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?