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A bus across the street from the University of Montreal metro station in Montreal in November, 2023.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

Taras Grescoe’s books include Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. He blogs about transit and urbanism at

I’m an enthusiastic advocate for public transport, in all its forms. But my relationship with the city bus, which is the transit mode most people in the world rely on to get around, has never been good.

It’s not the vehicle itself, but the fact that buses are so often late to arrive, and the way that, being among the biggest things on the road, they so easily get snarled up in traffic. Part of it must go back to the damp mornings of my youth in Vancouver, and my memories of staring fixedly at the spot on Dunbar Street where the No. 7 bus was scheduled to come over the hill, but somehow never actually appeared when it was supposed to.

Lately, though, my fraught relationship with the bus has been changing for the better.

Last year, I spent a few days doing research in the northern Italian city of Bologna. This historic university town has no urban rail network to speak of, so without a bicycle or rental car, I had to rely on its trolley bus system. With a few exceptions – Tokyo comes to mind – metro systems are easier than bus networks for visitors to master: After a couple of minutes studying the lines on the map, you can quickly figure out which station to get off at. Buses are more daunting: I’m never quite sure if I’ve gotten on the right one, or if it’s going to lurch into a side street and take a detour that will drop me off in some forlorn industrial district.

Though it was my first time in Bologna, I simply walked up to a stop, took out my smartphone, and called up an app that not only showed me the route of the bus that would take me to my destination, but also showed me how many blocks away the next bus was, how crowded it was, and when, down to the minute, it was going to arrive. I arrived on time for my interviews that week, and saw sides of the city most visitors never get to see.

I had a similar experience in Saskatoon, where I’d been invited to give a public presentation about ways to improve transit. When I arrived at the airport, I considered joining the taxi queue. But when I checked my phone, I saw that a downtown-bound bus was arriving in a quarter of an hour. That gave me time to wait inside the terminal – sparing me a few minutes of prairie chill – but also to realize that the same app allowed me to purchase and display a single-ride ticket. The bus arrived on time, I showed the driver my three-dollar ticket, and I disembarked at a stop a couple of blocks from my hotel, saving the organizers of the talk I was giving a $24 taxi bill.

My everyday transit experience has also changed for the better. The bus closest to our family’s apartment in Montreal is the 161, which has an uncanny knack for flashing past at the top of the street when we’re just a little too far away to make a dash for the stop. Last time we rode it, though, I located a green-and-white icon on my phone’s home screen, and saw that the next bus was eight stops away. That left my sons 10 minutes to climb trees and hang from monkey bars in the mini-park next to the stop before the bus pulled up. Thirty seconds before it arrived, I noticed a man in his 20s saunter out of a nearby apartment, glance at his phone, and then step aboard, as smoothly as if he’d ordered an Uber or a taxi. He was clearly an old hand at optimizing route-planning apps.

In many North American cities, transit ridership has struggled to regain prepandemic levels. (Montreal is a notable exception: According to Transit App’s surveys of the cities it serves, more people here say they wouldn’t own a car, even if money were no object.) With more people working at home, transit agencies can no longer count on the standard residence-to-downtown commute, with its predictable and lucrative morning and afternoon peaks. Some cities are experiencing a “transit death spiral,” where declining ridership drives less-frequent service, leading many people to switch to private cars.

In this bleak landscape, the recent rise of route-planning apps is a bright spot. Google has long allowed users to plan transit trips on its Maps app. The British-based company Citymapper and the Israeli-developed Moovit (which is allied with the navigation app Waze, intended for car drivers) also offer smartphone-optimized transit planning apps.

But my go-to app – the one that served me so well in Bologna and Saskatoon, and that I rely on at home – is the Transit App, whose simple and robust interface quickly answers the question closest to the heart of many long-suffering transit users: When the heck is the next streetcar, train or bus going to arrive?

It turns out the company’s global HQ is located just around the corner from my office, on the eighth-floor of a former shmatta-industry complex, in the Mile End neighbourhood. (Montreal is also home to Giro, which sells transit and postal route scheduling software in 29 countries, and Busbud, which allows users to plan intercity bus trips, and is located in the same building as Transit.) Showing me around the loft-like workspace, Stephen Miller, Transit’s policy lead, said the company currently had 65 employees, but high demand from transit agencies meant they’d soon be expanding into neighbouring offices.

In a conference room, co-founders Sam Vermette and Guillaume Campagna explained how the app was born. When he was still in college, Mr. Campagna, who grew up in the east end neighbourhood of Villeray, wanted to build a simple app for the iPhone, which had just been launched, that would display a schedule of coming arrivals for any bus stop in Montreal. He built a “scraper,” a program that collected and collated all the information on the website of the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM). Mr. Vermette, who grew up in the West Island, rode buses to get to the Université de Montréal, where he was studying industrial design, and came to rely on the simple app Mr. Campagna had developed.

“I thought it was great,” Mr. Vermette said, “but with geolocation I knew it could be so much better.”

Their timing was excellent. Transit agencies, starting with Trimet in Portland, Ore., were inviting app developers to work with schedule data using an open-source standard known as GTFS, or “General Transit Feed Specification,” which has since become an industry norm. They decided to work together to produce a more sophisticated version of the Transit App, drawing on freely available GTFS information. “We had a big stroke of luck,” explained Mr. Campagna. “Apple decided to drop Google Maps from the iPhone, and Apple Maps didn’t have a transit planning feature back then. Apple asked us to build a trip planner, and add a bunch of cities in time for the launch in September of 2012.” The app was free, but users could pay for premium features, and a Montreal-based venture capital fund provided the startup money.

Transit now serves 300 cities, mostly in Canada and the United States, but with a significant presence in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and such populous Latin American metropolises as Buenos Aires and Mexico City. It’s been so successful that many cities have quietly retired their own trip-planning apps and let Transit fill the gap. Mr. Vermette and Mr. Campagna put regular users in the tens of millions, with up to one in three transit riders in some major cities relying on the app every day. Revenue comes from Royale, their $5-a-month premium service, and a share of ticketing revenue from smaller cities like Saskatoon (bigger cities are increasingly allowing riders to tap-on to buses and subways with credit cards). They’ve also “gamified” the app, awarding points and trophies for assiduous riders of certain lines.

I noticed that Mr. Vermette had a sticker reading “Cars Ruin Cities” on his laptop, and asked if environmental convictions were behind his interest in transit. “I’ve never owned a car,” he replied. “We have two kids, and we mostly get around by cargo-bike, even in the winter.” Mr. Campagna added: “We look at it like this: if something makes car-free living easier, we include it in the app.” In addition to transit information, users are offered options for rideshare, taxis, carshare networks such as Communauto, and municipal bikeshare stands.

As a transit rider, though, the app’s appeal for me is simple: It allows real-time tracking of vehicles currently on the road. Throughout the 2010s, transit agencies gradually started adding GPS transponders to their buses, and sharing the location-tracking pings with app developers. Incredibly, the Transit App even indicates how crowded a bus is, thanks to passenger counters or, in some cities, sensors that measure the weight of the vehicles. Mr. Vermette explains that the app is also helping some agencies improve service: In San Francisco, for example, users can report dirty or damaged bus shelters. By using the “Go” button when you board, the app tracks and reports on your progress, providing information on detours and further boosting the app’s accuracy.

“I use Transit App all over the world; it’s kind of my default,” Jarrett Walker, the Portland-based author of the book Human Transit, and an in-demand consultant who has helped redesign the bus networks of Miami and Houston, told me. “For a variety of reasons, transit, especially buses, can’t always run meticulously to schedule. And in the post-COVID world, transit ridership is increasingly going to be occasional ridership, which means people are going to be more likely to look up a route they’re navigating for the first time.”

That said, an app, no matter how powerful, is no substitute for robust and reliable transit service. Many cities in Asia and Latin America offer Bus Rapid Transit, where buses operate like subways on the street, running at high frequencies in dedicated lanes; in such cities as Guangzhou, Bogotá, and Istanbul, you never need to glance at your phone, because another bus is always on the way. Ambitious transit expansions are in the works in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, but in too many cities in North America, the frequency, reliability and span of bus service remain decidedly sparse. In the midst of a climate crisis, planning apps add an empowering tool to the kit of those determined to rein in their share of pollutants and emissions.

And as a parent, I’m grateful that the Transit App allows me to answer that all-too-familiar question – “Dad, when’s the bus coming?” – with a confident response: “Right about … now.”

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