Map wars: Comparing the online services that could help travelers navigate

Robert Thomson
Columnist June 5, 2013

We’ve been exchanging views about which online mapping services provide the best views of routes across the Washington region. Google Maps, MapQuest and Bing offer similar services. Kevin Adler of Arlington County wrote a letter featured in my May 9 column that focused on Bing’s online maps, with their views called bird’s eye (an angled aerial view) and streetside (an eye-level view).

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

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

All those spiffy-do things that Bing does, Google Maps does too, as well as provide local weather and terrain. Just click the drop-down box in the top right corner, under either Map or Satellite, depending on which view you’re using.

One thing that always used to annoy me about MapQuest (and it’s been a while, so it might not do this anymore) was that their routes inevitably took you on longer drives through commercial areas.

Karina Wright, Crystal City

DG: I invite travelers to submit their real-life experiences with these services.

Overall, I don’t find major distinctions in their routing suggestions. Each lets me drag the suggested route onto other roadways if I think I have a better idea than the one suggested. Bing’s streetside and Google’s street view provide comparable views of what travelers will see along their routes, although I find Google’s easier to use, because I can drag the street-view finder (the icon that looks like a person) to the exact spot I want to visualize.

I was experimenting with the various services in the wake of the Metro Red Line disruption created when a train with no passengers aboard started belching smoke and flames at the Silver Spring platform during the afternoon rush May 14.

Metro had to set up emergency shuttle bus services to get riders from Takoma to the stations up the line. This rarely works well. By the time Metro can organize the buses and get them through the rush-hour traffic to the affected stations, thousands of people are waiting for them. The bus drivers then must make their way out again into heavy traffic and follow unfamiliar streets to the next stations.

If I had been dumped from a train into that scene at Takoma, I would have preferred to walk if my destination was just one station up the line, at Silver Spring. Since I’ve been urging riders to prepare for such emergencies by consulting maps before emergencies arise, I took a look at the three online services for their walking directions between the Takoma and Silver Spring Metro stations.

Google, Bing and MapQuest all showed the same walking route of about 1.7 miles using Blair Road, Georgia Avenue and East-West Highway to reach the Silver Spring station. MapQuest showed me that I could cut through Jessup Blair Park, so in that sense, it tailored the route to walkers more than the others did.

This isn’t always true with any of the services. Although I’ve found the walking routes useful, they don’t necessarily take advantage of shortcuts available to those on foot rather than stuck in cars.

You also will find some variation in the time estimates on walking routes. On the Takoma-Silver Spring walk, Bing was the most energetic, estimating a 34-minute trek. Google added two minutes, while MapQuest allowed for a much more leisurely stroll of 42 minutes.

Despite the slight variations, none of these map services would have steered you wrong. Just find the one that works best for you, and test out some routes you might need when your everyday path is blocked.

Animal on board

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Here’s a Metro animal question for you.

I understand that animals are not allowed on the Metro (except for service animals).

Is there an exception for animals carried in a transportation crate?

I ask this because I saw a woman get on a Red Line train with an animal crate. The crate was small enough that she was able to fit it under the seat. There was clearly a live animal inside, although I couldn’t tell whether it was a cat or a small dog.

Was it illegal for her to carry an animal in a crate on Metro (and she just wasn’t caught)? Or was what she was doing permitted?

The question is of interest to me because I have a small toy poodle. It would sometimes be convenient for me if I could travel with her; however, I always assumed that the prohibition against animals extended to the transportation of animals in crates. If crates are permitted, I would certainly use one to carry my dog on Metro.

Walt Albro, Rockville

DG: I don’t get many Metro animal questions. I guess people find it difficult enough to keep themselves moving.

Service animals that assist people with disabilities are the only animals permitted to ride unconfined on Metrorail or Metrobus. However, a pet may be transported on Metrorail and Metrobus provided it is carried aboard in a secure container that prevents escape.

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