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Metro News globe

Footnotes

Danielle Paradis explores what makes Edmonton a great city.

Who is the new Edmonton Transit app built for?

It took seven months to develop but the ETS transit rider app has finally arrived—and it's astonishingly bad.

Ugly, complicated, prosaic. If ETS Live To Go is transportation's attempt to make public transit more attractive than it would have been better off training bus drivers to high-five riders when they step on. At least that's an added feature. At least that's something.

But the app is such a failure that it's even worse than the ETS website. That, at least, has a trip-planning function.

"It was never intended to have a trip-planner," said ETS director of customer experience and innovation Lorna Stewart during our unexpected conversation Thursday (the app officially launches Tuesday). Stewart was willing to admit the app's shortcomings. "I'm not sure why that functionality isn't there."

So who is this app for?

Instead of catering to multi-modal smartphone owners the way Google Maps has—making trip-planning a cinch no matter how junior your bus-route knowledge is—ETS Live to Go is for the most studied transit riders.

Those who know the difference between routes 3, 13 and 23. Those who have memorized bus stop numbers like hockey stats. Those who can rattle off which buses offer GPS-enhanced real-time information—the so-called "Smartbus" feature that, right now, seems oxymoronically if not cruelly named.

That's fine for those routine passengers, but it does nothing to increase ridership above 13 per cent of the local population. For that, you need to make buses dependable and predictable wherever you are—even if you don't know where that is.

This tech-savvy user will stick to Google's app, which points me to the nearest bus stop and lays out my route options clearly.

That's a shame because it lacks the real-time information currently on 17 buses (and counting), which is the one piece of data giving the City an edge over the ubiquitous Google Maps. Instead of highlighting which routes have this enhancement, the information is buried into the app and only retrievable if you have pre-existing knowledge of the routes.

Stewart says the City is considering moving its real-time transit data to Google. In the meantime we have app that's not even worth three megabytes of space.

ETS Live to Go was one of four tools tendered to Trapeze ITS through a competitive bid in 2012 at a cost of $200,000. That includes the website, Email & Ride and an alert system in development. Considering that the city spent half of that total on the sleekly designed and user-friendly 311 app, it would seem that they may have cut costs on the ETS app.

The investment in Smartbus, "smart fare" and starting next year late-night transit service proves there's an appetite to improve the humble service. But perhaps because council and Edmontonians are so intensely focused on championing LRT, ETS is forced to sit on the back of the proverbial bus.

Case in point, a recent proposal for more digital departure boards, like those at the U of A and West Edmonton Mall's bus transit centres (and most other modern cities), was shelved because they cost $40,000 each. To put that in perspective, council just gave 88 times that to the police for a new helicopter—and you don't want to catch a ride on that.

"It does take the focus away from some of the other transit services," admitted Stewart about the multi-billion dollar LRT plan. "It has been a challenge. … We have work to do."

They certainly do.

If buses are part of Edmonton's transportation future, then we need to stop treating buses and their users like they're second-rate.