Do our GPS apps really help us get somewhere in the quickest way? Are all GPS apps created equal? And how do they compare to human knowledge? We decided to test this out by choosing one starting position (UCL Main Quad) and one destination (Delaney’s House), which we would navigate in five different ways.
So when I first started, the app told me it would take 23 minutes to arrive at my destination, in actuality it took me closer to 30 minutes to get from UCL to Delaney’s place. But this is probably because I would get slightly off tracks at times and have to correct myself. It may also be due to the fact that it was a really sunny day so there were a ton of people out and about, which slowed me down a bit. It felt like it took me a rather roundabout way to get there, and at times it seemed like there must have been a faster route, but I stuck to what it told me to do. Google maps took me past the Senate House Library and by Russell Square.
Although Google Maps is pretty much foolproof, it does have its flaws. I’ve noticed that most of the problems are related to walking while using the app, most likely because you travel so much slower than any of the other settings. One problem is that it can be hard to tell which way the app wants you to go when you first start of because it’ll just say “head northwest” so you kind of just wander around until it looks like you are going the right way. Also, the arrow lags a bit so if you stray from the route you don’t realize this until the arrow is way off the path. Another problem I’ve had, as illustrated below, is that sometimes if you are close enough to the next section of the route, the app will automatically change to the next direction without tell you. So, if you don’t catch this it can lead to confusing moments where the map says one things, but the direction says another.
When I finally got to the end of my navigation I found that Google maps hadn’t exactly taken me to the correct destination. Instead of taking me to the doorstep of UCL housing, I was standing in the park right behind where I was supposed to be. I retraced my steps a bit and tried again, but it still took me inside the park with no entrance to the building. So I had to figure out how to get there from the park on my own. It literally took about two minutes, but I still thought it was odd that it took me through specific paths in the park to get to the back of the building I was trying to get to rather than just going down a street. So overall, Google maps doesn’t seem like it is always the best for navigating while you’re walking.
I wanted to go from Torrington Place (in front of Waterstones) to Lyons Place.
What did the app say? It said I needed 29 minutes to go home with bus 18 from Warren Street Station. I indeed took this bus but at Euston Square Station (the stop just before). I had to run a little bit to catch it.
What did happen? I left at 18:21 and arrived in front of my building at 18:51.
Conclusion: It was a very good estimation of my travel time. I was impressed because there was a lot of traffic on Euston Road/Marylebone Road. There is also generally a lot of people hanging out in Edgware Road so it is difficult to walk at a good pace and make your way through the crowd.
How can it be so accurate?
I also tested different “foreign” apps to see which itinerary they advised me to take, if it was as accurate as CityMapper.
CityMapper indicates that I would need 12 minutes with Uber to go to UCL (they also take into consideration the time to take a Uber). So even there, CityMapper indicates a shorter time.
Mappy and Michelin does not say how they do to calculate the time needed to go from one point to another. But I think they calculate an “average” time, considering speed limits and the distance taken into consideration. CityMapper is constantly updating the available data, which explains why it is much more accurate.
An Italian website.
Michelin (French brand, but the website also exists in Italian, Spanish, German..)
Mappy advised me a different route but which was longer than the one CityMapper offered.
Interestingly Apple Maps could start my route from inside the Quad. Still they told me to go outside the Quad and turn left.
- As I am a student at UCL, I would probably know better and walk through Campus even if I never went to this place before.
- As a tourist, who visited UCL this route is realistic
I walked past the engineering building and Waterstones, Gordon Square, Tavistock Square and then along Tavistock Place
- If I was doing this walk myself, I would probably take a shortcut through the Brunswick in order to save time, admire the Brutalist architecture
Equally instead of walking immediately around Corem Fields, which I would have done since its greener, I was sent on a road north of them before finishing up at the cemetery.
UCL Map Service
The UCL map service takes you on a very similar route to many of the other systems. However, the main difference is that the directions are in much greater detail. Using this system draws attention to the specific doors one goes through, steps one goes down and buildings one enters. The service also has information of building works and so routes are calculated accordingly. There is no live system for navigating so the detailed directions are important.
- Double door
- Double door
- Double door
- Large square
Usual Route Home
So when I first moved to London, I had literally no idea where anything was and I still rely on Google Maps a lot, but over time I have come to find a lot of shortcuts or more scenic routes around the surrounding campus.
Unlike the mapping systems, I started by cutting through the campus of UCL through Malet Place to get home, partially because it’s more scenic, but mainly because it is a shorter route.
Next, I took a left a walked along Byng Place, passing the Euston Church walking along Gordon Square which then changes into Tavistock Place. After that, I cross the street (I usually do not wait for a pedestrian crossing light because I think they are pretty inefficient). Next, I take a right on Marchmont Street and cross the street again. Right before I hit the Brunswick shopping centre, there is a secret little passageway that I cut through (unless I need to get groceries at Waitrose) called the Marchmont Community Garden.
Next, the garden spits me out at Handel Street, and I walk straight along there. I have to cross Hunter Street which can sometimes be slightly annoying because the zebra crossing is off centre from where the streets intersect so I have to walk right for like 10 seconds and cross and then walk back. After that I cut through another park, the St. George Gardens. St. George Gardens are interesting to me because usually it mainly consists of people cutting through and dog walkers, but on Monday when it was super warm, there were so many having picnics on the grass! And while Waitrose is close it is a bit interesting that they would not go to the more visible park right across the way.
After cutting through St. George Gardens, I am spit out at Heathcote Street and follow that until I take a right onto Grays Inn Road. I specifically like this picture because of the horse trough with flowers in it.
Next, I cut through St. Andrew’s Gardens and am let out at Langton Close and take a left and walk into the building