Apple’s Maps mess and BMW give boost to transit app Embark

Train Amtrak public transportation

When Apple chose not to include public transportation directions in the iPhone’s new default Maps app, many city dwellers were pretty upset. But there’s at least one guy who’s really happy: David Hodge, founder and CEO of Embark, a San Francisco startup that publishes a series of detailed public transit routing apps for iOS. Thanks to Apple’s decision to build only car and walking directions into Maps, Hodge and his five-person team at Embark have seen their downloads spike since iOS 6 arrived in late September and even landed a high-profile investor from the transportation world: BMW.

Embark is free and is distributed as individual apps tailored to 12 major public transportation hubs in the U.S. and Europe. Prior to September, Embark apps had been available for nearly a year, but its apps remained well under the radar for most. Then Apple’s new Maps arrived with the iOS 6 update and during just the first week afterward, Embark saw 100,000 downloads. It was a huge and sudden boost for Hodge and his team. And that post-iOS 6 boom has continued. Hodge wouldn’t give me an updated figure on the total number of downloads Embark has seen since then, but user sessions in the last two months have grown by a factor of 2.5 to 10 in all markets, he told me on Tuesday. Downloads have grown by near the same measure.

Embark PHL, one of Embark’s transit apps for 12 major U.S. and European cities.

New York City, Embark’s largest market, has more than doubled its user sessions since September. But the biggest growth area has been abroad: The app has seen 10 times as many users in London since then, after being available for 10 months prior to Apple’s Maps debut. “Granted, London was a smaller market at the time for us, but what iOS 6 proved was that if you had a good transit app, all of sudden people would find it,” Hodge said.

People are finding the app because Apple has created a special section of its Maps app that recommends local transit apps. Embark is just one of these apps, and has much bigger brand-name competition: Navigon and Garmin are two of the heavyweights it competes with.

It hasn’t been just users who have discovered Embark since September. Potential investors came out of the woodwork too: the former Y Combinator startup is now an official BMW investment. The German automaker announced the investment — without disclosing the sum — at an auto industry event last week.

BMW is along for the ride

As far as what Embark is working on for BMW, Hodge won’t say just yet. But he noted that BMW is looking at how all forms of transportation are an issue for big cities everywhere. They call it “intermodal mobility.”

“They’re talking about how people are driving to the train station, asking when will the train arrive. That’s one possibility,” Hodge said.

Apple Maps’ suggested list of local transit apps in Philadelphia.

What will be interesting is how Embark continues to fare as all-in-one mapping and routing solutions from more name-brand competitors begin to pop up. Nokia, for instance, is now selling its Here app on iOS with integrated transit directions — though early reviews weren’t great. It did manage to beat Google to the iOS App Store, but it is widely assumed that Google will bring its own Maps app to iOS 6 eventually. And that’ll be tough to compete with: Google was the default public transit routing app for many users before Apple removed it as the default option.

But Hodge isn’t spending too much time worrying about larger competitors. He really likes his chances as a small startup.

“The biggest challenge we see in this space, for Nokia, for Google, Apple, they have to immediately go to scale when they launch. They can’t perfect the formula; they have to do it everywhere at once.” The fact that public transit directions in Nokia’s San Francisco maps aren’t very good “reflect a lack of focus,” Hodge says. But, considering the task at hand, of having to map every metro area at once, he says “it’s understandable.”

Embark thinks its secret to success is getting the little things right. Like timing how fast people walk between subway stops in New York City, or knowing which bus lines tend to be unreliable. Those details, which lead to accuracy and ease of use, the company believes, are what will continue to win it customers.

Though Embark is just in 12 markets, the company says it’s happy it started small first. “We’d rather start by doing a great job in a few places” than be mediocre everywhere, Hodge said.

The influx of money from BMW is going to help them with that. The first order of business? Expand to more markets.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user Buddahbless

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