Do You Know the Way…

John Brownson (yes, the same one who comments here from time to time) has an interesting post up on his own blog about GPSes and their disadvantages.

I agree with where he wound up, although I disagree with some of the path that led him there–which may serve to reinforce his point–but the post did get me thinking about maps and the evolution of their electronic incarnations.

One of the nicest features of maps, as John points out, is that they show you things outside your direct vision: diversions, alternate paths, and random bits of information. You can use them to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, but you can also use them to find something to do along the way, locate a more scenic route, or simply free-associate. Arguably, the highest development of the map in providing all of these functions is AAA’s Triptik*.

* For those unaware, AAA is the American Automobile Association, and the Triptik is a personalized book of maps created by AAA for a specific trip and member.

In the heyday of the Triptik, a AAA employee would select a set of area maps, highlight a recommended route on the maps (literally highlight the path with a pen!), and bind the maps into a convenient flip book (no folding necessary). The maps varied in scale, allowing both close views of the planned route and overviews of the area surrounding it. They gave turn-by-turn directions, including estimated travel times for each leg, and included flags to indicate the presence of scenic viewpoints and commercial attractions, hotels, restaurants, and rest stops. (The modern version of the Triptik is much the same, but now the user creates it online without the assistance of a AAA employee and prints it out at home–or views it in AAA’s app without printing it.)

It occurred to me that modern GPSes and the online equivalents such as Google Maps are increasingly coming to resemble a Triptik. Consider:

  • GPSes and online maps show turn-by-turn directions and estimated travel times–for both the individual sections of the trip and overall
  • GPS users can download POI (Point of Interest) data for an area they expect to be traveling through. Load a POI file and your GPS will show the data as you travel. Similarly, online and smartphone maps show POI information. On a recent drive through San Francisco, Google Maps alerted me to a nearby ice cream store–certainly a point of interest for me!
  • Trip planning software, whether for a GPS or not, begins by showing an overview of the suggested route between Points A and B, allowing the user to see the surrounding area and adjust the route to take advantage of anything interesting that might be nearby. Spot something worth a look? Drag the route to include it, and all the directions are recalculated. Want to take a closer look at part of the route? Turn to the detail mapclick to zoom in.

Even better, the modern incarnation of a Triptik can go beyond the capabilities of the paper version of yore:

  • They aren’t limited to showing year-round events. AAA’s iPad app alerted me to the existence of an annual Chocolate and Chalk Art festival in Berkeley, something that almost certainly wouldn’t have shown up on a pre-printed Triptik map, and might or might not have made it into AAA’s accompanying tour book.
  • They can be updated. A few days ago, I spotted an error in the directions I got from Google Maps: they directed me to get onto the freeway by making an illegal left turn. I sent in a correction, and less than a week later, Google Maps now correctly tells drivers to make a legal right turn half a block sooner. Try fixing millions of copies of a printed map that quickly.
  • The user isn’t limited to the mapmaker’s limitations or prejudices in selecting points of interest. Many GPS makers allow users to create and share their own POI files (Garmin’s website, for example, has links to almost two dozen sites that provide collections of third-party POI data).

As I said, I like John’s destination: “Next time you are going someplace, dig up a map of the area- the city or state through which you intend to drive. Learn (or remember) how to find your destination on the map, and then look at the map to see how to get there.” Even if you wind up with exactly the same route your GPS would have suggested, you’re still keeping your skills sharp and reinforcing the power of man* over machine.

* Generically speaking.

Just don’t feel obligated to use a paper map for all of your planning and don’t assume that the paper experience will always be superior to the electronic.

And remember: paper maps won’t go away. Despite the best efforts of the gadget makers, there’s still a role for something you don’t have to charge, can toss in the glove compartment, and don’t need a cellular signal to use.

2 thoughts on “Do You Know the Way…

  1. Well, thank you, Casey, for opening my vistas a bit. I’m pleased to hear that the potential exists for increasing a traveler’s peripheral vision. This all came about because my two experiences, driving a rental car in an unfamiliar city, realizing that, while I was directed to my destination successfully, I had received absolutely no orientation- that is, I had no idea where I was, in relation to anything else. That alarmed me; how could I travel to an unfamiliar destination but not know where I was? It was this queasy sense of wrongness that motivated the piece I wrote.

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    • My pleasure. I’ll admit that I hadn’t considered the possibility of a rental GPS (with or without car); that does limit the possibilities for tuning the experience to your tastes and needs. I have a sneaking suspicion that the GPSes in rental cars may be somewhat less suitable for customization than the average, if only because the rental agreement probably frowns on plugging it into your own computer.

      Glad you survived the experience, and I hope your next forced encounter with a GPS will be less traumatic.

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