to go up Florida to U St., but the system will add 96 or X3 when applicapable. Another nice touch is being able to bookmark favorite stops and favorite lines.
The Nextbus app has WMATA, The BUS and Fairfax CUE, but I hope they will add DC Circulators to the app soon since those buses also utilize Nextbus.

by Dan on Aug 1, 2009 8:23 am • linkreport

The real problem here is that there isn't enough integration between WMATA's own scheduler and the NextBus system. The iPhone app accomplishes some of this, but doesn't work for those of us with other brands of internet-enabled phones.

Let's look at an example: I have a Dr's appointment in an unfamiliar part of town. To get there in the morning, I use the trip planner on WMATA's website. Works great. When the appointment is done, I could take one of several buses to get me back to the Red line. Buses running past this particular location head toward the Red line in either direction, so I could wait on either side of the street. It's raining, so I want to stay indoors until I know the bus is approaching.

I launch WMATA's mobile site on my phone, and go to the Next Bus section. Hmm. Enter a stop ID or select a line. I'm still in the building so I don't know the stop ID. Well, I know I took the N2 to get here, so I'll select that. Choose a direction. Ok... Now scroll through a million options until you find the stop that you think is closest. Hmm. The next bus is in 20 minutes. Ok, let's try the same line the other direction. After scrolling through again, the next bus is in 10 minutes. Better. But what about the N8? I think that stops here too...

You can quickly see the problem. Now I switch over to WMATA's "Next Scheduled Departure" page. Before NextBus was launched, this page showed all the bus stops near a location. But now, whenever I enter the intersection (street1 and street2 NW), I get an error message with some links to unrelated parts of town. Only if I enter an actual building address do I get any of the nearby bus stops (which, incidentally, are named by intersection). For each stop, it shows me hours worth of previous times before it eventually shows the future times.

Here's what I want: type in a street address or intersection (or use your phone's GPS), and you get a list of all the nearby bus stops and when the next buses are scheduled to arrive. Simple, huh? And if I'm near a metro station, show me the next trains. Really, in a situation like that, I don't care about when things are scheduled to arrive, I only care about when they will actually arrive.

As has been posted on GGW before, I know there are technical and legal challenges to getting the NextBus system to integrate with anything. Really, it's their loss, IMHO. But am I crazy to think that the example I gave is too far-fetched to be helpful to anyone else?

I emailed WMATA about this and await their response.

by Andrew on Aug 3, 2009 10:28 am • linkreport

Andrew, this app on the iPhone will use the iPhone's GPS and draw a map from your location to surrounding bus stops.

As for multiple lines on that serve the same stop, I addressed that in the review.

As for WMATA's website, those are understandable frustrations. I guess the solution is to get an iPhone and then get the NextBusDC app ;)

by Cavan on Aug 3, 2009 11:46 am • linkreport

Andrew - you have some good suggestions. As far as supporting non-iPhones, we plan on releasing a NextBus DC for BlackBerry on the App World in the next few weeks. It isn't quite as flush with features as the iPhone version, in large part because of the lack of platform tools on the BlackBerry, but I think you will be pleasantly surprised that it does handle the use case you describe. If you do have a BlackBerry, I'd be very interested in getting you a prerelease copy during beta testing. Please contact me at feedback@nextbusdc.com to follow up.

Alex Orloff
NextBus Mobile

by Alex on Aug 3, 2009 11:46 am • linkreport

Alex: I'd love to see an Android version!

by David Alpert on Aug 3, 2009 11:47 am • linkreport

And a version for Nokia S60...

But see, that's the problem. Everybody wants it for their own particular platform. Why not put at least some of these features on a mobile site accessible to all phones?

by Andrew on Aug 3, 2009 11:51 am • linkreport

Andrew - unfortunately there isn't a well-adopted standard yet for things like accessing a GPS location from a mobile browser. The other issue is that one of the pleasures of an app like NextBus DC comes from keeping a local copy of the vast amount of data required (hundreds of bus routes, thousands of stops), and being much snappier than going out to the mobile internet for each request.

But Ovi and Android are in the works !

by Alex on Aug 3, 2009 2:09 pm • linkreport

What's with complaining about not seeing times for multiple lines at the same stop? I just use the mobile web version on the iPhone; every time I bring up a stop, it shows predictions for the main route and all of the other routes that serve the same stop. For example, http://www.nextbus.com/wireless/miniPrediction.shtml?a=wmata&r=31&d=31_31_0&s=6421 shows the 31 route, but also shows the other 30s too.

I made a nice little web page with links to the stops I use frequently (with Circulator links as well).

by ChrisDC on Aug 3, 2009 11:17 pm • linkreport

I've used Nextbus DC on my iphone and it works great. I've save a lot of time by having this app.

by Apple Tablet on Nov 23, 2009 5:33 pm • linkreport

Do I understand correctly that this app needs an actual live net connection? For instance if an iPod Touch was out of range, the app would not be able to pull up location or times?

by Sean on Feb 3, 2010 6:21 pm • linkreport

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