Citymapper simplifies London's public transport madness

A guide to the most comprehensive journey planner

Whether you are a smartphone user or not, the point of reference for any Londoner has to be Transport for London's website; more specifically its journey planner section. Instead of working out how to get somewhere with the help of one of those atrocious A-Z Street Atlas spiral guides, the journey planner presents you public transport options to get from point A to B with ease. Let's be honest about it: even if you're East London born and bred, you'll have a tough time knowing all the transport options available from Elephant and Castle, Camden Town or Edgware Road.

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In the age of apps, geolocation and internet access everywhere you don't need either of those options. Through 2011 and 2012 I've been downloading, trying and reviewing a selection of what I though were the best travel apps to navigate London more easily. Everything from live bus arrivals, the best spot to stand on the platform, hailing black cabs with your phone or finding docking stations for your Boris bikes; they've all been covered in The Journey Planner series.

While this is a work in progress, I recognise I just keep using the apps I like most. I don't mind having some duplicates with the same functionality — just in case something doesn't work. At the time of this writing the transport app folder on my iPhone has a whooping 11 apps that I use regularly. Perhaps for relying on these choices I overlooked one app that didn't look particularly good a year ago and didn't show much promise, I thought. How wrong could I be?

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Citymapper is, at this stage, the easiest and most comprehensive solution to get around London. There's no question you should download it and give it a go. Since I haven't followed the development and small improvements of the app, I'm at the same place as thousands of Londoners who discovered the app weeks ago when Apple featured it with an Editor's Choice spot on the App Store: overwhelmed!

Unlike other apps in the Navigation or Travel categories, Citymapper does many things — and does them very well. To solve the problem 'how do I get there?' you know the information comes from the same source; the data provided by TfL in its multiple live data feeds. The magic of Citymapper is that it combines the data available updated to the minute to present you with simple options sorted in a convenient way. Just to make it clear, Citymapper doesn't do anything that Bus Checker or Next Bus cannot do. It simply mixes information such as live bus departures, tube status, walking distances to give you the best combination for you.

Starting point - Where am I?

Every time you launch the app, Cityplanner will try to find your location and show where you are on a native iOS map embedded on the main screen. This is the starting point. Although that map section is really small (covering a 6th of the screen on short iPhones) you can slide down to half of the display to peek quickly. You can also enter a full view mode that will show concentrical circles indicating the estimated walking distance in minutes around you as well as buttons to display public transport methods available on the map.

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The information about the closest stations and stops near you is available on the main screen, which will inevitably look too crammed. Since Citymapper is several apps in one app, let's try to analyse one at a time first and see how everything works together later.

Fortunately there's a common layout consistent across the several sections that want to show you transport options around you. A split view puts a map on the top and a list with stops or stations in the vicinity underneath. This list is scrollable and tappable, meaning you can access the specific information about an individual stop quickly. Consistency here is mildly satisfying as the app navigation and interface ends up being extremelly complex to be checked quickly when you're out and about. Right under the mini map view you have quick access buttons labelled Buses, Tubes, Cycles and Favourites.

Bus Stops view

The 'Bus Stops' screen shows a split map and list view with the nearby stops identified with a red pin with their own letter. Every Londoner knows these letters are essential to find the correct bus direction. Tapping on one of the stops opens the individual view for that given bus stop. This will show the walking distance from where you are, large bus numbers with the terminus station and minutes to departure. Since getting to this individual view takes some navigation effort, there's the option to save a bus stop as a favourite to access this view from the main menu.

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Now you can see the live bus departures for this bus stop, you can check more information for a specific bus line. Tapping on a particular bus will launch a full screen map view with the bus route highlighted and the place where you are. If this isn't clear enough, you can try a List view that shows an schematic with all the bus stops of this line on a list. Swiping a top banner switches the directions.

This is not the end whatsoever. If you're on the 55 from Tottenham Court Road and need to get the 243 at Old Street, you can check the when is the next one getting there. You could just arrive and wait for the next 243, but I'm sure you see the advantages of knowing how long this would take.

Tube and Rail stations view

Similar to the bus split view is the one for trains and Underground, simply labelled 'Tubes' on the main menu. The same logic applies here, showing a standard iOS Maps map with the train tracks superimposed on top. This is nicely done, with railways on grey and the Tube lines with their own colour plus the option to hide them altogether. Note how the app shows the appropriate logo for Underground, Overground and National Rail stations — something the native Apple Maps app couldn't get right.

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When you tap on one of the stations on the list, the individual 'Station' view will tell you the current status and if there's any disruption or closure planned. The not-so-evident 'Tube' option on the bottom menu gets you the departure boards for every platform; the same way the 'Rail' tab displays the departures with a list of stations this rail service is calling at.

Getting to these views can be very tricky; you have the option to save them as a favourites and access them directly from the main menu the next time you launch Cityplanner.

Cycles view

The last of the views is not as in-depth but provides the same functionality of some standalone apps I have installed on my phone. Users of the cycle hire service — Boris bikes — need to know two things: 'where can I get a bike?' and 'will there be space available to dock at my destination?'. Cityplanner covers them both neatly, giving you the option to see bikes to rent and spaces to park on two separate windows. The pins on the map have icons that clearly show what you're seeing at a glance, with some cute bikes and docking stations.

Offline classic Tube maps

The last item on the main menu to prepare your journey are the traditional Tube maps. This is nothing other than a PDF-style version of the print posters, but it's handy to have it all in one place. There are two versions available — the second one including trains to Zone 6 — and turning the iPhone to landscape mode will give you a full screen view, allowing you to move and zoom comfortably.

You can move between the Buses, Tube, Cycle and Where am I? views using the green buttons at the bottom. Although not too obvious, they can reveal semi-hidden menus with important stuff such as tube departures.

These are all the options to get started with Cityplanner. I feel like I've written about different apps, but this is all bundled in the same and crammed into one cohesive interface. There's so much to explore that it's easy to get lost or not realise some awesome features are there; it's a matter of finding them.

If you're already using of Cityplanner you know I'm only scratching the surface. I'm leaving the fun part for a second post where I explain how the journey planner and how to make the most of it. Now I've described how the app presents the public transport available to you so you decide what to do. In the second part we will explore how Cityplanner calculates and suggests the best way to get from point A to B. The results are surprising.