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By Paul Francuch

02/10/10

Need portable, real-time transit info? There's an app for that


Jakob Eriksson demonstrates TransitGenie, a smart-phone application to help Chicagoans get around the city by transit, car, bike and on foot.

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti


When computer scientist Jakob Eriksson moved to downtown Chicago about a year ago, he didn’t know the public transit system well — but he thought there ought to be an easier way for riders to get from point A to point B.

His solution: a smart-phone application called TransitGenie, “a real-time transit navigator,” according to Eriksson, assistant professor of computer science.

“It’s personalized. It lives in your pocket,” Eriksson said.

“I think this would be great for newcomers or tourists. Unless you do it regularly, getting around town by transit isn’t as easy as you might think.”

The latest version of TransitGenie, 2.0, is just released and available as a free download for Apple’s iPhone through Apple’s iTunes online store.

Unlike many trip planners available online, TransitGenie uses the phone’s Global Positioning System feature to pinpoint your location, then searches transit route and GPS bus tracking data to suggest the quickest way to reach a destination — which can be chosen from a list of favorites, typed in as an address, or selected on a map.

“It’s like a GPS navigator in your car,” Eriksson said. “Its route suggestions depend on various circumstances, the most important of which is real-time bus locations.”

Based on your location and destination, TransitGenie displays a list of travel options, with walking distances to bus stops and transfer points, if any, along the route.

It lets you know when you need to leave to catch your bus, and approximately when you will reach your destination. Several options, such as walking speed and whether you have a bike, let you personalize your route.

Because TransitGenie uses GPS bus tracking to compute its routes, it knows whether buses are on schedule or bogged down in traffic, including any buses you are transferring to.

Eriksson added other features, such as shorter suggested walks at night, when security might be a concern. His UIC group is also working on a feature that lets you know if you have time to walk to the next bus stop for some exercise before your bus arrives.

Presently, TransitGenie only supports Chicago, using real-time GPS bus tracking provided by the Chicago Transit Authority.

Schedule data is programmed into Transit Genie for CTA and Metra, with plans to add PACE buses soon. Should real-time data for trains become available, these will also be added to the app.

TransitGenie is available only for iPhones, but Eriksson anticipates developing versions for other smart-phones after he gets user feedback.

Service is planned for additional cities as real-time transit data is released to app developers.

“Chicago is an excellent pilot city. It’s a big one, with a challenging dataset,” said Eriksson.

“We hope to expand to as many cities as possible.”

Eriksson developed TransitGenie with the help of Adrian Agresta, who recently completed his bachelor’s degree in engineering, and James Biagioni and Tomas Gerlich, Ph.D. students in computational transportation science whose work was funded by the National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training Program.

francuch@uic.edu