Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A small team in Montreal has taken on the two tech giants to design a cleaner, more functional transit map.
Over more than a decade, Google has hired thousands of developers and spent billions of dollars to essentially set the standard for navigation apps. Its biggest rival, Apple Maps, has also come a long way from the embarrassing glitches of its early days. Together, they dominate the mobile mapping market.
But their maps aren’t perfect, which leaves room for competitors to fill in the various gaps. One such competitor is the small team behind a popular public-transit app called, a bit dryly, Transit App. In their bid to create a fully functional map that would include every transit mode in a city without sacrificing aesthetics, the Montreal-based company of just 17* developers, designers, and cartographers are taking the two tech giants head on. “Google Maps and Apple Maps have tried to do it, but we thought we could do better,” they wrote last week on Medium.
Transit maps are complicated, so much so that even Apple and Google—with their abundant manpower—haven’t been able to perfect them. Each city has its unique set of complex public transportation networks, some with just subways and buses, others with cable cars, streetcars, and light rails. Transit agencies create their own maps, carefully crafting them so that it all makes sense to commuters.
“Every city has its own diagram, and people follow their fingers along the maps to understand the system as a whole,” Anton Dubrau, a cartographer and backend developer for Transit App, tells CityLab. “They're not just maps. They're something that connects people to the city.”
But that connection gets lost when mapmakers have to throw all of the twists and turns within a transit system onto one map. Look below, for example, at how Transit App, Apple, and Google, respectively, map the lines around the Chicago Loop. Lines haphazardly cross one another on Apple’s map, while on Google’s map, five routes of Chicago’s L train all converge into one indistinguishable line.
Google uses an algorithm that allows the company to automatically generate maps for any city. It incorporates data from both public transit agencies and user-experience data to offer the fastest routes. But as Dubrau and his team write on Medium, Google can get lazy. He points out the jagged and disjointed lines along Chicago’s L routes. “You don't know which lines go where, so how can you possibly use that as a map? You can't [trace] you finger along it and say, 'There's the purple line that goes from there to there,’” he says. “It's a jumbo mess.”
Apple, on the other hand, has a cleaner map, one that looks almost hand-drawn in its level of detail. It uses available real-time transit data in some cities, and the creators tout that they pay special attention to each city’s “transit culture.” But its transit maps roll out slowly, and are currently available in only a handful of cities.
Dubrau says his team wanted their maps to combine the beauty of Apple’s with the scalability of Google’s. Those maps, however, took years and a lot of work to develop. They’re constantly being updated: Apple announced this week that it was adding even more cities ahead of an upcoming iOS update, and Google made a slew of improvements to its visual designs and features in July.
So how can the startup’s team compete?
Transit App, which helps users plan their commutes by showing them the nearest public-transit options and real-time arrivals and departures, has come up with its own map using a special algorithm created by Dubrau. The maps are available 55 cities, including New York City, Paris, and Sydney; the app is available for use in 125 cities*.
Dubrau’s algorithm makes maps a little clearer—for example, recognizing when multiple transit lines run along the same street, even if they’re headed to different stops. That way, the lines can be drawn parallel to one another—a process, he says, that took months to perfect. Smoothed-out curves, he adds, not only keep those lines parallel, but also make the map appear more like the ones public transit agencies hand out.
Then there’s the problem of including different available modes of transportation as cities increasingly embrace the multimodal approach. New York City, for example, has subways, buses, light rails, ferries, and even Airtrains. Here, the team stressed the importance of customization, or allowing users to select which modes they want to see or hide. "The beauty is that the app knows where you are; we have your GPS, so we can show you things relevant to your location and to your needs,” says Jake Sion, Transit App’s director of strategy and development. “If you never ride commuter trains, you can remove them from your map."
He adds that this is just the beginning of the future for transit maps. Companies like his are racing to find the best way to incorporate multimodal transit and deliver the best real-time data so users can be rerouted in case of disruption—kind of like what driving tools like Waze have done.
“Google and Apple to me are kind of the Swiss Army knives of mapping. And we think that urban transportation and public transit in particular is complex enough to warrant a dedicated application,” he says. “Transit is not an afterthought.”
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the number of people on Transit App’s team, as well as the number of cities where the map and app are available for use.