6 Free Public Transit Tracking Apps Worth Downloading

by  Christine Wei | Feb 6, 2014
iPhone / Farknot_Architect/iStock

It’s no secret that Google Maps is a lifesaver if you’re traveling without a car. Generally, this, and similar sites like Hopstop, are incredibly reliable for planning your travel route on public transportation. But what if you want more precise information – like when to leave for the station in order to make the next train, for example, or detailed schedules that tell you how often buses and trains arrive?

This is where locally-based transit apps come in. A whopping 246 public transit systems across the nation make schedule and GPS-generated location  data accessible to developers so they can incorporate them into new programs. Here are some of the best free transit apps for iOs and Android that are worth downloading before your next trip...

NYC: CityMapper
The do-it-all CityMapper is one of the most comprehensive free transit apps we’ve seen. It has a web-based counterpart, and an easy-to-use interface. It offers both an itinerary planner as well as location-based searches for the nearest subway lines, buses, rail stations, and even bike share stations. Walking times to train stations are conveniently listed for each line, and selecting your intended direction will pull up a rundown of times. Likewise, tapping on a bus station displays estimated arrival for the next two to five buses. Also helpful: A tool that roughly estimates walking distance around stations, so you can better estimate how far away the stations are at a glance. (It's also available for London and Paris.)

Boston: OpenMBTA
While OpenMBTA is one of the older transit apps on the market, it’s remained popular thanks to its simplicity. The app tracks the T subway, buses, commuter rail, and even boats. The one drawback is that users need to already know what route they’re taking, so it’s best for someone who either is familiar with the transit system, or has done their routing research elsewhere, say, on Google Maps. (See Transit App under “Portland” for location-based transit searches in Boston.)

How it works: Select your preferred line, then the app will pull up the nearest stops and stations near you. It displays an area map and the next three arrival times. Other nice functions include the option to save favorites – like the closest stop to your hotel – and a copy of the general transit schedule for extra reference.

Chicago: Moovit
The Moovit app covers lots of locations, but it's not pulling real-time data from all of them (including NYC). Luckily for Windy City visitors, the app does track GPS data from many trains and buses in that city. (Chicago Transit Authority hasn’t released open data for all routes.) In the app, real-time data is displayed in orange, along with information about the next train's location and arrival time at your stop. Otherwise, the scheduled time will appear in black. From here, you can view a map displaying where your train or bus is, and watch it inching along.

Seattle: Transit App
The gorgeous Transit App covers Seattle as well as Portland, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia. It's one of the least complicated, but also most intuitive apps to use. Opening the program prompts it to automatically pinpoint your location and pull up a list of nearby transit lines with upcoming arrival times. Tapping on the line gets you subsequent arrival times, as well as mapped station locations, the option to save stations as favorites, and full transit schedules. One major plus: Once you load your nearby routes, they'll be accessible offline - great to use in underground stations without reception.

San Francisco: Routesy
This app tracks routes for BART, a regional system in and out of the city limits, and for Muni, the network of rails, buses, and cable cars running within the city. In the free version of Routesy, functions for the Muni and BART are similar to how OpenMBTA works for Boston: the user has to select the line and route first, then the app automatically highlights the closest station. Arrival times for the next hour and distances to the stations are displayed for both systems, and you can bookmark any of the stations and stops.

Washington, D.C.: DC Metro and Bus 
Our favorite thing about this app (which has similar versions for Chicago and Los Angeles) is that it automatically refreshes the data it's pulled and clears departed trains and buses from your list. But you also have the option of refreshing manually for more up-to-the-second information. Otherwise, this app allows you to search nearby stations or pick a specific one from a list of routes, functioning much like the others in the list. It also includes a PDF of the L map for offline access, as well as a general list of current transit alerts and delays.

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