Pigeon is an experimental, invite-only transit app on iOS made by Google being hailed as “Waze for the New York City subway system.” And that’s true. Actually, no, it’s only sort of true. Well, if we’re being real, it’s mostly untrue.
In reality, Pigeon is not a transit app at all. If you download it expecting a new and exciting transit app built specifically to combat New York City’s failing subway system—as I did—you’ll be sorely disappointed when you first launch it—as I was.
Pigeon’s slick and colorful interface looks and acts like a modern transit app, with its cheery vibe and clean aesthetic. At first blush, it has everything you’d expect from a modern transit app, too: search bar at the top, a map with saturated subway lines overlaid, and your favorite stations all arranged in a nice, orderly list.
But tap the search bar and you’ll get hit with your first point of friction. “Search for lines or stations,” the app instructs. Sure enough, that really is all you can search for. Queries for businesses, residences and even addresses all turn up nothing. You can only search for lines and stations.
Even if you know what stop you need for your destination, Pigeon won’t offer you directions there. Instead, it simply tells you the status and arrival times for all lines at that station.
So what gives? What’s the point of a transit app that doesn’t let you search for businesses or locations and doesn’t give you directions to the things it will let you search for? Well, as I mentioned earlier, therein lies the problem:
Pigeon isn’t a transit app.
It’s a commute app.
Let’s stop talking about all the things Pigeon doesn’t and start talking about all the things it does.
Pigeon has a quick setup process. When you first load it up, it asks you to select your favorite lines and stations, set up your commute routes to and from work, and that’s it. Now when you open the app, it will show you the status and estimated travel time of your morning or evening commute (depending on the time of day) and display the status and arrival times of your favorite lines and stations. You don’t have to type anything in. You don’t have to tap a button. You don’t have to do anything but open it. The app will automatically display what your commute is going to look like.
In most transit apps, “what your commute is going to look like” would extend to an estimated travel time, relevant MTA alerts, and an algorithmically-generated list of suggested routes.
In Pigeon, you might see a message from another user complaining about an annoying busker at your transfer station. You might see someone else warn that the arrival times are off, a station is closed, or an elevator is out of service. It might even just be a tip that the front of the train is miserably overfilled; try the back instead. That’s where you’ll find Pigeon’s Waze influence: not in daring routes zigzagging through neighborhoods and around traffic jams, nor in routes that update on the fly as better alternatives are found mid-journey, but simply in building a community of users helping each other out by reporting things most apps have no way of knowing.
Pigeon doesn’t do a great job explaining its purpose. It was jarring when I first opened the app and realized I couldn’t search for any locations or get any directions. I was frustrated and disappointed. I expected it to become my new primary transit app, and instead it couldn’t even give me directions to the bathroom if my pants depended on it. I was incredulous after I marked the station next to work closed and Pigeon simply reported my route home as “unavailable” without suggesting alternatives as a normal transit app would.
It was only after I started manually adding alternate routes to and from work that I started to understand the point. Pigeon isn’t about generating the best directions to your destination; Pigeon assumes you already know how to get to your destination—and probably have one or two routes you like best.
Most transit apps would try to explain to me my commute as though I don’t already know. Instead, Pigeon just highlights anything I should know about my commute so I can choose for myself which route to take. Maybe users are reporting my usual route is overcrowded, for instance, so I decide to take my slightly longer backup route instead because I’m tired and feel like sitting.
I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. Generally speaking, my commute takes about 45 minutes, but more often than not, that time can creep up into an hour and beyond as stations close, planned maintenance or unplanned incidents cause delays, or the line I’m on suddenly starts skipping stops and deposits me several stations past where I needed to be. Just like New York City itself, the subway is chaotic and unpredictable. It’s what I love about the city, but not about the subway. Getting to work on time in New York City is often a game of chance as you guess which route feels right today—and the longer your commute, the more the odds stack against you.
Pigeon isn’t the app I expected it to be. I expected it to be what was promised: “Waze for the New York City subway system.” I wanted to replace my usual murderers’ row of transit apps—Google Maps, Citymapper, and Transit—with Pigeon, the one app to rule them all. Instead, Pigeon isn’t competing with those apps at all. It’s a delightful little companion app that focuses on doing one thing well rather than everything fine. It reduces the number of steps it takes to review your commute to one—open the app—and offers you information no other app can.
Pigeon wants to be the app you reach for as you leave your apartment or office, and in that respect, it succeeds.
It’s not a perfect app. The travel times aren’t accurate, pegging my commute at a mere 30 minutes rather than 45. There’s no guarantee it will get either the following it needs or the kind of dedicated users who will give enough reports for the app to be truly useful. There’s no Android version at all. It only works in New York City.
But for all its flaws, Pigeon still manages to do something other transit apps haven’t even attempted, and it does it pretty well.