Smartphone apps and services to help travelers in the “no car required” world
Modern technology has transformed how people navigate cities and metropolitan areas, regardless of the mode of travel they choose. In particular, it has made it remarkably easier to figure out how to use public transportation systems — a task that previously required carrying and understanding often complex maps and schedules. Now, you can simply type your destination into a smartphone and be guided how to get there using buses and trains, combined with walking. You can see when the next bus or train is predicted to arrive at your nearest stop, and easily figure out where individual routes go and where to connect between routes. Using transit when visiting an area saves a considerable amount of money and often lets you avoid traffic.
Here is a brief guide to some of the smartphone apps and services available to help travelers navigate an urban area after arriving without one’s car. Most of these services are available throughout the US, as well as in many cities abroad. Please feel free to share your own experiences with these and other shared mobility services in the comments or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or commenting on this post.
Apps for navigation via public transportation
- Transit app – The best all-around app for navigating unfamiliar transit systems. Virtually anywhere that has an Internet and GPS connection, pull up the app and it will show you departure times (either real-time, if the transit agency makes the live data available, or based on published schedules) for the nearest transit lines. Tap on a line and you will see a map of just that route, showing the stops and the locations of buses or trains on the line, either real-time or based on the schedule. Enter a destination and Transit will also give you directions for how to get there using a combination of public transportation and walking.
- Moovit – While Moovit’s interface isn’t as robust or intuitive for the simple purpose of seeing the next estimated or scheduled departures at a particular stop, it is the best for guiding you to your chosen destination on transit, step by step. Working the same way Google or Apple Maps does for driving, cycling or walking directions, Moovit will alert you two stops and one stop before where you are to get off the bus or train, and then tell you how to walk to your destination or to the next bus or train stop if making a transfer. Moovit also uses live tracking of users’ transit journeys to improve its predicted arrival times based on an average of how closely well-used routes adhere to their schedules, and allows users to provide feedback on the customer experience on a given route (safety, comfort, stop condition, etc.), thereby helping other users know what to expect.
- Note: For those who travel between cities and regions, Moovit asks you to switch to your new region based on GPS location, while Transit automatically shows your nearest routes no matter what city/region you’re in (as long as the app supports that region).
- Citymapper – This app has similar features to Transit and Moovit and its level of intuitiveness is somewhere between the two, but its main advantage is that it overlays maps of rail systems over street maps in an easily comprehensible manner, and allows you to access digital copies of maps provided by transit systems offline, provided they’ve been downloaded beforehand. Citymapper is not available in as many cities as Moovit and Transit.
- Google Maps and Apple Maps – Both these navigation apps (the latter of which is only available on iOS devices and comes pre-installed on iPhones and iPads) provide directions by transit as well as by car, bicycle and on foot, but they aren’t kept as closely up-to-date as the transit-only apps, do not always show real-time departure estimates, and aren’t geared towards transit users the way Transit, Moovit and Citymapper are. Google and Apple Maps provide general overviews of the best transit path from A to B, but if you need specific step-by-step guidance, Moovit is your best bet.
Bikeshare & bike rental
If you’re an experienced urban cyclist, or even just a casual tourist looking for an easy way to cruise around an attraction like Washington, DC’s National Mall, bikeshare systems (where you can pick up a bike at a docking station, rent it by the hour or half-hour, and return it at the same or another docking station) are convenient and often economical compared to renting a bike from a bike shop or tour company. Many individual city shared bicycle systems have their own apps that you can find by searching your device’s App Store. There is also an app called Spotcycle that shows docking station locations for most bikeshare systems and, when you tap on a station, shows how many bikes and empty docks are available at that station. Transit App (mentioned above) also shows bikeshare station locations and statuses. Two companies that run bike-share systems in various cities, B-Cycle and Zagster, also have their own apps. (Zagster allows users to reserve and pay in advance for bikes in the cities it serves. The app will give you a code to unlock the bike.)
Taxi & rideshare:
- Curb and MyTaxi – These apps allow you to hail and pay for a taxi using the app, the same way rideshare apps work, but using only taxis that meet local licensing and metering regulations.
- Uber and Lyft – These now well-known ridesharing apps offer varying levels of service (including less expensive, all-shared-ride options where you may share the vehicle with others going in your same general direction) and are now available just about everywhere in the US and in many places abroad.
- Other rideshare apps: There are a handful of smaller Uber-like apps that serve one or a few metro areas and have unique concepts. Several only provide shared rides (meaning that you may be matched with another rider en route who will share your car with you). Via, Gett, and RideGuru are examples.
If you absolutely need a car, there are many ways to get one affordably without having to deal with the major rental car companies (which often involves going to the airport and being subject to strict conditions and return times). I’ll have an overview of some of the app-based vehicle sharing and peer-to-peer rental services available next week.