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Transit Maps: Apple vs. Google vs. Us

If you come for the king, you best not miss...

July 22, 2016

Transit Maps. Apple Maps. Google Maps.

Transit maps are beautiful. You see them plastered on bus shelters and subway stops. Your parents kept one in their pockets. You might have one burned into your brain.

A transit map is much more than a list of stations. It’s the underlying anatomy of your city. It shows how people move, how neighbourhoods are connected, and how your craziest city adventures begin.

Brooklyn, New York City (where they paint murals of Biggie)

Of course, transit maps are also incredibly functional: they’re abstract diagrams that show you how your transit system works. They have rigid lines and fixed-angles. While they’re not geographically accurate, they do a pretty good job of helping you figure out how to get from A-to-B. Every transit line has a different colour, and intersecting lines show you where to transfer.

You can ask any transit agency designer: creating a transit map is a painstaking process. Transit agencies put lots of thought into making diagrams that are equally beautiful and functional…

Clockwise, from top left: Barcelona, Berlin, London, Paris, New York City, Montreal. (Notice how different each city’s design is.)

…although no two cities approach transit maps exactly the same way.

Which is great!

Unless you’re trying to design a transit map for every city in the world.

Imagine that: every transit line in every city, condensed into one, single, beautiful, curvy, map. Millions of stops, thousands of lines, hundreds of agencies.

Google Maps and Apple Maps have tried to do it, but we thought we could do better.

They have lots of resources. We don’t. But then again… we have Anton.

Map God

In this post, we’ll show you how Anton, our algorithm alchemist, took on both Apple and Google. He’ll be posting a technical follow up soon, so if you’re into that, we’ll let you know on Twitter. (If you want to take our word for it though, maybe just download our app? See our transit maps in all their titillating, unadulterated glory.)

Why we did it

Transit maps are hard. Really hard. Even for Apple and Google. Piecing a transit map together, city by city, agency by agency, stop by stop, without it turning into a hairy mess is INCREDIBLY difficult. So far, no one (not even Apple or Google) have been able to create a transit map that is both automatically generated and well designed. Why is that?

Let’s start with Apple. They try to make sure that their transit maps look “hand drawn”. Aesthetically, they’re quite nice. But Apple is notorious for taking a long time to add new transit to their maps. They only launched in a few cities, and release new markets very slowly. It seems like they’ve opted for a slow, manual process for their maps.

Oooh, pretty!

How about Google? They definitely don’t hand-draw their transit maps. Like us, they generate them automatically using algorithms. However, they look… well… kinda dreadful. (Sorry Sergey). Google often gets lazy, simply connecting transit stations with straight lines.

Notice how the train tracks are disjointed at various parts on Google’s transit map:

Go home Google, you’re drunk.

We wanted the prettiness of Apple’s slow solution, but the scalability of Google’s automatic process. In short, we wanted algorithms to draw beautiful transit maps.

Here’s what makes our transit maps special:

Unparalleled Curves

Google is great at doing things at scale. But they don’t always do it smoothly. Seriously, look at these transit lines. What is going on?

Washington D.C.: Transit vs. Apple vs. Google

Subways don’t actually travel in violent, jagged paths. It seems like someone on the maps team decided to connect transit stations with a combination of straight lines, and poorly-interpolated curves. In any case, Google’s transit maps hardly ever follow the actual path of transit routes.

Apple does a much better job. Like old-school, hand-drawn agency maps, you can see that Apple likes ‘em curvy. Nevertheless, their maps aren’t as smooth as ours.

Thanks to some clever maths, our maps use circle-arcs for even smoother curvesâ„¢. We also order our lines to prevent them from turning into a spaghetti mess: if a line is turning left, it will be the left-most line heading into the curve. Which means we have as few crossover lines as possible.

Unparalleled Curvesâ„¢ for the Chicago Loop
Integrated Regional Multimodal Maps

Transit doesn’t just mean “subway”. Transit can also mean “trams”, “bus rapid transit”, “commuter rail”, and more. There are multiple ways to get across your city, but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at a typical transit map.

Transit maps (at least the ones distributed by agencies) usually only show the lines operated by a particular agency for a particular mode. So if you pick up a subway map in New York City, you’ll only see MTA subway lines. If you pick up a Metro map in Montreal, you’ll only see STM metro lines.

However, transit systems don’t operate in a vacuum: some MTA Subway stops connect with New Jersey Transit and LIRR; some STM stops connect with AMT commuter rail.

Montreal Metro (left), NYC Subway (right)

If your transit trip spans different agencies, these single-agency maps will often let you down.

So instead of making you juggle multiple maps, we’re creating a transit map that integrates every rail and rapid transit network in your city. That includes subways, commuter rail, light rail, trams, streetcars, cable cars, gondolas, and even bus rapid transit (BRT FTW)!

Here again, Apple is pretty good at including multiple modes in their maps. Granted, they don’t include Bus Rapid Transit… thankfully, we do 😉

Google only shows subways. (Are they even trying?)

Transit in Boston: Showing the T, Commuter Rail and Silver Line — Boston’s BRT
Personalized Transit Maps

Then again, just because we show every network doesn’t mean you care about each one. We make it possible for you to switch off agencies and modes that you never use.

For example, in New York, you can pick a combination of any of the following:

  • Subways (MTA and PATH)
  • Commuter Rail (LIRR, Metro North, New Jersey Transit)
  • Light Rail (New Jersey)
  • Gondola (Roosevelt Island Tram)
Many ways to navigate the concrete jungle

So whether you’re a New Yorker who still hasn’t discovered New Jersey, a New Jerseyan who wants to undiscover the City, or a Green Goblin with a vendetta against the Roosevelt Island Tram, you can decide which transit agencies show up on your transit map.

You can’t do this with Apple or Google Maps. For them, it’s all or nothing.

Mapmaking Empire

While an agency (or Apple…) can take months to produce a decent transit map design, Anton’s scalable algorithm makes it possible to create transit maps instantaneously.

Which means today, we get to launch system maps in 55 cities across the US, Canada, France, Italy, UK, Germany and Australia.

If your city is one of Transit App’s supported cities with rail or rapid transit, you should be ready to roll.

Los Angeles: Transit vs Apple vs Google
Toronto: Transit vs Apple vs Google
Paris: Transit vs Apple vs Google

Of course, 55 cities is just the beginning. We’ll be adding many more cities in the coming months, and we’ll also be making improvements to our transit map designs. Support for regular buses, better station labels, thinner highways, and transit-friendly points of interest are things we’ve already started working on.

Transit maps are also just one of our projects to help empower transit riders. So if you want…

  • Real-time info on when the next bus or train is coming (not available on Apple Maps!)
  • Alarms that tell you when to leave your house to catch your ride
  • Push notifications that alert you about service disruptions
  • The ability to reserve an Uber, book a car2go, or buy a bike-sharing pass

…you’re thankfully only one click away from the best Transit App out there 😉

Happy mapping!

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