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Will the new iPhone update leave transit advocates behind?

Apple Senior VP of iPhone Software Scott Forstall demonstrates the new map application featured on iOS 6  during the keynote address during the 2012 Apple WWDC keynote address at the Moscone Center on June 11, 2012 in San Francisco, California.
Apple Senior VP of iPhone Software Scott Forstall demonstrates the new map application featured on iOS 6 during the keynote address during the 2012 Apple WWDC keynote address at the Moscone Center on June 11, 2012 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Earlier this month Apple announced that yet again, the iPhone as we know it will change. SIRI--the talking robot that helped Zooey Deschanel get tomato soup delivered--is scheduled for an update. There's a "do not disturb" switch so your sleep won't be interrupted by a 3am Facebook invite... but among all the new bells and whistles, Apple's taking something away: transit directions. Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson reports on the uproar that's created.

Currently, when an iPhone user wants to get from one place to another, they can use an app called Maps: it comes on the iPhone preinstalled and incorporates Google's mapping technology. When the iPhone updates to the new operating system this fall to iOS 6--that app changes dramatically.

There's turn by turn driving directions, live crowd-sourced traffic reports... beautiful maps. But if you're not driving and want (or need) to take public transit, you'll be offered a list of other apps with transit directions. That change has spurred dozens of angry blog posts, hundreds of snarky comments and a petition. Michael Smart is a transportation studies professor at UCLA. He owns an iPhone--and he really likes Maps' transit features:

"One thing that's really useful about it is it's built into Google maps so all of the destinations that you might actually want to go to are already built into the way finding feature of the transit app," said Smart. "If you want to take transit--you wanna go somewhere. It's really useful to be able to search for the activity you want to do and have the map show you how to get there."

Smart said that about seven or eight percent of American use public transit. "We don't have really good data on it but it looks like they are just as tech savvy as non-transit users. They use the internet just as much as anyone else, they make internet purchases just as much as anyone else," he said.

He added "Just from my own looking around the buses I'm travelling around Southern California, it looks like everyone is glued to their phone."

Google Maps is unique among apps in that it combines a lot of different transit agencies. Metro has an app--but it only covers Metro buses and trains. Not Foothill Transit or the Los Angeles City Dash buses.

Imagine you're visiting LA for the first time and you have to get downtown from Burbank airport. Punch the directions into the current Maps app--and you get a list of options: go with transit and you can take a Burbank bus to the Metro Red Line--that'll take about an hour. You can also ride the Metro Local 94 line--no transfers. The trip will last for over an hour and 20 minutes. Or you can ditch Metro altogether and ride Metrolink. The commuter rail system leaves Burbank Airport and travels straight to Union Station. 52 minutes. No transfer.

When the new Maps comes out--you'll have to download an app or two. And there's no guarantee the third party app you download will have all those directions. For the time being--the change has transit agencies a little worried. Steve Hymon edits the Source--LA County Metro's blog. Hymon says like all transit agencies, Metro has struggled to convince people who would normally drive to leave their cars at home and take transit. "I think a lot of people view this technology as a way to overcome that hurdle of getting people out of their cars and into transit," said Hymon. "It hasn't been an easy hurdle to overcome."

Then why did Apple decide to make such a drastic change? Andy Baio, a programmer and writer for Wired, says it's part of a brewing corporate rivalry. "It's not that Apple hates public transit, it's just that they hate Google more than they love public transit," said Baio.

"They don't want to be reliant on any one company. And Google, originally was very much a partner at the time they developed Maps."

But as time went on, Google's own Android phones gained in popularity. Google started to improve its Maps app for the Android--updates like turn by turn directions, 3D features--and not feeding them to Apple.

Google could design it's own maps app for the iPhone--if they wanted to do all that work. But even then--Apple gets the final say before any app is available for download. Google's declined to announce any plans yet.

As for Apple, it might eventually include transit directions--but keeping an app like that takes a lot of resources. It took Google seven years to get where they are today with public transit. And Baio says when come to the maps game, Apple has a tough road ahead no matter which route it takes.