iPhone app: Embark NYC

For someone living in a public-transit city like New York, the iPhone’s loss of built-in Google Maps subway/train directions was a blow. However, it’s actually forced me to look at the third-party apps that can integrate with the built-in Maps app, and I’ve found a real gem.

I recommend the “Embark NYC” app, and here’s why.

First, the directions it provides directions that include great details about the walks involved. The start time is based on when you should start walking from your current location to get to the train, not when the train leaves. Similarly, the end time is an estimate of when you’ll arrive after all of the walking and training is done. And finally, it tells you the total minutes end-to-end and the total miles walked end-to-end, which is helpful if you’re balancing the length of the trip versus the effort required. (No, this isn’t pure laziness, it can be relevant if you’re carrying lots of shopping bags, etc. and don’t want to walk a lot.)

It also shows a great snapshot of route choices. You can see several routes at once on a single screen, and each line shows the trains involved. This is great if you have some lines that you prefer over others, and it also helps you see at a glance how many times you have to change trains along the route. And yes, it includes the start/stop trip times (including walking time) and total miles walked, as mentioned above, for each route option.

The inclusion of an “Arrival” time search option should be a no-brainer, but some other transit apps I tried out (including paid options!) didn’t. This floors me — sometimes you just want to be able to say, “I need to get there by 8:00. What are my options?” and not have to estimate durations in your head to figure out an approximate starting time. I’m shocked that this isn’t a consistent feature in all of these apps, because it’s simple and incredibly useful.

Here’s a screen shot of these features combined:

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Embark apps also give you options even when you’re underground, so you don’t need a signal to be able to route your trip. The app will use up-to-date service times if the trains are running a little off schedule, or if it doesn’t have that info available it’ll default to the regular scheduled service times.

Speaking of running off schedule… it gets notifications for service outages, and unlike the old Google Maps version from previous iPhones, you can actually set this to receive push notifications of service outages. You can tailor it to your typical travel needs by picking the specific lines that you want pushed updates for, and it will deliver them automatically whenever you have signal during “commuting hours” in the morning and afternoon.

And finally, when you go pull up an actual route, it shows you the entire series of train sets on one single screen, rather than the page-by-page version that the old Google Maps view had. I infinitely prefer this, because it gives you your steps at a glance without having to flip back and forth. Check this out:

Now, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies… The fact that this is not directly connected to your Contacts (like the former Google Maps app was) certainly hurts. You can’t, for instance, type in your buddy’s name and have it pull the address from your Contacts. The workaround is that you can start the transaction in the built-in Maps app, and have one extra click to select which third-party app you want to use, but it’s not quite as convenient as before.

It also doesn’t have the wealth of search functionality that Google Maps did. But frankly, neither does the new Maps app. Neither the Maps app nor this one (nor any of the others I tried on my first day with iOS 6) could find the address of “One Time Warner Center” in Manhattan, for example. But when I pulled it up in Google and saw it was in Columbus Circle, I was able to search for that in this app and find it without a problem. It found both the subway stop by that name and (when searching for the full “Columbus Circle”) an address for the place. Coincidentally, here’s a screen shot of how that search works:

All in all, after a day’s use, I’m pleased with Embark NYC. And as a free app, it’s certainly worth giving it a shot. If my review isn’t sufficient to convince you, however, check out this cute video from the makers of the app, which shows some of these features in action:

iPhone users, go here to download the free app: Embark NYC Subway – New York City

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