Why iOS 6 is good for transit

Apple’s new iOS 6 operating system is getting as much buzz for the newly added features as it is for what’s been removed: to the disappointment of many, Apple dropped the currently pre-installed Google Maps app, and with it Google’s transit directions. Future iOS users will need to install third-party apps for transit information.

The feature shake up with iOS 6 is part of a larger battle playing out around Google Maps. Like many other Google Maps users, Apple is dropping support in favor of an in-house solution. Google’s decision to start charging large users for maps, combined with an explosion of competitive alternatives has enabled users of all sizes to chart their own course. Apple’s move away from Google services is also part of a larger conflict between the two companies over Android and iPhone. Transit users are now counting themselves as collateral damage.

There’s been a lot of hand wringing over this change. However in the long-run this is great news for the transit community. Here’s why:

There’s tremendous opportunity for innovation in how we design and communicate information about personal mobility. Unfortunately the tools have not kept pace, in part due to a lack of proper incentives for new services. With iOS 6 Apple is building a market for new tools rather than offering a default solution.

In Washington, D.C. where I live, we’re redefining urban transportation. On any given day I might combine trains, buses, a shared bike and even reservationless one-way car rentals. This array of new options fundamentally changes how I move through the city.

How I best use these options also changes. Traffic accidents and road closures happen, Metro trains fail and Capital Bikeshare inventory ebbs and flows throughout the day. Depending on the actual bus arrival time or the distance to the nearest available Car2Go my best route may change radically from day to day.

Integrated and accurate information tools are key to navigating the incredible and complex multimodal future we’re building.

While Google Maps helps, it doesn’t solve every problem. Want to find the best combined bike/transit journey (important for my daily commute): no dice. New to the city and want to plan a safe trip using Capital Bikeshare? You’ll need to shuttle info between two sites. Unless you’re on an iPhone which doesn’t offer Google bike routing at all. Want to use a car share? Go elsewhere.

Software developers have a real opportunity to contribute solutions for these new challenges. New user interface designs and improved computational techniques can make huge impacts. However, we’ve seen relatively little innovation.

One possible reason is that Google’s free tools de-incentivize others from entering the market. iPhone and Android users have had little reason to download alternate apps, especially paid ones, when the pre-installed features solve much of the need. Unlike many other Google technologies, there’s no current option to extend the functionality for transit or other directions, or incorporate this data into non-Google apps.

Google offers a free utility to any transit operator willing to share their data (and legally indemnify Google). However, it’s very unlikely this service generates a profit for the company on its own. Instead it’s a loss-leader, cross-subsidized by revenue from other services. Transit in turn contributes to the overall value of Google Maps as a comprehensive platform.

Unless Google makes a big change in how it derives revenue from its consumer applications, transit isn’t going to be a major source of income. And without revenue and some healthy competition there’s less incentive for them to innovate.

As a startup it’s pretty hard to compete with something that one of the world’s largest tech companies decides to offer up as free service. Even transit operators, faced with shrinking budgets and limited staff, find themselves wondering if they should leave the responsibility of customer communication to Google – some do.

But Google’s biggest contribution to transit is not the end-user functionality in their map application. It is the catalyzation of an open standard for transit information. Before Google Transit it was nearly impossible to get timetables and stop locations from agencies in electronic formats — a requirement if you’re building an information service.

To solve the data problem, Google, in collaboration with TriMet, created a data standard known as GTFS (the General Transit Feed Specification) that allows agencies to share their schedules in a common format.  Now, anyone building an app in one city (including Google) can make that app work in another location as long as the transit operator shares their schedule in the GTFS format.

GTFS, along with other open data platforms like OpenStreetMap have made the development of universal, global transit services a real possibility. Similarly open source technologies, like OpenTripPlanner (built by OpenPlans, also in partnership with TriMet), have served as the foundation for companies and transit operators around the world to start offering new and innovative information services.

TriMet championed the creation of OpenTripPlanner to provide combined bike and transit functionality to users (an especially important feature if you’re in Portland, Oregon). At the time no other solution could do that. And Google still doesn’t.

This spring OpenPlans wanted to create a bike share trip planer ahead of the NYC Citi Bike launch. It turned out that this feature had already been implemented by another OpenTripPlanner developer, Laurent Grégoire, who wanted similar support for Paris’ Vélib bike share system.

Because OpenTripPlanner is open source and built on open data standards we were able to work together, rather than reinventing the same features. A few weeks later we launched cibi.me for New York — a trip planning first — and are working to bring it other cities in the U.S. Now bike share operators, software companies and individual developers around the globe can reuse this work to offer the same functionality in their communities.

Thanks to open data feeds like GTFS and OpenStreetMap, and open source tools like OpenTripPlanner, anyone can start a company that offers transit information services that are competitive with or even surpass Google’s existing offering. The more that do the more we’ll see competition on features and opportunities for innovation with new modes of transport.

In the short-term there will be some pain as new tools are developed, however in the long-run iOS 6 might do as much for transit innovation as GTFS and Google Maps.

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