Apple Maps vs. Google maps: Which is better for D.C. navigating?


A member of the media uses the map function of iPhone 5 after its introduction during Apple Inc.'s iPhone media event in San Francisco, California. (BECK DIEFENBACH/REUTERS)
Robert Thomson
Columnist September 28, 2012

The future of U.S. transportation isn’t so much about new highways and transit lines as it is about helping us better use the routes we already have. That’s partly because public investment in the big stuff is in decline while private firms see profit in linking information technology with the small details of travel.

Not every commuter buys this idea that better information will save us. I often ask people what sort of guidance they get before leaving home in the morning. Most say they just get in the car and go. When they run into trouble, they turn on the radio and listen for a traffic report, as a driver might have done 30 years ago.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

But other commuters are looking for any little edge, and they love the details. These are the travelers who experiment with shortcuts that might shave a minute or two from a commute or who are willing to try a different mode of travel if it will save them time or money.

They were ready to pounce when I began a discussion on the Dr. Gridlock blog about the competition between Google and Apple over travel maps and directions.

I had just installed Apple’s new IOS 6 operating system on my iPhone and iPad. Most aspects of such upgrades are meaningless to me, but I care deeply about what they do for wayfinding with these portable devices.

I hate getting lost, so I like to stockpile navigation resources. In my car, I have every ADC map book for the D.C. region and a Garmin GPS device. Before I leave to review a reader’s complaint or visit a work zone, I check Google Maps for directions, time estimates and street views.

With its new system, Apple just made my routine a bit more difficult.

On Tuesday, I drove to the 11th Street Bridge project office on the west bank of the Anacostia River, just north of the bridge. My usual route takes me south on D.C. 295, then across the bridge.

Before leaving home, I compared the directions on Google Maps and Apple Maps. On many points, they were even. There were three suggested routes, with turn-by -urn directions and time estimates.

Overall, though, Google was better. Two reasons:

(1) I like Google’s multi-colored indicators of traffic congestion. The roadway goes from green to black, depending on the flow of traffic. Apple Maps shows me a much more limited spectrum of pain, with a dotted red line and a slightly lighter, orangey line for congested stretches. In the D.C. area, we assume our roads will be congested. We want to know how congested.

(2) The Google Map was up to date about my D.C. 295 route. On July 30, the District Department of Transportation opened a ramp from southbound 295 directly onto the bridge. It’s one of the biggest improvements in the region’s transportation system this year. That doesn’t show up yet on Apple Maps. The Apple route would have me drive south of the bridge, then loop back around onto northbound 295 to take the bridge entrance ramp.

Online commenters have pointed out other problems. For example, the Washington Monument sits in the grass along Independence Avenue.

The Grid Spouse showed me I can still have Google Maps on my Apple devices. All I had to do was find Google Maps in the Safari browser, tap the arrow at the top for a menu, then tap “Add to Home Screen.” On Friday, Apple chief executive Tim Cook advised users to do just what I did, pointing them to other mapping applications available in Apple’s App Store — from Bing, MapQuest and Waze — or through the Web from competitors Google and Nokia.

Both Apple Maps and Google Map will get better, under the pressure of competition and the insults some travelers are hurling at them. What’s your experience with them, and what alternatives do you recommend?

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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