people standing at the bus stop blurring into the welcome screen for Muni+

Most of the apps that help you get to work or run errands, such as the popular QuickMuni and Routesy, are made by third-party developers. What happens when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) helps develop its own app?

Featured in commercials and on the SFMTA’s webpage, Muni+ is the product of a partnership between Muni and Oakland-based developer, Sky Highways. It carries Muni’s logo and endorsement, but does it also run with insider expertise?

To find out, I set out to take 10 rides on Muni guided by Muni+.

Note: this review was performed on a Galaxy Note II, an Android phone. Presumably this is a supported device as it is featured — upside down — in Muni+ advertisements. A brief iPhone review will follow at the end of this piece.

For the first trip I decided to catch the 22-Fillmore at 16th and Valencia streets. As I walked up to the stop, Muni+ indicated the bus would be arriving in 12 minutes. I put the phone back into my pocket and the 22 immediately pulled into the stop. A concerning first result.

I left the 22 at Market and Church, and headed for the F-Market line. Muni+ gave me The F’s estimated arrival time: 0 minutes and 0 seconds. Fifteen minutes later, the F arrived, and Muni+ then crashed twice on my brief ride to Market and Van Ness.

For my third trip, I decided to head back to the Mission and set myself a destination — 24th and Folsom streets. This is when I realized that (on Android, at least) Muni+ has no trip planner. After selecting routes at random, I had to use Google Maps to find my route.

Once Google told me where to go, Muni+ accurately predicted the arrival of the 49-Van Ness, but then crashed again on the bus.

In total, Muni+ accurately reported the bus’s arrival times only 40 percent of the time, and it crashed seven times in the process. When it was wrong, Muni+ was off by an average of 12 and a half minutes. Twice Muni+ announced a bus had arrived when none had. In one instance it then accurately predicted the second bus, but the other time even that was wrong.

In theory, the estimated arrival times at all stops should mean that you can predict when you will get to your destination. However, if Muni+ is wrong about when the bus will get to your stop, it will likely be wrong about all further stops on the route.

In one instance, Muni+ correctly reported the arrival of the eastbound 22 at 16th and Dolores streets. The app correctly listed the arrival time at the next two stops, but the third was off by nine minutes.

The lack of a trip planner and the general failure to report bus arrivals made Muni+ tough to use unless you know your route by heart. If you do, then why are you using an app to get around?

The layout is also confusing. The main screen is a map — which occasionally loaded centered on Algeria. When it finds San Francisco, the map displays all the bus stops in the city at once. You can click on a stop to load its name, and again to see what routes stop there and the estimated arrival of the next two buses.

If you want to view a route, you have to scroll through a list of all routes until you find the one you want.

Muni+ also gives you the option to search for specific stops, but this feature is nearly useless. For example, “Mission and 16,” “16th and Mission,” “16th & Mission” and “16th St and Mission St” all yield no results. Want to find that stop? You have to search for precisely “16th St & Mission St. ” Nothing else will work.

In addition to these quirks, Muni+ also requests you log in each time you use it, offering “loyalty program benefits,” though it’s not clear what loyalty buys. It’s also strangely resource-intensive — in one instance, draining my battery by 38 percent in two hours.

Paul Rose, the SFMTA’s media relations manager, said the transit authority did not pay Sky Highways to develop Muni+. The two companies are in a contractual partnership that includes Clear Channel, which provides the ads that occasionally appear on the app.

Sky Highways developed the app, SFMTA promoted it and gave their stamp of approval, and going forward, the two will share advertising revenue 50/50. The contract mentions that if Muni+ fails to generate enough ad revenue in the next three to six months, it will be canceled.

Despite being downloaded more than 5,000 times on Android alone, no one I spoke to had heard of Muni+. “I use Google Maps to plan trips, and just go to to see when a bus is going to show up,” said Sakura Minami, 30.

Austin Johnston, 27, also preferred Google Maps, citing the ability of the app to re-orient itself to follow compass directions as you travel. “I just use Google Maps to get around wherever I am,” he said.

Others preferred Transporter and Routesy.

While future updates may improve accuracy and usability, in its current state, Muni+ is one app I’d happily miss.

For iPhone Users:

On iPhone, Muni+ does include a trip planner, and overall is much more responsive.

It loses the extra maps, but is much snappier and adds an option to view the map full-screen in landscape mode. However, the base map used on iOS is extremely crowded and confusing, and I had a hard time getting it to display street names.

The trip planner can tell you where to go and what route to take, but setting start and end points was a little confusing, with Muni+ displaying the location in terms of decimal degrees instead of address or intersection. Despite testing the iPhone version from 22nd and Mission, Muni+ insisted I was located at Market and Van Ness.

The trip planner displays four alternate routes and the time different routes will take, but doesn’t display the actual transit line associated with each route unless you click on them.

The iPhone version didn’t crash while I was using it, but at one point all the menus disappeared and I had to restart the app.

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Chris Schodt built a running motor before turning 10. By 26, he pivoted — just slightly — from a career in science to writing about it as a journalist. The St. Paul, Minn., transplant hopes to uncover the “upstarts and weirdos” of the Mission’s burgeoning tech/science scene.

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  1. hahahaha. Just too fitting of a story.

    My Muni experience is improved, not because Muni got better, but because of the apps.

    I love the 3rd party apps and my regular is Quickmuni

    Thanks for the smile.

  2. Regarding arrival times and predictions: to be fair you should test those along side other 3rd party apps, because all this data is supplied by next bus. If multiple apps give the same (lousy) predictions then it’s not the Muni+ app’s fault.

    That said, it’s a terrible app. Literally the worst Muni app you can get.

    1. In the first few tests, the app actually contained a direct link to NextBus that was subsequently removed in an update. When it was in the app it was hard to compare, as NextBus had trouble determining what stop we were at. Oddly enough, the physical displays in the stops were frequently accurate even when Muni+ was not.

    2. It all begins with Muni supplying its schedule data to Nextbus. Nextbus uploads the information to its database. The predictions you see at the shelters, on the web, and on your phone are not really “real-time information.” The predictions are based off of a combination of the scheduling data and historical arrival time data.

      If Nextmuni shows you your bus is arriving “now” and the bus does not appear, it typical is because in the prior day(s) that scheduled run actually showed up. The Nextbus algorithm does not seem to immediately adjust to if a scheduled run is missing, a bus is late, a bus gets pulled off to cover another route, or a bus driver disabling the GPS on his/her bus.

      I wonder if Muni even approached successful Muni apps like The Transit App, Routesy, et al. I think the developers for these apps could make some money if they chose to use their apps as a platform.

  3. I never had a problem negotiating MUNI before the development of these newfangled smart (makes you dumb) phone applications and still don’t. Patience is underrated.

    Same with finding my way around my home city or places I visit with a paper map, which is still orders of magnitude more useful than Google Maps.

    One of the most humorous developments of this “new” economy is observing people looking at street view on their smart (makes you dumb) phones while walking down the street rather than actually being engaged with the real world.

    1. OK Grandpa, thanks for the grouchy send-up of the modern world. Do we always have to noisily gripe one’s opinions about technology? The article isn’t about smartphones, nor is it about maps. It’s about something that tells you when the bus is coming. I’d like to see you come up with an old-world solution for that.

      1. Isn’t the entire article the author’s gripe about technology and the quality of smartphone map based applications?

        To get from point A to point B on MUNI, all one has to do is pick a route. The maps at the shelters contain information about frequency of service for each bus line. That’s plenty of information to make an informed choice about the best combination of lines to take. If you make the wrong choice, so what? No application makes the buses run any faster.

  4. I keep seeing Mission Local write “Metropolitan Transit Authority” when it’s actually “Municipal Transportation Agency.”

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