Thursday, January 26, 2012

OC App Wishlist

A recent news story unveiled that official OC Transpo apps are just around the corner for iPhone, down the road for Android, and... eventually for Blackberry. This will give commuters an official alternative to the current go-to site, which while nice to have, it isn't the easiest to use.

OC Transpo's mobile website competently shows you the schedules for the stops, stations, and bus routes throughout the city. It also has fare and contact information, OC-related news releases, information on detours and cancelled trips, and a cumbersome travel planner that tells you how to get from point A to point B.

How can a smartphone app improve on this? Im hoping in many, many ways. Here's a wish list of sorts that will make for a better on-the-go OC Transpo experience. Do you have any ideas? Post 'em below!


We all have map applications on our smartphones, I certainly use mine all the time. Maps are conspicuously absent from the .mobi site. It tells you the stops along a route, but it doesn't show you exactly where that route is, or even give you those stylized maps you see at bus stops.

A new app needs to highlight a route on a map of Ottawa so that you can see where it goes. Its good to know that the 87 goes from South Keys to Baseline. It's great to know the stupidlong route it takes. It goes without saying that the app needs to take a cue from Google Map's directions feature and highlight your travel plan on an actual map. Bonus points if it shows which side of the street your stop is on!

2) GPS

The mobile site's biggest failure is that it doesn't tell me where I am. There's no big red "you are here" dot to help me get to a bus. I want to be able to know where I am and have the app tell me where the nearest bus stop is. The travel planner should use my location as a starting point for planning my trip. It's natural and probably the most useful location I'll ever use when planning a trip.


OC Transpo is making a huge fuss about finding ways to monetize its live bus location data so much so it resisted releasing it to third party app developers to make their own OC Apps. The current 560-560 texting program is useful but unreliable in that you don't know whether it's actual GPS data or if it's the suggested timetables you can find online or printed on those little bus pamphlets. After all, not every bus currently reports this information, and it isn't always available.

The app must not only use this GPS data, but clearly indicate whether the reported times are GPS-based, or timetable-based. Users should be able to switch between the two and see whether the bus is running early or late. Bonus points if the app shows the approximate location of your bus on a map using GPS data.

4) Countdowns

Please tell me when a bus is going to be at my stop. Please also tell me how many minutes that away that is. I can do the math, but please save me the mental exercise! This is a simple feature that most of the currently available bus apps, including Bus Buddy Ottawa, pictured above.

5) Travel Planner with a Memory

The one thing that makes me cringe every time I use the travel planner is that I have to enter addresses or look up landmarks every time - even though it's usually the same set of 5 or 6 addresses and landmarks. With a dedicated app, I better be able to save common addresses and favorite locations to quickly and easily look create travel itineraries. Better yet, it would be nice to use contact lists as a source for addresses.

I would also like to save commonly-used bus routes or stops as well. An OC Transpo app will be most useful if you can personalize it to your needs.

6) Live Updates / Travel Planner 2.0

My biggest fear when I went to Carleton was that I would get to Bayview only to discover that O-Train would be down, forcing me to find a new route to campus - and be late in the process. The biggest problem with the Travel Planner now is that it's easy to miss connections because of early, late, or cancelled trips. It's also a hassle to update an itinerary when you need to make a change.

A new app needs a travel planner that can notify me if I'm not going to make a connection. This should be fairly easy to do based on current live updates and GPS data. The travel planner can then update my trip to compensate for these kinds of issues. And just like that, I no longer have to say, "I should have stayed on that bus!"

7) contact forms

The .mobi site has phone numbers you can use to call various OC Transpo departments. It recently added email addresses that you can tap to send an email. What it lacks are the actual forms that you can fill out on the full website. An app needs to have forms you can easily fill out for complaints and other issues that you experience on the go.

This could lead to more complaints being sent OC Transpo's way, but it might also give them a more realistic picture of problem spots that need addressing.

8) Get Off Here Notification

Wouldn't it be nice if the app told you where to get off? It would take the edge off traveling to new, exotic Ottawa locales (I'm looking at you, Kanata). It would also double as an alarm clock of sorts for those of us who end up snoozing on those longer trips around town. Missing stops because of napping? No more!

9) Presto Info

We're eventually getting those cool smart cards that will allow us to load fare money on some plastic so that we can tap our way around town. Bus passes, photos, tickets, transfers, incorrect change... It will all a thing of the past. Someday. Hopefully this summer.

An OC Transpo app needs to be set up off the bat to allow transit users the ability to (or at the very least, point to a place where one can) look up balances, top up balances, and the like.

10) Clever ads

Any app from OC Transpo had better be free. Every free app comes with  one thing: ads. Really, what that means is that there will likely be obnoxious ad bars along the top or bottom of the app. Ads after all generate revenue, and OC Transpo loves revenue! Rather than seeing generic ads that I probably will never click, I would like to see the app tell me something about my destination.

Since there likely won't be a "no ads" option, I would rather the app suggest things that I can do along my travels. "Oh, you're going to Rideau Centre? The Source is having a sale!" or "Hey, you're planning a trip to Dow's Lake? Why not try paddle boating?" or "Visiting the Casino? check out the Fireworks competitions!" OC Transpo can really get on the local and hyper local marketing bandwagon. Maybe in the process, I can learn something about my city.

Friday, January 13, 2012

OC Smoking

I remember a time when Carlingwood had two-tier food court seating. The lower level was designated non-smoking while the elevated platform welcomed smokers to light up while grabbing a bite to eat. The mall hallways were lined with ashtrays, and even the mall's restaurant had a cigarette vending machine.

While it hasn't been that long since Ottawa has been curbing smoking in public areas, it's been aggressive. When traveling to other cities and other countries, I get a sense that something is off when I see someone lighting up in a restaurant, when I'm asked, "smoking or non-smoking," or my hotel room has that slight, stale scent of tobacco lingering in the air. It just doesn't feel right.

A recent trip to Japan showed me outdoor cigarette vending machines. Weird.

As far back as I can remember, smoking on buses has been forbidden. The same goes with bus shelters, where the blue, red, or translucent line across the glass has always indicated them to be smoke-free zones. In fact, all transit property is smoke-free. While there is some debate as to whether the city's "9-meter radius" of smoke-free zones truly applies to transit, bus stops themselves are transit property, and thus to apply to this rule.

No smoking in shelters - or at bus stops.

Over the past few days, Twitter has been abuzz about this story, where a driver had asked a woman to move from standing by the front of the bus because she smelled of cigarette smoke. She felt offended and discriminated against. Nowhere does anyone point out that she was breaking a by-law. According to city by-law, she shouldn't have been smoking at the bus stop waiting for her bus, which she admits to doing.

It's a good point, but it's beside the point.

As a passenger, I come across all kinds of smells. KFC. Perfume. Cologne (far too much cologne -- guys, you don't have to bathe in the stuff). New-bus smell. Cat-in-heat. BO. And yes, cigarettes. Normally I brave it out as the City of Ottawa bus ad reminds us passengers to be "considerate" and "scent-free." As much as I would love to gift some of my fellow commuters some soap or gum or a bottle of Febreeze, I'm sure there are social etiquettes against doing so. The only times where I will take action involve me locating another seat, and that's only when my allergies are already doing a number on my nose. Otherwise, I tough it out for a few stops.

Drivers should have the same respect. Screenshot from

However, a being driver is different. The driver needs to be focused, and quite honestly, I want my driver to be focused. There are reasons why you can't blare music on a bus or stand in the front well, or why drivers can't play with cell phones, or why the bus is dimmed at night and why the driver seat seems isolated from the bus: it's so the driver doesn't get distracted. If the driver feels distracted, he or she can ask you to simmer down your antics, or ask you to step off. It's really a bonus that relieving a distraction usually means a quieter, easier commute for everyone else on board.

Distracted drivers are more prone to making mistakes, like missing your requested stop, failing to notice someone at or running to a stop, or colliding with another vehicle, a bicyclist, or a even pedestrian. If the driver is distracted, he or she should be able to try to reduce that distraction, even when it comes to smells. The City of Ottawa says that drivers cannot ask passengers to move on the grounds of scent, but I hope they will consider the potential risks of such a distraction.

Other reading:
Drives In Circles Blog: Smoker Raises Stink:

OpenFile Ottawa: Can OC Transpo Drivers Ask Smokers to Move to the Back of the Bus?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lonley, Broken Seat

What a common sight on our buses, the seat cushion popping off the bench. Embarrassing. Nobody ever chooses to sit beside this seat, let alone replace the cushion. How long does it take before they're fixed?

I really hate those seats that feel like they've got sealed Whoopee Cushions inside them. I hope this isn't what causes them to pop up.

Stare deep into the well. Is there anything of value in there? How does all that garbage get there in the first place? It's not like this is all new garbage, and I doubt people force such trash between the seats...

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Big Change


It appears that someone is unhappy about the new route changes coming on September 4. In fact, they were so unhappy that their thoughts were able to shatter the glass showing off the route reduction. Yes, that's how it happened.

I've had quite a few people strike up a conversation with me in the last little while, starting with how much they hate these changes. "They jack up the price of the passes and cut the service. It's just not fair," noted one nice lady, with bright red hair and a strong French accent. Another older woman described how she had been at the bus stop a long time because her bus hadn't come at :15 like the post says it does, though last time she took it, it came at :45. She added, "these new times are confusing, they don't even work for 5 weeks."

Twitter is abuzz with the same sentiments. A fair chunk of the OC Transpo mentions out there are about the route changes being posted prematurely, and how the new changes completely ruin people's commutes.

A few months back, OC Transpo did hold public meetings to discuss the proposed changes, some tweaks did com out of those meetings. I think it was really hard for a lot of people to see how their routes would actually change. There would have been a stronger response if the public could use a travel planner prior to those meetings to see how the changes would actually affect them. Also, if more people had heard that they were happening.

I know why all these changes are happening. We the city of Ottawa need to make sure that our transit system be more self-sufficient. That means cutting costs. We (Ottawa) tried to do so changing the drivers' schedules to limit overtime (and failed, from what I hear), and cutting routes is next. And yes, it will cut costs.

I think that the value of OC Transpo to its commuters will drop more than the costs that they will save. A lot of people have a hard time justifying $94 a month for the current level of service, let alone what it's about to become.

The city will feel pressure to restore some of these routes - a few years back my local route was trimmed down, but the community fought to have night service restored, and it was.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

OC Stations: Walkley

When you're commuting day in and day out, it's easy to forget or ignore or simply not think about the stations to which you travel. They are often reduced to a name or a "point A" along your trip home or to work. Through this hyper-familiarity, the unique features of each of the stations get lost.

This week, I want to pause at some of the OC Transpo stations (in no particular order) and really highlight what makes them unique and interesting. Perhaps next time you're out and about, you will also slow down and enjoy these features that you may otherwise not even notice.
Walkley Station

Walkley Station, with its red tube and concrete charm, is a blip on the Transitway. There is nothing extraordinary about it.

Except the maps.

Six maps, etched out in stone and concrete, line the supports underneath Walkley Rd. They capture the history of the Ottawa region, travelling in time from the early European settlers through the Canal development, becoming the capital city, and eventually today (or, rather 1993 - which was almost 20 years ago. yikes!).

Each of the maps in A Brief History of Ottawa are a slice of time, with specific dates underneath them. 1826? That's when Canal construction began. 1855? Bytown becomes the city of Ottawa. 1993? I guess that's when suburbs took over.

To help jog everyone's memory, there are word pairs that can be found on both the northbound and southbound transit platforms. Canal : Défense. Loisir : Urban. Just a head's up, when you Google "Outaouacs", the search engine thinks you mean "Outaouais".

Artist Adrian Göllner managed to take the region's history, boil it down to the most important events, and show it off in an interesting way - in an awkward space to boot!

Did you know? If this were updated or created today, a map would probably be used to reflect the 2001 amalgamation, possibly the most important event to happen in the region in 20 years. Or would it show Ottawa's development as Silicon Valley North?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

OC Stations: Carling

When you're commuting day in and day out, it's easy to forget or ignore or simply not think about the stations to which you travel. They are often reduced to a name or a "point A" along your trip home or to work. Through this hyper-familiarity, the unique features of each of the stations get lost.

This week, I want to pause at some of the OC Transpo stations (in no particular order) and really highlight what makes them unique and interesting. Perhaps next time you're out and about, you will also slow down and enjoy these features that you may otherwise not even notice.

Carling Station

Carling Station only serves the O-Train. It's a tiny, but important stop, as it opens up to a number of Ottawa attractions like Dow's Lake, Commissioner's Park, Little Italy, and Dow Honda. If you ever want to paddle boat, skate, see tulips, or buy a car (but not because you can't stand OC Transpo, right?), this is the place to go - it even says as much when you walk down those shallow steps:

In fact, that's pretty much all you see when you reach the platform. It's slightly below grade, so you don't see much - at first. After a second glance, maybe you'll notice how beautiful the area is.

A quick look up or to the right, you'll see a vast sky, vegetation, and rock - it's hard to believe that it's right in the middle of a busy part of the city. In the fall season, the oranges, yellows, and browns are a sure sight - probably one of the best views you'll have waiting for, well, the O-Train.

Look around even more and you'll discover a marsh- like environment. Undisturbed grasses grow tall in a quiet everlasting puddle. This probably means mosquitoes - but the nearby birds (there are many here) aren't complaining. Can you spot the duck?

Is that a snail's shell up on those rocks?

Rain water flows down the cliffs. The colour of the rock is incredible! Is it sulphur? As the weather cools and the water (and later, melting snow) drips down, massive icicles form, and eventually cover the wall with undulating layers of ice. If OC Transpo was feeling festive, they could string along some LED lights in the fall that would light up the ice wall come winter and really give people something to stare at for that quick one-minute stop between Bayview and Carleton.

Did you know? The O-Train passes under Dow's Lake after stopping at Carling station, before Carleton. The operator honks a horn just before entering the tunnel, probably to warn any brave explorers...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

OC Stations: Longfields

When you're commuting day in and day out, it's easy to forget or ignore or simply not think about the stations to which you travel. They are often reduced to a name or a "point A" along your trip home or to work. Through this hyper-familiarity, the unique features of each of the stations get lost.

This week, I want to pause at some of the OC Transpo stations (in no particular order) and really highlight what makes them unique and interesting. Perhaps next time you're out and about, you will also slow down and enjoy these features that you may otherwise not even notice.

Longfields Station

This is the newest addition to the Transitway network - and it looks it. Maybe it's the new factor, maybe it's because I've only visited once, but this is certainly - in my opinion - the nicest station by far.  If I could go and redesign every station, I would use this as my inspiration. It's curvy and bold with its use of glass and metal.

 Longfields is clearly part of a longer term strategy for the Transitway because it doesn't seem to do very much right now. Not many buses come by, and nobody seemed to be out and about while I was there.

The underpass to the other side of the station is very open. Warmly-coloured tiles and natural light from above keep it from feeling like a damp, concrete cave. You can also lock your bike to the rails underneath keeping it dry in the event of rain!

Natural light from above
What truly makes this station stand out is the care taken to reflect the farming history of the area (after all, it is called "Longfields", located near Fallowfield!). Details like the plant silhouettes on the guardrail and grass on the upper platforms really make the place stand out from other inexpensive, cookie-cutter stations.

And then there's the art.

Titled Bellwether, artists Erin Robinson and Anna Williams have created lifesized sheep and a border collie to inhabit the area. It's brilliant how they've captured a sense of agricultural history, playful movement, and an animal presence in an urban environment (don't think I picked that up on my own, it's all described on the dedication plate at the station).

Unfortunately, with the exception of the unfinished sheep (above) that you'll find on the Northbound platform, the art is hard to see! You'll only catch a glimpse from the other side, if you use the elevator (who uses OC Transpo elevators unless you absolutely have to, anyway?) or from the bus window as you pull out of the station.

To really get up close and personal, you have to walk around the station, defying a really big sign threatening you with a $125 fine. If you really want to get up close with some art, there are much cheaper options downtown.

Did you know? Border collies were bred to heard livestock, especially sheep. They are also considered to be the smartest dogs out there.

Monday, July 25, 2011

OC Stations: South Keys

When you're commuting day in and day out, it's easy to forget or ignore or simply not think about the stations to which you travel. They are often reduced to a name or a "point A" along your trip home or to work. Through this hyper-familiarity, the unique features of each of the stations get lost.

This week, I want to pause at some of the OC Transpo stations (in no particular order) and really highlight what makes them unique and interesting. Perhaps next time you're out and about, you will also slow down and enjoy these features that you may otherwise not even notice.

South Keys Station

This small, unassuming station at the south end of town has a ton of detail throughout its ground-level tunnel. The designers did away with grey painted concrete and opted for colourful tiles and a matching floor. Blues, aquas, and greens adorn the walls to compliment its nature theme. When the area is clean, it's a very welcoming space (cleaning crews are in there fairly often; it's amazing how sodas from the nearby theatre end up splashed against the walls, floors, and stairs - and make the place, for lack of a better word, gross).

Along both sides are stainless steel panels with words that are spelled in Braille. The massive, larger-than life raised dots spell out English and French words like "blue", "bird", "grenouille", "iris", and "nuage", all kinds of colours and objects you would find in nature.

 For everyone that can't read Braille (admittedly I can't read it, but I do have an app that can help), there are etchings on the wall that translate with words and pictures. I'm fairly certain these are more recent additions, but it's entirely possible they've been there a long time and I didn't notice them right away.

Next time you're at South Keys and have a few minutes between buses, take a gander and try to figure out what they mean. If there are and Geocachers out there, try this cache that uses the Braille dots as a clue to finding its location.

Did you know? South Keys station opened in 2006. It turned 15 years old in June!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

O-Train Banners

I remember nearly 10 years ago, these banners on Carling were fresh. At the time, I also didn't understand how to easily get to the O-Train from the other side of the street (the answer is now simple, jaywalk). A look today show that they are staring to show their age. Perhaps we could get some new ones when the O-Train gets expanded?

Friday, July 22, 2011

OC Apps

A while ago, there was a competition for app developers in Ottawa to create applications to benefit our city.  During this time, there was a slew of OC Transpo apps in development that used the city's open GPS bus data to let users know exactly where their bus was. Suddenly it was possible to see if you've missed an early bus, or if your bus is running late. Knowing these little nuances could lead you to take an alternate bus or to take some time to grab a coffee.

Then somewhere along the way, the city removed developer's access to bus GPS data. 'you can't trust them!' OC Transpo and the city said, 'that data isn't meant for the public!' Then, in the middle of their explanation, they snuck in a little, 'plus, it'll compete with our own applications that'll have city advertising opportunities.'

There is is. A popular OC Transpo application for the city means a possible revenue stream. Since the live data has been pulled, the app scene has stalled somewhat. Some of the apps are no longer available, while others that relied on live data are using schedule data to keep going.

This new official GPS application with live data may be on its way soon. In a Drives in Circles blog, it is mentioned that "a new piece of equipment that is being installed to read smart cards and provide new GPS functions. (I'm really happy about this, as the system actually has functions to provide YOU with information, YAY!)" This development may be what commuters have been longing for, but it isn't here yet.

Until then, there are a few ways for commuters to find out route information and when their bus is coming. Here are a few official and alternative applications that are out there:

It's an oldie, but a goodie! Before smartphones and 3G, and even before cell phone ubiquety, there was 560-1000. You could call this number with any bus stop number to find out when buses will arrive. Even today, you can call and find out when buses will come by anytime within the next week.

OC Transpo recently revamped their mobile website. It's now easier to use the Travel Planner, see detours and cancellations, and get stop and route schedules from a mobile browser. They also added a tool that explains all the route changes that are part of the September Route Optimization plan.

Google Maps

The official Travel Planner is really helpful to get you from point A to point B, but sometimes it's difficult to use or generates inefficient routes. Google Maps is easy to use and can be relied upon to come up with the best route more often than the Travel Planner. With the Google Maps app or through the website, you can route a trip from any point (even your current location) to any destination and get instructions on how to get around with OC Transpo. It can also be used to find walking, driving, and biking instructions in Ottawa.

You know those old school television screens that tell you when buses will arrive at the older bus stations? This app is much like that, but slick and works for every bus stop in the city. You can see when buses scheduled to arrive, as well as see upcoming stops along a bus' route, and how long it will take. It's simpler and easier to use than the official .mobi site, though has less information. Bonus points to its developer for snagging @OCTranspo on Twitter for this app.

OCTranspo Geolocation

This app uses your GPS location to automatically find nearby bus stops, placing your location and the location of those stops on a Google map. It relays when buses are to arrive at those stops, and counts down how many minutes until it arrives. If you want to know info for a stop further away, you can look up data of any stop with the 4-digit bus stop number.

My OC Transpo

This Android app let's you view bus routes,  stop arrival times, plan trips, and use Google Maps to find nearby stops and view routes.

This companion to Twitter's @OCTranspoAlerts has more stats than you would ever need about cancelled buses. It keeps a log of cancelled trips, and shares the data in several ways. Most cancelled route? 95 by far. Most common weather conditions? Cloudy (did you think it was snow? That's second-most common). Thursdays and rush hours the most common days and times for cancelled trips. Who knew?

Where is my bus?

This was a great app that let you know where your bus is. Once GPS data was pulled, it used the time schedules to approximate where your bus should be. According to the app developer, @titanous, it's on the back burner until live data is made available again.