Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Shelly Brisbin

Apple Maps’ missing transit link

Apple Maps triptych
Here’s the same location, shown in Explore, Driving, and Transit modes in Maps. Each screen is a bit zoomed in, and they’re all shown in Dark Mode. Note the low-contrast gray-on-gray of the Transit view.

I am a frequent transit user — or I was before the pandemic. That distinction is important because, on a pair of recent trips, I came back into content with transit and Apple Maps in a way that left me scratching my head. Was it like this before?

Maps image of walking on a dotted line.
Here’s what you see when you plot a transit trip and get off the bus a few blocks from your destination. Not terrible, but a turn-by-turn option with higher contrast text would be better.

When I’m in Austin, Texas, where I live, I use the excellent Transit app to find bus and train connections. Mostly, I’m looking for departure times and connections. I don’t really need turn-by-turn directions, because I know where the Republic Square station is, thank you very much. But when I spent a few days each in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, over the summer, I relied on Apple Maps for transit and walking directions. The experience was a mixed bag.

Both cities are extremely transit-friendly and walkable. I’ve spent time in each before, but I don’t have the street grids committed to memory. And as someone with low vision, I like having a live map and turn-by-turn directions to keep me on track. It’s far easier for me than reading street signs.

In the early days of transit in Maps — iOS 9 was the first release to support it — turn-by-turn walking directions were available. To be fair, transit directions rolled out slowly across the world, so you couldn’t just show up anywhere and get bus schedules. And the interface was far different than it is today — less integrated with the rest of Maps. This 2016 WWDC video shows what early transit support looked like in Maps.

Sadly, the turn-by-turn feature is no more for transit trips. If you enter a destination, then choose a transit-based trip, Maps will plot a route that includes both transit and walking segments needed to get you where you’re going. And once I step into the bus or train, it keeps up with the route and gives me a nudge on my phone and/or watch when my stop is near. But before I can board the bus in a partially familiar town, I need walking directions to the stop.

What I get instead is a map with a dotted line showing my walking route. It updates as I move but does not offer turn-by-turn directions, as it would if I had chosen a driving or walking trip. So the map won’t remind me to make turns along the way, either visually or with speech. And it won’t reroute me if I go wrong. Had I simply plotted a walking route to the bus stop, Maps would have given me turn-by-turn guidance and the audio feedback I want, piped directly into my ear and onto my wrist.

Unfamiliar Territory

In dense downtown areas with lots of tall buildings around, you could also end up being derailed by GPS glitches that keep your phone from updating its position as often as it should. That can be a problem whatever mode you’re using to travel, but it’s more pronounced when you’re walking, especially when you’re navigating an unfamiliar place. Without turn-by-turn directions, it’s slower to get your bearings again once your phone makes renewed contact with the satellites, or even to be sure you’re receiving data when your little dot stops moving along the dotted line on the map.

A little personal perspective here: my low vision causes me to be extremely sensitive to light. It’s hard to read my phone in direct sunshine. The spoken aspect of turn-by-turn directions, along with a full-screen display that updates my progress, is something I sorely miss when walking to a bus stop with Maps. Additionally, Maps displays labels differently when you’re in Transit mode than it does in Explore or Driving mode. In Explore or Driving, street names use high contrast with the roads themselves. In Transit mode, it’s gray text on gray streets. I did a sort of “blind taste test” of this disparity, handing my phone to my fully-sighted husband and inviting him to navigate to the nearest Portland train station. He noticed the poor contrast right away, with no prompting from me.

Alternatives and Workarounds

Image of Google Maps transit
Google Maps’ walking layout for a transit trip is similar to Apple’s, including the dotted line pointing the way to the bus stop. But the contrast is better, and if you zoom in enough, you’ll see pop-out street labels.

Having gotten myself turned around one too many times in Portland, I wanted to find a fix for my turn-by-turn transit problem. I checked out walking directions in both Transit and Google Maps. Like Apple Maps, each will draw a walking route on screen and then give you pretty snazzy transit-focused guidance, once you’re riding. Transit’s real-time, crowd-sourced Go Mode gives you vehicle ETAs, and keeps an eye on delays. But mapping for walking segments mirrors Apple Maps. There are no turn-by-turn offerings. From my perspective, it’s no better or worse, no easier to read.

Google Maps, whose greatest failing, again from my low vision perspective, is the lack of support for dynamic type sizes in iOS, at least has a map display that’s somewhat easier to read, with higher contrast between roads, labels and backgrounds than Apple Maps.

For me, the only practical workaround is to first plan a transit trip as I normally would, choosing departure and destination points, and choosing the best route, and noting where my first bus stop is located. If I use turn-by-turn guidance to the stop, I’ll start over, rerouting from my current location to the bus stop, using walking mode in Maps. Once I reach my stop, I’ll repeat the transit trip.

If you’re wondering whether iOS 16’s new “Add a Stop” feature will help here, the answer is no. It’s only available for driving trips.

[Shelly Brisbin is a radio producer, host of the Parallel podcast, and author of the book iOS Access for All. She's the host of Lions, Towers & Shields, a podcast about classic movies, on The Incomparable network.]

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