October 7, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Driving under the influence of Web maps

It was a nearly cloudless, sunny day in San Francisco as I set out on my Wednesday drive. My goal: Test the accuracy and timing of the maps and driving directions provided by Yahoo, Google, MSN and America Online's MapQuest.

The test was far from scientific and the results would surely be different on another day at another time. Although the big portal sites pretty much use the same digital map data providers, namely Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ, the driving directions they provide can be different depending on how much weight the sites give to different criteria--such as traffic conditions, weather and road construction.

Test drive

Surveying an online street map of San Francisco, I randomly chose a location: A short street called Lopez Avenue that's nestled in the middle of a windy, hilly neighborhood that can be tricky to get to and reached by any of several different routes from my downtown office.

Getting there would require circling a major geographical landmark. It's called Twin Peaks, a 900-foot hill in the middle of the city that's typically covered in fog and usually takes the street smarts of a local to get around.

I started the nearly 12-mile roundtrip at CNET News.com's headquarters, on Second Street in downtown San Francisco.

Yahoo, an early pioneer of online mapping, was first up. Its directions were different from the others, taking me toward the center of the city, then skirting the edge of bucolic Golden Gate Park before landing me at my destination.

It took 20 minutes to get there and 28 minutes to get back, for a total of 48 minutes, instead of the 27 minutes estimated as total travel time on the Web site.

A Web map odyssey
Credit: CNET News.com
Yahoo's directions were a bit pokey,
but they got me to my destination.

MapQuest was the only one that sent me onto a highway, which was, fortunately, not crowded because I was driving on it during a midday lull. As a result, it actually saved me some time. If this were rush hour, I'd turn into that scary, foul-mouthed hothead you dread seeing behind you in a traffic jam.

I took Interstate 80/U.S. 101 for about 1.5 miles before being led past a neighborhood called the Mission (note to non-natives: If you're ever looking for a great burrito, this is where you go) and onto upper Market Street, a major thoroughfare that offers a straight shot to Twin Peaks.

Following MapQuest directions the trip took 16 minutes out and 25 minutes back, for a total of 41 minutes, compared with the Web site's estimated 29 minutes.

MSN and Google offered similar outbound directions with minor variations. MSN had me drive around the block from the company headquarters on Second Street to Market, while Google chose to send me around the block to Mission Street, another big street one block away and arguably faster than Market, which can bog down with street trolleys, buses and heavy pedestrian traffic.

A Web map odyssey
Credit: CNET News.com
MSN's directions had one big problem:
I would have had to jump a road divider.

Near my destination, Lopez Avenue, Google took me on a short, circuitous route, with several right turns instead of just one. MSN, on the other hand, confused the heck out of me, and I've lived in San Francisco now for about a decade. A few blocks before Lopez, MSN's directions suggested I drive from Woodside Avenue onto Merced Avenue, two streets that don't connect. I discovered, much to my horror, that I would have had to drive over a street divider to follow those directions.

Using the MSN directions took 24 minutes out and 21 minutes back, for a total of 45 minutes, compared with the estimated 24 minutes total travel time. Google's directions took 16 minutes to get to

CONTINUED:
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24 comments

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Frustrating Web Directions
I loved this article, because it detailed many aspects of driving under the influence of the web's "accurate and efficient" directions. I also live in a metroplex of sorts, and still have yet to know my way around well enough that I can forego any help. Unfortunately, I was not aware of some others' map & direction features, such as Yahoo and MSN. I've mostly used Mapquest, and I can personally atest to the fact that there are quite a lot of hit and miss with arriving at the destination I specify. I have found that the direction I receive is inaccurate, causing much frustration and eventual retreat before I start WWIII.

I HAVE found that Google's map features to be VERY detailed and helpful. Time isn't so much an issue for me as aactually getting to my destination. Google's graphical interface in their maps is some positive eye candy, especially with the overlay feature, allowing the user to pull up the satellite image along with map features like street names and landmarks.

All in all, I would agree with the author about how web directions aren't 100%, but they could at least try to keep up with ever expanding areas, like metroplexes.
Posted by (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Web Maps Story
I think some of these map services actually do better with cross-country directions as opposed to intercity efforts.

I'd like to see a story like this doing a comparison of GPS services. Wonder if the results would be similar....
Posted by Jane in KC (94 comments )
Link Flag
Frustrating Web Directions
I loved this article, because it detailed many aspects of driving under the influence of the web's "accurate and efficient" directions. I also live in a metroplex of sorts, and still have yet to know my way around well enough that I can forego any help. Unfortunately, I was not aware of some others' map & direction features, such as Yahoo and MSN. I've mostly used Mapquest, and I can personally atest to the fact that there are quite a lot of hit and miss with arriving at the destination I specify. I have found that the direction I receive is inaccurate, causing much frustration and eventual retreat before I start WWIII.

I HAVE found that Google's map features to be VERY detailed and helpful. Time isn't so much an issue for me as aactually getting to my destination. Google's graphical interface in their maps is some positive eye candy, especially with the overlay feature, allowing the user to pull up the satellite image along with map features like street names and landmarks.

All in all, I would agree with the author about how web directions aren't 100%, but they could at least try to keep up with ever expanding areas, like metroplexes.
Posted by (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Web Maps Story
I think some of these map services actually do better with cross-country directions as opposed to intercity efforts.

I'd like to see a story like this doing a comparison of GPS services. Wonder if the results would be similar....
Posted by Jane in KC (94 comments )
Link Flag
Sometime the driving instructions get quite interesting...
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/20.62.html#subj18" target="_newWindow">http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/20.62.html#subj18</a>

See the above link for a good example.
Posted by WDS2 (183 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Urban Legend
that must be an UL - it give me an 89 mile route when I tried it on expedia.
Posted by shoffmueller (236 comments )
Link Flag
Sometime the driving instructions get quite interesting...
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/20.62.html#subj18" target="_newWindow">http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/20.62.html#subj18</a>

See the above link for a good example.
Posted by WDS2 (183 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Urban Legend
that must be an UL - it give me an 89 mile route when I tried it on expedia.
Posted by shoffmueller (236 comments )
Link Flag
Sometimes narrative is a poor choice of words.
A chart! A chart! My kindom for a chart!

I'll take tabulation over confabulation anytime.
Posted by TogetherinParis (318 comments )
Reply Link Flag
maps
The driving directions places do provide maps with their textual directions.
Posted by WDS2 (183 comments )
Link Flag
Sometimes narrative is a poor choice of words.
A chart! A chart! My kindom for a chart!

I'll take tabulation over confabulation anytime.
Posted by TogetherinParis (318 comments )
Reply Link Flag
maps
The driving directions places do provide maps with their textual directions.
Posted by WDS2 (183 comments )
Link Flag
Report map or directions errors to the source
With a little more research, the author would have noticed that Tele Atlas provides almost no data for north american online map sites. NAVTEQ provides almost all of them.

Besides that, the author is dead on that the real difference between the sites is presenation and their calculation software.

If you find problems in any of the online map sites, let the map source NAVTEQ know about it so it is corrected everywhere. It is really quick to do at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://update.navteq.com/" target="_newWindow">http://update.navteq.com/</a> The first thing I did was send them new info on my neighborhood and it was corrected within about six months after they verified it.
Posted by T-Byrd (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Report map or directions errors to the source
With a little more research, the author would have noticed that Tele Atlas provides almost no data for north american online map sites. NAVTEQ provides almost all of them.

Besides that, the author is dead on that the real difference between the sites is presenation and their calculation software.

If you find problems in any of the online map sites, let the map source NAVTEQ know about it so it is corrected everywhere. It is really quick to do at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://update.navteq.com/" target="_newWindow">http://update.navteq.com/</a> The first thing I did was send them new info on my neighborhood and it was corrected within about six months after they verified it.
Posted by T-Byrd (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
All the databases are often the same.
I was trying to create a map to post on a client's web site, and every single mapping service I tried has the building located in the wrong place (half way up the block). I contacted all of the mapping services, and the answers I got back were that they used the planning information provided to them by the government (local, I think), and that there was no means of correcting it. If I really cared, I could go complain to my local public works or city planning department, I guess.
Posted by tvleavitt (24 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I've Run Into This
i was trying to check out a friend's home in biloxi, ms, and the two mapping services i tried (mapquest, google) both had the home located on the peninsula, which took the brunt of hurricane katrina's surge, and not across the back bay, where many folks were taking refuge with friends after the storm (i lived there for many years and know better).

i was trying to bring up a photo of the area to check the condition of things myself in the first few days of the storm, and had to wait two weeks before she was able to get phone service and let me know all was okay.

all this makes me wonder: how many folks, knowing a street address but not ever having been there, used such faulty maps and the imagery to worry themselves more? these databases need to be cleaned up.

mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Link Flag
All the databases are often the same.
I was trying to create a map to post on a client's web site, and every single mapping service I tried has the building located in the wrong place (half way up the block). I contacted all of the mapping services, and the answers I got back were that they used the planning information provided to them by the government (local, I think), and that there was no means of correcting it. If I really cared, I could go complain to my local public works or city planning department, I guess.
Posted by tvleavitt (24 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I've Run Into This
i was trying to check out a friend's home in biloxi, ms, and the two mapping services i tried (mapquest, google) both had the home located on the peninsula, which took the brunt of hurricane katrina's surge, and not across the back bay, where many folks were taking refuge with friends after the storm (i lived there for many years and know better).

i was trying to bring up a photo of the area to check the condition of things myself in the first few days of the storm, and had to wait two weeks before she was able to get phone service and let me know all was okay.

all this makes me wonder: how many folks, knowing a street address but not ever having been there, used such faulty maps and the imagery to worry themselves more? these databases need to be cleaned up.

mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Link Flag
 

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