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In-depth Review: Apple's iOS 6 Maps & the alternatives 3: Transit

What was wrong with iOS 5 Maps

Because Apple relied entirely upon Google for transit directions in iOS 5, it couldn't offer anything other than what Google chose to supply (or the agencies that wanted to give Google their information). In iOS 6, you can still access Google's transit via the web or through a variety of apps that get their data from Google. In many cases, these apps provide better information from Google than Apple was presenting in its own app. Other apps bypass Google altogether to present more accurate transit data.

Some of the transit deficiencies in iOS 5 Maps were due to the fact that Apple didn't offer an optional transit layer showing lines between stops (as Google itself does in its Android app, or its online web app). In iOS 5 Maps, you also couldn't tap on a transit stop and see what lines serve it, when the next vehicles are arriving, or plot out a route and see how much it would cost. These are all possible from Google's Android and web apps (albeit via a rather wonky interface), or from specialized iOS apps that use Google Transit or get their own transit information independently.

Apart from lacking support for the full range of features that Google Transit provides, iOS 5 Maps also suffered from Google's fair to poor representation of transit. If you live somewhere that transit is relatively simple and runs perfectly on time, Google's maps and transit directions may work acceptably. But if you live in a place like that, you probably don't really need help navigating the system.

Introduce enough complications and Google Transit often starts to fall down, as noted in the previous examples. Google's depiction of Church and Market Streets in San Francisco, even on Android with its transit layer on, fails to show enough information to know where you catch can catch a bus, or even the direction of one-way routes. It makes more sense to consult a transit map than to try to figure out Google's. Ask for directions and things start to improve, indicating that Google knows more about transit that it puts on its map (such as the actual location of bus stops).

Transit information in iOS 6 Maps

With the move to its own Maps in iOS 6, Apple had the choice between maintaining Google as its exclusive partner for transit, or opening things up so that anyone could offer directions, for public transit or any other means of getting around. Apple's minimal user interface for Google Transit information in iOS 5 was sometimes serviceable, but fell short of the potential third parties could deliver with specialized solutions for specific areas or modes of transportation.

The situation for transit initially seems to be worse in Apple's new iOS 6 Maps: rather than showing only the major subway stops and only a limited number of bus stops, iOS 6 Maps typically shows transit stops as just a generic point of interest, rather like a post office or bank. In place of Google's fair to poor transit information, Apple is making it clear there is essentially nothing in iOS 6 to help you with public transportation, at least until you ask a helper app for routes.

In San Francisco, Apple still doesn't show bus stops. Surface streetcars and subway metro stations share a generic train icon (a step back). Apple gives every transit system (such Muni, Bart and Caltrain) gets the same generic train icon, or sometimes a generic bus icon that's also used to represent transit offices and other transportation-related points of interest. As with iOS 5, there are no route indications for anything other than ferries and (occasionally) the visible surface tracks of regional trains.

Apple actually refers to Caltrain as the "Southern Pacific Railroad" (which it hasn't been since 1985) in the select places it bothers to label train stations on Caltrain's route through Apple's own backyard of Silicon Valley. Tapping a transit label provides nothing more than a panel listing its street address (only a slight improvement over Google's stop labels in iOS 5, which couldn't even be selected), and sometimes, an empty Yelp review of the station.

Most subway stations in iOS 6 have multiple icons scattered around them, each with different names (Google's iOS 5 depictions weren't really much better). Near Apple's flagship retail store at Union Square, there are three icons representing what is the Muni/Bart Powell Street metro station in iOS 6. However, these icons don't pinpoint station entrances, not even the one that is integrated into the side of Apple's store. They're just clutter.

In iOS 5, Apple didn't show station entrances and subterranean passages here either, nor does Google in its own web and Android apps (despite the fact that Google does show such information in Japan; Google's Android app also shows multilevel indoor maps for nearby Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, but not the rest of the San Francisco Center mall that integrates underground with the Powell metro station and Hallidie Plaza. Wayfinding through the mall and multimodal subway station is probably more helpful that pointing out where children's clothes are in a department store.)

Google's web app (and Android app) labels three "stations" at Powell Station, two representing the underground subway systems and the other listing all the busses and streetcars that stop on the surface of Market Street. Clicking on one pulls up a list of all the routes and departure times.

This is better than Apple's complete lack of information, but if you didn't already know how to navigate the system, all this information is a bit of a mess to wade through. You'd probably want to ask for directions, and if you're going to do that rather than look at the map for guidance, you might as well launch a specialized app designed especially to provide detailed transit routes.

As noted earlier, Embarcadero enhances iOS 6 with both transit directions and a version of Apple's map with every transit stop pinned (there are eleven different stops represented on the block of Powell Station). Clicking on a stop shows every line that serves that particular location. This level of detail isn't necessary for most towns in the U.S., validating Apple's open, market-based solution to transit as opposed to Google's "one size fits all" approach.