Image: zlata ivleva / mashable
Essentials Week spotlights unexpected items that make our daily lives just a little bit better.
For plenty of folks, Google Maps might as well be the only navigation app that exists. It's pre-installed on lots of Android devices, and even iOS users probably trust the app with name recognition over Apple's default option.
And that's fine! Google Maps is a reliable source of navigation info and restaurant recommendations. But for big city commuters in particular, I think there's a better option. It's one I've used since I moved to New York City almost four years ago, and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon.
Citymapper, as its name suggests, is a mobile navigation app primarily for use in metropolitan cities. Try opening it in Kansas, where it's not supported yet, and you'll be out of luck. But that hasn't stopped it from garnering high praise in places like the iOS App Store. If you live and work in a city with huge amounts of public transit options, Citymapper is more comprehensive than Google Maps in some key ways.
Take me home tonight
When I open a GPS app, it's because I want to get to my home, my job, or occasionally somewhere else. Every one of these apps has a ton of nice little side features too, but at the end of the day, all I need are directions to "home" and "somewhere other than my home."
What I love about Citymapper is how directly it caters to my needs. Take a look at the home screen, for example:
"Get Me Somewhere" and "Get Me Home" might as well be the two most perfect buttons in existence. The former lets you type in a location before giving you directions, while the latter figures out how to get you home from wherever you are. Another button to the right of "Get Me Home" takes you to work, as long as you put your job's address in there.
That's a level of elegance that only Google Maps could dream of. You can set home and office addresses in that app, too, but auto-generating directions based on your present location takes at least two taps. Who has time to tap the screen that many times when you're trying to get home?
Jokes aside, that slight difference in home screen priorities does a great deal to make Citymapper more useful to me. Google Maps, on the other hand, is a tiny bit bloated with information from the jump; open the app right now and you'll be guided towards restaurant and bar recommendations instead.
That's a useful feature that Citymapper can't really compete with, so I'll be honest and say I keep both apps on my phone just in case. But these next few details are what make Citymapper my navigational compass of choice.
How's the train running?
The number one reason I still prefer to use Citymapper to get around is its detailed, no-nonsense approach to transit information. Like Google Maps, putting in a destination will take you to a vertical list of all the ways you can get there. The information is basically the same between both apps, but it's a little cleaner in Citymapper.
For instance, Google Maps lets you filter routes by wheelchair accessibility, but Citymapper just includes that category in the full list of options by default.
It'll also show you bus-only or train-only routes if you feel like avoiding one or the other for any reason. Again, Google Maps gives you access to the same basic information, but Citymapper is smarter about categorizing as many different routes as it can, all on one screen.
If you already know how to get somewhere but you want to make sure everything is running smoothly, Citymapper is also better about that. Simply open the map, tap on a subway stop, and you'll see which trains are about to show up there.
If you want an even more detailed readout of how every train or bus line in your city is doing, just hit the corresponding button on Citymapper's home screen, It'll show you a relatively up-to-date list of which lines are running fine and which ones are not. In a city like New York, where stopping fare evasion matters more than fixing the broken trains, this is a big deal.
Google Maps will also let you know if a train line you want to use is having problems, but it's not as easy to get a comprehensive view of everything happening in the city as it is on Citymapper.
Another nice bonus is "Main Roads," an option Citymapper just added for walkers last week. Simply put, when you use the app to get walking directions, you can tell it to stick to main roads if you don't feel comfortable walking in more quiet areas.
The actual process of traveling after you've figured out how you want to get to your destination is also more than adequate in Citymapper. You'll get a push notification when you're one stop away from where you need to be, and the map does a decent job of figuring out which direction you're facing within an acceptable margin of error.
That said, nothing can be perfect. You remember when I said I keep both Citymapper and Google Maps on my phone at the same time? Turns out they both have their uses.
Limitations are limitations
Citymapper is easily my favorite way of finding out how to get somewhere in New York, but Google Maps definitely has it beat when it comes to figuring out where to go in the first place. Discovering new bars and restaurants no matter where I am is significantly easier on Google's app, and I can't take that away from it.
It's also true that, just like in Google Maps, information about delays and stoppages in Citymapper isn't always 100 percent accurate. I've had precious few problems in this regard, but friends who also use it to get around the city have been misled by Citymapper before. Always double-check your local transit authority's status page before heading out, people.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't re-emphasize that Citymapper doesn't work everywhere. Statistically speaking, it actually doesn't work in most places; right now, it has data for a few dozen cities around the world. If you live anywhere outside of its sphere of influence, or rely more on your own car than public transit, Google Maps is going to serve you better.
That's why I still keep both around, even if I wish I could use Citymapper for everything related to movement.