Last week we listed several alternatives to Maps, an app that Apple has redone for iOS 6, moving away from Google’s version to use its own mapping technology and earning criticism for inaccurate map data as a result. Since then, Apple has gone as far as acknowledging the problems with Maps in an open letter from CEO Tim Cook, in which he promises that the company will continue to “keep working non-stop” until Maps is better.
One feature that was present in Google’s version but is missing in Apple’s Maps (and is not mentioned as forthcoming in Cook’s letter) is the ability to provide public transit directions. While the little bus icon at the top of the page is still there as an option to select the type of navigation guidance you want, tapping on it simply pulls you to a list of any apps you already have on your device that can help, followed by a list of apps in the App Store you may want to check out.
If you’re in a major city, chances are there are several apps that you can choose from to give you the guidance you need. Here in Boston, I had the chance to try out several on a recent outing in the city. Here’s my starting point and the public transit apps Maps suggested to me:
To get a route from North Station to a hair salon near Northeastern University, I opened each app straight from Maps so the start and end points were already defined. I first tried out Tapone Technology’s Transit – Directions with Public Transportation and here’s what it showed me (click to enlarge):
I was first offered four routes to choose from. Each route listed had a total travel time and distance noted though there wasn’t anything else to help me choose a route I preferred. Choosing one that at least used the subway system, I was then shown a map overview with the ability to step through the instructions using the pane at the bottom of the screen. I could also see a written overview of the entire route by tapping the Overview button in the top right corner.
Transit also lets you set a reminder to start your journey if you’re planning this trip for the future, as well as email all of the instructions in case you need to share them with someone else. Transit is free and ad-supported with an option to review the ads with a $.99 in-app purchase.
Next up was The Transit App by Samuel Vermette, which offers a pretty but confusing interface and provides you with a map overview of the suggested routes right away. Here’s what it showed me for the trip to my hair salon:
Dismissing the route by tapping on the X in the top right corner––an action which makes me feel like I’m closing out the route selection altogether––actually displays the breakdown for the selected route. Unfortunately, The Transmit App does not provide you with actual step-by-step directions for any route so it’s best for those already familiar with the area. And you’ll need to subscribe for $.99 per month or $4.99 for one year to see more than three routes for any trip.
Next on my list was Embark. Embark offers several apps in the App Store for the different cities it covers and I tried the one for Boston, of course. The first view you get when getting into Embark straight from Maps is a list of multiple possible routes organized from by departure time. Tapping on a route brings you to a screen that shows the step-by-step details for that selected route. For steps that require walking, you can tap on the entry in the details list to get to a map view, though it doesn’t give you any explicit guidance on the map for these.
Last up was HopStop, which gives you a list of possible routes right away, like Embark. Tapping on a route gives you step-by-step instructions with a button at the top so you can easily access a map overview.
HopStop covers a ton of cities but it features ads that you can’t turn off even with an in-app purchase. I don’t mind ads in a free app but if it’s one that I plan to use a lot, I want a way to get rid of them.
In the end, all of these apps provided me with accurate directions. Of all of them, Embark is my current favorite. It’s got a dark and clean interface, is completely free (with no ads, to boot) and shows information that is most useful to me right away, and shows the official MBTA system alerts. However, it doesn’t include the bus system, which may be a deal-breaker for some.
The apps featured in this post may or may not cover the areas you’re looking for so be sure to check out the app descriptions first. Even though Apple may have let you down without any public transportation directions in Maps, many other developers are clearly ready and willing to pick up the slack.