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OpenTripPlanner redefines public transit navigation

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Finally, America's commuters will have an app that moves as fast as they do.

For traditional automobile commuters, the loss of public transit directions in Apple's iOS 6 upgrade doesn't cost much. For urban commuters who depend on the iPhone's navigation system to make sense of public transit, however, the loss is significant -- so much so that petitions to save public transit directions have been bouncing around the Internet since June.

“We believe that having transit directions on your phone helps public transit work better for everyone," reads the campaign landing page of WalkScore, an organization spearheading the effort to save transit directions, "so we’re asking you to join us in requesting this feature from Apple.”

Fortunately, a solution may not be far off. OpenPlans, a New York-based nonprofit, is currently in the midst of a KickStarter fundraiser for an app that will fill the void -- and then some. OpenTripPlanner won't just deliver the public transit directions of Google Maps. It also gives users the ability to combine multiple forms of transportation in a single journey, said Kevin Webb, principal of transportation at OpenPlans:

"One of the main motivations behind OpenTripPlanner is provide 'multimodal' directions. Right now this means combining transit, walking bikes and bikeshare. By combining modes we can present a unified view of transportation options. Rather than a user saying, 'How do I get here by bike?' or 'How do I get here by train?' we can ask simply, 'Where do you want to go?' and provide a variety options that allow comparison and combination of different modes."

Regional versions of OpenTripPlanner already exist. BikePlanner offers residents of the Washington D.C.-area the ability to plan bike travel based on preferences like the length, elevation, or safety of a journey.

Courtesy of OpenPlans

TriMet, which launched Aug. 6 in Portland, Ore., fuses the functionality of BikePlanner with Portland's award-winning public transit system. Users can choose the kind of public transport (bus or train) they prefer in addition to options like walk, bike, or a combination thereof.

Courtesy of OpenPlans

Employing open source software and the expertise of a global network of developers, OpenTripPlanner retains the flexibility to incorporate these changes in commuter behavior. The app's bikeshare feature, for example, was contributed by a developer interested in the Velib bikeshare program in Paris. Developers hope to incorporate carshare programs as well.

"The way we get around in cities is changing," said Webb. "These new modes are actually part of the transit infrastructure and we need good information tools to help users incorporate them into our daily lives."

Possibilities for improving public transit navigation, however, don't stop there.

"The technology community has only begun to scratch the surface of what's possible," Webb said.

Finally, America's increasingly-mobile commuters will have an app that moves as fast as they do.

Interested in Transit Innovation? Check out SmartPlanet's Transport Theory blog below:

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Claire Lambrecht

Contributing Writer

Claire Lambrecht has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and CBS MoneyWatch. Previously, she taught English as a Teach for America Corps Member and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, and the Arthur M. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure