Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Live Route Planning

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Great plan for the day: Surprise visit for my mum’s birthday. With my brother picking me up at eight, so we’d be there with plenty of time to spare before midnight. Just that my brother called me at eight telling me that those wonderful Autobahns are so full of traffic jams once again that he got completely stuck more than 100km away.

I checked on the internet learned, that, yes there were a number of massive traffic jams with the Autobahn being closed in places thanks to accidents. Crap. So we tried to fin an alternative route. The problem with that being that there aren’t that many exits on the Autobahn but – even worse – that what’s really easy to see on an actual travelling map is a hellish exercise when using a computer.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of powerful tools. I have an old version of Route 66 which probably has the best maps. I have internet mapping sites at a dime a dozen. And I have Google Earth. And the absurd thing is that it’s extremely difficult to make a quick decision even with all those tools. And that’s for a number of reasons.

The first is – particularly for the online mapping sites – that it’s often impossible to see whether a crossing of the Autobahn with a smaller road is actually an exit or whether it’s just a bridge. A bit of information that’s crucial for this kind of exercise where you try to get off the Autobahn asap and find a reasonable detour on smaller roads to some place behind the traffic jam.

The next is speed: Web sites that do not follow the Google Maps scheme of smooth and quick dragging suck in that situation. You want results and you want them now. Bang! Those sites are useless. Unfortunately Route 66 – which as an application running locally on the computer should be one of the fastest options – is so damn slow at displaying things that it’s rather useless as well. (Are current versions any better? Even OS X like perhaps?)

Another problem is zoom: On the one hand you absolutely need zoom because computer screens are so low resolution that you cannot expect to have all the information to be displayed all the time. Yet, once you start to do some zooming you easily lose the bigger context of what you are doing and it becomes hard to decide which of two routes is the shorter one.

And then there is the lack of good data: All roads tend to me numbered in online mapping services. So in principle you have a good idea where to go as even the smallest countryside road has a number. The remaining problem being that those numbers are only displayed on the larger roads. And when your brother is on the phone and needs to know where to go now it’s not just a minor hassle that you have to browse around some more to find the name of nearby towns as useful information. On the other end of the scale – on larger roads, there are different numbering systems. The German number like A7 and the European number like E45. Online mapping sites love the European numbers. But the local signage usually uses the German numbers (with the European ones only given on the Autobahn or so), so that’s not particularly helpful either.

Reliability is a problem as well. At first I surprisingly found Google Earth quite helpful for assisting. It let me just ‘see’ where my brother is and tell him when to turn. (And thanks to the satellite images I could even point him to a forbidden shortcut – petrol stations at the Autobahn often have an exit at the back so the staff can get there. But to avoid it being used by many people those usually don’t appear in maps and their use may be prohibited…) But when he was in a town, Google Earth’s habit of somewhat randomly displaying or not displaying street names depending on your current zoom level and possibly other things, made using it extremely frustrating.

And that’s not all: Many small places aren’t known by mapping sites. Google, for example, will even ‘not find’ some places for a route that it is perfectly able to display on the map. And why do the majority of services not prioritise multiple search results for place names by vicinity. I mean, sure it’s cool that Google Maps knows about places called Ibra in Oman, Indonesia, Russia and a hundred kilometres down the road – but is it asking too much to go for an educated guess regarding my priorities here? Or where are the easy to use options that let me click two places on the map and then just select the route I want to use by clicking the roads? Or at least the option to simply block that bit of road with the horrible traffic jam on it?

Huh! Pretty horrible. All those obvious problems with mapping software. And it’s so embarrasing – the software has been developed for many years (Route 66 must have existed since the mid 1990s at least) and apparently those car navigation thingies – while not perfect – are quite reasonable by now. Perhaps I’m just attracting those problems or I am especially sensitive to them, but I really found that they made it very hard for me to solve the problem at hand. And problem solving is what mapping software is supposed to do.

November 10, 2006, 2:39

Tagged as travel.


Comment by Jan Toonen: User icon

TomTom as a unit or as software on your PDA (with a (bluetooth) GPS), to compute a detour of x km? My brother is most of the time not with me, so I have to do it all by myself and love the “lady” who reads directions….


November 25, 2006, 10:19

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