Google Maps and the BART Strike

One of my favorite features of Google Maps is routing using public transportation. This is extremely useful for anyone who doesn’t have a car. An interesting use case comes when a certain public transportation option is not available. Recently, BART, a highly utilized transportation system across the bay area shut down due to a strike by its union. So here’s what I saw when looking for directions into downtown SF:


After clicking through the orange warning exclamation point icon, I saw:

bart2So here’s the interesting part. Based on the error messaging, the application should know (or should have a confident estimate) that this option is not viable for the user. Which is why the better user experience would be to include a different public transportation option in addition to, or instead of, all of the options that include a dependency on BART .


Restaurants Appear Deceptively Closer in Yelp

Like almost every other SF inhabitant, I have a passion for great food. A byproduct of this hobby is that I’m often on Yelp scoping out new places to try. Other than gauging the quality of the dining experiences by reading reviews, I’m also on the lookout to see how far a restaurant is from my current location.

Recently I noticed a discrepancy between the distance as called out by Yelp search results as compared to the driving directions I received when using Google Maps. Take the following example. While I was in Dillon Beach, CA, I found a restaurant in a nearby city called Barley and Hops Tavern. According to the Yelp search results, this dining establishment was located 10.3 miles away.


However, when I queried Google Maps for directions between my current address and the restaurant’s address, I received a significantly different result in terms of distance:


According to Yelp, the restaurant was 10.3 miles away, but according to Google Maps, it was at least 16.2 miles away. Who was right, and who was wrong? Could it be possible that one of these sites is using incorrect data to calculate the distance or has a bug in their distance algorithm.

The funny thing is – I think both sites are correct, but for different reasons. The reason why the distance on Yelp looks significantly shorter is that Yelp is computing the distance as the crow flies. In other words, while Google is computing the driving distance (which takes into consideration turns and zig zags in different directions), Yelp is considering the distance on the map if you were to physically draw a straight line between the two points.

In terms of what’s best for the user, the expectation is to see how far the two points are – not for geographical curiosity – but for the purposes of planning a trip from point A to point B. That being said, the Google way (not computing as the crow flies) of calculating the actual driving distance is ideal and the preferred way to go.

Google and the Future of Maps on the iPhone

According to recent press reports, Apple may replace the Google Maps app on the iPhone with their own in-house Maps app. While this came as a surprise to me (Google Maps was one of the earliest apps on the iPhone and one of my most used apps), I’m eager to see how Apple can improve from the Google product. 

Recently, I noticed a use case for which I was annoyed with Google Maps, and this could be taken as an example of a room for improvement for any competing product. 

I was on the Caltrain going from Sunnyvale to San Mateo to meet a friend for dinner. Along the ride, I was curious to see how much distance (and time) remained ahead in my journey. So I pulled out my trusty iPhone, went to Google Maps, and searched for San Mateo, CA. What I wanted to do was to find the city and have the app calculate the distance (and time) remaining from my current location. My expectation was for the app to find the city and to serve up the city as a pin for me to touch and then go to the next level of calls to action. Google Maps found the city for me, but instead of serving up the city pin as the main call to action, I was shown the following: 


As can be seen in the image above, the primary pin shown to me was a sponsored result of a dentist near San Mateo. I had to manually touch the San Mateo city pin in order to toggle from the sponsored result to the desired result:  


This example reminded me of Google’s famous motto, “Don’t Be Evil.” This motto means many different things to many different people. To me, it means that it is possible to make a business viable product while not drastically sacrificing the user experience for the purpose of generating revenue. Google Search (especially its earliest incarnations) was a great example of an extremely profitable product that kept a great balance with user experience. With the example above, I feel that for this product, Google crossed the line and sacrificed user experience a little too much in order to generate revenue. 

Google Maps Doesn’t Support Multi Destination Routes With Public Transportation

When looking for driving directions on Google Maps, it’s possible for the user to click on a link to Add Destination. By clicking on this link, the user can add another destination to their trip. For example, say you wanted to start in San Jose, travel to Mountain View, and then finally travel to San Francisco. This feature will let you obtain directions for all phases of the trip instead of having to go through this flow for each phase separately. A pretty nifty feature. 


The interesting thing is that on Google Maps, it’s not possible to do this if you select public transportation as your method of travel: 


Not sure why this is. From a functionality stand point it’s definitely possible for the service to be able to offer this type of user query. I checked the walking and cycling options — and they too offer the option of adding multiple destinations, so it’s a bit odd that you can not plan out a multi-destination trip using public transportation on Google Maps.