Margaret Guroff is a magazine editor in Washington, D.C. She is the author of The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life.
In search of apps for commuters who can’t keep their eyes open
The best things about a long bus or train commute—the rhythmic rocking, the soothing white noise, the forced idleness—are also perilous: You might fall asleep. And the longer your daily commute, the more likely you are to be sleep deprived and susceptible to grabbing—or being grabbed by—an onboard nap.
Which raises the issue of how not to miss your stop. While some subway snoozers are able to reliably rouse themselves in time, possibly via subconscious micro-awakenings at every stop, others risk waking up to find themselves at the end of the line, or aboard an empty train in a desolate maintenance yard. As a sometime sleeper on D.C.-area mass transit, I recently had a great idea—developing a smartphone app that could sound an alert just before the user’s stop. Then, as frequently happens, I went to the app store and discovered with a mix of disappointment and relief that someone else (actually several someones) had already had my idea.
The app I chose from among the available options—OmniBuzz for iPhone—is both highly rated and free. Because it relies on GPS signals that can’t travel far underground, it doesn’t work dependably at all Metro stations, but it works at the station where my office is, and it has become a trusted backstop on bus journeys to unknown locales. On one recent trip to a new exurban spot, the app’s tubular-bellish alarm hustled me off the bus within a few yards of my destination, and I felt irrationally proud of myself for arriving—a straphanger in a strange land.
OmniBuzz’s creator, Jessica Yeh, says this is the purpose for which she built the app. On a vacation to San Francisco last year, “I took public transportation everywhere,” she recalls. “Since I was unfamiliar with the area, I was constantly staring at a maps app to track my location. This got old really fast.” Yeh searched for a bus alarm app but couldn’t find one to her liking, so when she got home to Dallas, she made her own. OmniBuzz’s interface is relatively simple compared to the competitors I looked at: You drop a pin on a map and that’s basically it. Yeh hopes to offer a version for Android in the future.
For commuters whose destination is underground, there doesn’t seem to be a 100-percent accurate napping alarm on the market yet. Most of the location-alert apps for both Apple and Android use GPS, which has subterranean limitations. So do Google Now, which offers transit arrival alarms, and the iOS Reminders app, which can be used to create location alerts. One intriguing 2013 Android app sought to bring napping alerts to New York subway riders by using the phone’s accelerometer to count stops, but it has been removed from Google Play (its creator didn’t respond to requests for comment).
Since she released her app last year, Yeh has moved to Seattle to take a job at Microsoft. There, she has little opportunity for transit naps: She lives across the street from work, and her commute can be measured in seconds. It’s a setup about which a sleepy long-haul commuter can only dream.