If you’re like me, you can probably already get yourself around your own city without having to ask for Google’s help. Sometimes, though, you have to ask for a little computer-aided assistance in getting around. For me, Google Maps has been the most useful tool for many trips. For riding a bike, though, more local apps like the Chicago Bike Guide can be useful since they incorporate local know-how into bike directions. Google also isn’t perfect for all transit directions, either. Sometimes you are your own best judgment.
But what has always struck me as odd is that Google always gives driving directions first, even in large cities where driving is not the best option. The best example I can think of is New York City. Whenever I used Google Maps to get directions for the Subway, it would default to driving directions. In Manhattan!
Now, I get it: Driving directions came first when Google first started offering maps in the U.S. in 2006. Transit directions followed in 2007, walking directions in 2008, and biking in 2010. I also get that much of the country is asking how they can drive their way out of this kind of development:
But in a city (and it knows you’re in one!), it might make more sense for Google to give you public transportation directions. There are cases when it actually does – when I asked for directions from my house to Target, Google gave me driving directions (2 min – which is an underestimate) but then also said “Or take public transportation” as the options. That’s a good start.
I know this isn’t Google’s job, but since 54% of global smartphone users use Google Maps, it has the potential to at least change how people think about getting around. I think of the eco-comparateur that SNCF, the French train operator, offers visitors on its website:
I programmed a journey from my old apartment (er, closet) in Paris to La Rochelle, a great little oceanside city that had one of France’s first bike sharing systems in the 70s! The TGV service takes just under 3 hours. Shown above are several trip choices I could take tomorrow: several trains at about 56-68 €, spewing 5 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. Further down, the trip by car is shown: slightly longer duration, costs about 112 € (tolls, gasoline) and puts you at 95 kg of CO2. Flights are also shown – they’re more expensive, are responsible for about 82 kg of CO2, and take longer than both driving or the train, because this tool also takes into account the public transit journey from your door to the airport/station, plus trip time.
So while Americans may not be as environmentally-conscious as Europeans and may not care that the train trip is 19 times more environmentally friendly than the car (in terms of CO2 emissions), we’re certainly sensitive to price! Google maps does show an estimated cost of driving as compared to public transportation too, but it isn’t completely obvious when using the app on a smartphone (and it does not count parking prices). What if each time you asked for a journey in Google, it gave you all of the options, with time, price, and perhaps CO2 emissions all displayed, letting you select one? Or an option like the above for directions on the computer?
I also believe something like the eco-comparateur should be instituted on sites like Amtrak, especially for the shorter-haul trips that are very competitive with driving or flying in terms of total trip time, cost, and the environment.
But the bottom line? I think Google should default to something other than driving directions when I’m in a city. Of course they have no duty to do this, but it certainly has the ability to give people another view on how to get around.