It seems to me there are three major components to planning a journey using public transport.
1. The Systematic Overview
When you arrive in a city, or if it’s a new journey, this is often what you’ll refer to first. The classic is the London Underground tube map: looking at it gives you the broad scope of the system. The NY subway map performs a similar role.
However, usually such a map only goes so far. For large cities, it tends to fail for buses and other surface transport. London distributes five geographic maps, one for the centre, and four (huge) ones for the suburbs. Meanwhile, London Connections is an admirable, but complex, diagram of the above-line railway lines. I have no idea if there’s a comprehensive map of New York’s bus system, but somehow I doubt it.
For smaller cities, such as San Francisco, the entire system (buses, light rail and all) does fit on a map, and in fact bus stops here have a system map with a downtown enlargement. The flipside to this is that there’s also a metro map, which is somewhat sparse. Looking at that, you can easily imagine the rest of the city doesn’t exist.
Nonetheless, this is something that’s often desired, but it can be hard to provide even with plenty of poster space, let alone on a small screen. (One notable example that’s been pushed into trying is the KickMap redesign of the New York subway map.)
2. Route planning
If you know your destination, you can skip the overview and ask a transport planner. Most transport agencies provide one on the web, like TfL’s Journey Planner. In some places, Google Maps has been given data to enable route planning. Either way, these services are usually also available on (smart)phones.
Route planning also takes you from “where I am” to “where the transport is”. That can be harder in some places than others, but it’s still a potential hurdle - there’s rarely a bus stop outside your door.
Unfortunately, route planning without access to the right technology is hard (although it has been tried). This partly explains why so many Londoners use the Tube: the map is right there at the station entrance, platforms and even in the carriages. By contrast, knowing where a bus route goes is either learnt (which takes time) or has to be looked up (which takes technology). Nonetheless, my guess is this will become a much more common as time goes on.
3. Service availability
Somewhat related to route planning is when the next train or bus is actually available. Again, part of the draw of the Tube is that this isn’t much of a concern: you can go down to the platform and be fairly sure that within 10 minutes at most - and more usually two or three - a train will be along to carry you off.
Unfortunately, elsewhere in the world (and on other modes of transport) that’s not true. Metro and bus frequencies are more often measured in threes or fours an hour than the twenties or forties that the Tube enjoys at peak. When there’s the chance you’ll be waiting in the rain for twenty minutes, you’d really like a way of looking up when the next bus is.
In San Francisco, NextMuni (and the apps that use its API) serve that need pretty well, as does the UK’s National Rail Live Departure Boards. Unfortunately, London’s improved Countdown bus prediction service is not yet available (it’s meant to launch next year). However, both SF and London do have bus arrival data at some stops, so even without personal technology you can just look to see what’s going on.
It’s possible to get by without service availability data, but if a system is either low-frequency or low-reliability (and traffic means that buses can be both) it’s a good way to get people happy with the system.
There’s still something of a divide here. System overviews are most readily visible in the physical world, while route planning is best served electronically. Service availability is a mix of the two. Nonetheless, all three (or a combination thereof) provide plenty of room for experimentation on mobile devices and the real world.
For the London Design Festival, Pentagram commissioned 20 designers to “produce an effective poster, celebrating design and the city, in only two colours”. Bibloteque did this by taking the Tube map and removing all but the black and red.
I’ve taken the same method and done something similar with the recently decluttered tube map, just because I thought it would be fairly obvious quite how successful TfL’s designers had been in eliminating frippery. I think it works; the lost scatter of daggers and aeroplanes is visible even at small scales.