SCIENCE AND TECH
Made-in-Montreal App Guides You Through Public Transit in 125 Cities
Montreal startup allows users to navigate a multitude of transit options in nine countries – even New York’s smelly subways become more user-friendly
Whether you’re trying to navigate an unfamiliar city or just going home after work, getting around an urban environment can be a complicated, patience-testing exercise.
Detours, delays and buses that just never showed up are integral to the public-transit experience. And while there’s no single way to fix every agency’s problems, a free app developed in Montreal – the appropriately named Transit (Android version here) – is aiming to solve some of commuters’ biggest pain points.
In essence, the app consolidates all the various travel agencies’ schedule and map data, combines it with users’ GPS locations, and tells users exactly what they want to know: When the next vehicle is coming and how long it will take to get to the final destination.
Shooting for the top
Transit was founded in 2012 as a pet project meant to simplify Montreal and Quebec City’s bus schedules. Now it’s in 125 cities in nine countries – ranging from Nairobi to Thunder Bay. It has millions of active users, has so far raised US$3 million and has been endorsed by a number of cities, most recently Boston.
“We’re taking the stress out of people’s journeys.”
It’s also the third most popular navigation app on Apple’s App Store, behind Google Maps and Waze.
Now the team of 17, led by founders Sam Vermette and Guillaume Campagna, as well as chief operating officer Jake Sion, is hoping the company’s newest development – a travel assistant called GO – is enough to top competitors and push Transit to number one.
GO uses real-time transit data to “hold your hand throughout your entire transit journey,” as Sion puts it. GO can notify users by voice or push notification when it’s time to leave the house to catch the bus, and then once they’re aboard it can warn of detours and update ETAs based on traffic. When it’s time to get off, GO can tell the rider when to ring the bell.
“We’re taking the stress out of people’s journeys,” Sion says.
How Transit works
Transit’s user-friendly interface shows only the transportation systems the user wants to know about and removes the rest.
Users make this customized map by choosing from a list of transit options that include bus, metro/subway, streetcar/tram, train, Uber and bike share and car share options. Once relevant fields are ticked off, the app will show users the “nearby mode” – that is, the relevant transit options nearest them and when the next buses are. An alternate mode allows users to plan point-A-to-point-B trips.
Behind the scenes, a variety of data points including schedules, maps, stop locations and vehicles’ real-time GPS coordinates are working to guide commuters. Transit acquires the data directly from cities’ transit agencies, enabled largely by the open-data renaissance.
The data is then cleaned up and verified nightly to identify changes. “We do a lot of work on our side to improve the data,” says Sion.
Newer functionalities of the app include not just the ability to see bike share and car share availability on the map, but also to book them. For example, users in Toronto, Montreal and Chicago can now pay for bikes and unlock them with the app, rather than inserting credit cards into bikeshare terminals. Vermette says up to 20% of Toronto and Chicago’s bikeshare unlockings come via Transit App.
Maps at the heart of the app
Earlier this year, Transit published an extensive Medium post explaining how it created its most recent iteration of its maps.
Creating a unified user experience in which the app works and looks the same whether a person is in Montreal, or Vancouver or Los Angeles – the last of which has 23 intersecting transit authorities – was of utmost importance. “We knew we needed maps, so we wanted to do it right,” Sion says.
So, too, was making something not only geographically accurate and easily understood, but also pleasing to the eye. “It’s a very pretty map,” Vermette says.
Urban design has been at the forefront of Vermette’s mind since his teen years, when he spent a lot of time playing SimCity, a city-building computer game. His more recent passion for transportation grew out of that early fascination with urbanism.
A lot can be learned about a city by observing how it moves its people around, he points out. It’s a large part of the reason why his favourite transit system he’s encountered so far is New York’s MTA.
“It’s very messy, it doesn’t always smell good, it’s dirty – but it’s just amazing how many people it moves,” Vermette says. “I like to call it a beautiful mess."