The key test for any new product is, “does this product perform the task that I bought it for?” If I buy a shirt, I ask if it fits right, looks good on me, and functions as clothing. The NextBus DC application, available on the iPhone app store, works. It’s not quite perfect, but allows users to consistently access a good estimate of the wait time for a bus.

When you open the app, you will see six choices.  The first three are self-explanatory: “Favorite Stops,” “Favorite Routes,” and “Nearby Stops.” You can choose stops and routes to add to your Favorites while looking at the map for a route or the predictions for the wait time at a stop.

Nearby Stops uses the iPhone’s built-in GPS to find bus stops within 1/16, 1/8, or 1/4 mile. This screen shows NextBus predictions for all bus lines that serve that stop. From that screen, you can press a button in the corner to display a map showing your location and the location of the bus stop. This feature is incredibly handy if you’re lost or just don’t know where to find the specific stop.

The second three choices on the opening screen correspond to bus systems in our region.  WMATA’s Metrobus, Prince George’s County’s The Bus, and the City of Fairfax’s CUE are currently using NextBus technology.  I don’t ride the Prince George’s or Fairfax systems, so only evaluated the WMATA area. (I live in Montgomery County and look forward to RideOn getting NextBus as well.) After tapping the WMATA MetroBus button, a list of all MetroBus routes pops up on the screen.  A bar on the right makes it easy to skip to categories like “1-10,” “80-97,” or “S-V” rather than having to scroll through every route as you must on the NextBus mobile interface. 

After finding your route, you can either select the name of the route itself, or either direction the route travels in.  For example, your screen would look like:

S9 16th St. Express

North to Silver Spring Station

South to McPherson Square

Selecting “North to Silver Spring Station” or “South to McPherson Square” brings up a list of every bus stop that the S9 serves.  After selecting a stop, a screen pops up that has NextBus predictions for every bus line that serves that stop.

On the other hand, if you select, “S9 16th St. Express,” a scale map of the S9 appears on the screen.  The map has red markers at each bus station. You can then zoom in and select one of the red markers to get to the screen that has NextBus predictions for all lines serving that stop. 

Like most transit users, I know the bus routes that I regularly take, such as the Y5/7/8/9, the Q2, the 70/71/79, the S1/2/4/9, and the J2. I also am familiar with other major routes like the 30s, the X2, and the 16s.  However, I don’t really know bus lines in many other areas. In the past, I had to pull up WMATA’s bus maps, zoom in, zoom out, and search around the PDF map to find a route and its path. It takes time to make sense of the map. The NextBus app’s route map far more effective for learning this crucial information.

The app hooks into WMATA’s NextBus webpage, so its predictions on bus wait times are the same as those on WMATA’s website. During rush hour, the predictions were accurate within about two minutes. The largest deviations came when I could see bus down the street, but it was stuck in heavy car traffic or traffic lights. I found one anomaly when riding the Y line: I was tracking the bus I was riding from stop to stop, and it disappeared once.  Thankfully, after hitting refresh, the bus reappeared at the next stop.  In summary, the NextBus system works, and works even better if you refresh frequently.

The app could improve by letting the user switch from viewing predictions at a specific stop to the map for that line. Currently, you have to back up to the top to get the map. The app appears to be optimized for the new iPhone 3GS. I experienced slowdown with it on my iPhone 3G.  At times it would slow down to a crawl and I’d have to just wait until it sorted itself out. The button presses were also less sensitive and responsive than in the iPhone OS itself. None of these small flaws killed the app’s ability to accomplish its core task.

The NextBus DC app for the Apple iPhone is a breath of fresh air for bus users around our region.  I found it useful and a great tool to better plan my time, since I have an accurate prediction of how much time I have until the next bus arrives.  While it has its minor technical and design flaws, it most certainly does the job it was designed to do.  I will be keeping it on my iPhone at all times and I recommend that you do the same.  If you are a regular MetroBus, TheBus, or CUE rider (and I really hope that RideOn, ART, and the Circulator get NextBus installed soon) you won’t go wrong with purchasing this app from the iPhone app store.  It will make your life a little bit less stressful.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.