HolidayBuyer's Guide

Driving under the influence of Web maps

No winners, only a loser in a terribly unofficial driving direction contest. Photos: Guided by Web maps

It was a nearly cloudless, sunny day in San Francisco as I set out on my Wednesday drive. My goal: Test the accuracy and timing of the maps and driving directions provided by Yahoo, Google, MSN and America Online's MapQuest.

The test was far from scientific and the results would surely be different on another day at another time. Although the big portal sites pretty much use the same digital map data providers, namely Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ, the driving directions they provide can be different depending on how much weight the sites give to different criteria--such as traffic conditions, weather and road construction.

Test drive

Surveying an online street map of San Francisco, I randomly chose a location: A short street called Lopez Avenue that's nestled in the middle of a windy, hilly neighborhood that can be tricky to get to and reached by any of several different routes from my downtown office.

Getting there would require circling a major geographical landmark. It's called Twin Peaks, a 900-foot hill in the middle of the city that's typically covered in fog and usually takes the street smarts of a local to get around.

I started the nearly 12-mile roundtrip at CNET News.com's headquarters, on Second Street in downtown San Francisco.

Yahoo, an early pioneer of online mapping, was first up. Its directions were different from the others, taking me toward the center of the city, then skirting the edge of bucolic Golden Gate Park before landing me at my destination.

It took 20 minutes to get there and 28 minutes to get back, for a total of 48 minutes, instead of the 27 minutes estimated as total travel time on the Web site.

A Web map odyssey
Credit: CNET News.com
Yahoo's directions were a bit pokey,
but they got me to my destination.

MapQuest was the only one that sent me onto a highway, which was, fortunately, not crowded because I was driving on it during a midday lull. As a result, it actually saved me some time. If this were rush hour, I'd turn into that scary, foul-mouthed hothead you dread seeing behind you in a traffic jam.

I took Interstate 80/U.S. 101 for about 1.5 miles before being led past a neighborhood called the Mission (note to non-natives: If you're ever looking for a great burrito, this is where you go) and onto upper Market Street, a major thoroughfare that offers a straight shot to Twin Peaks.

Following MapQuest directions the trip took 16 minutes out and 25 minutes back, for a total of 41 minutes, compared with the Web site's estimated 29 minutes.

MSN and Google offered similar outbound directions with minor variations. MSN had me drive around the block from the company headquarters on Second Street to Market, while Google chose to send me around the block to Mission Street, another big street one block away and arguably faster than Market, which can bog down with street trolleys, buses and heavy pedestrian traffic.

A Web map odyssey
Credit: CNET News.com
MSN's directions had one big problem:
I would have had to jump a road divider.

Near my destination, Lopez Avenue, Google took me on a short, circuitous route, with several right turns instead of just one. MSN, on the other hand, confused the heck out of me, and I've lived in San Francisco now for about a decade. A few blocks before Lopez, MSN's directions suggested I drive from Woodside Avenue onto Merced Avenue, two streets that don't connect. I discovered, much to my horror, that I would have had to drive over a street divider to follow those directions.

Using the MSN directions took 24 minutes out and 21 minutes back, for a total of 45 minutes, compared with the estimated 24 minutes total travel time. Google's directions took 16 minutes to get to Lopez and 26 minutes to get back to the office, for a total of 42 minutes, compared with 24 minutes estimated.

To get me back to my office, the Web sites all navigated me down the eastern side of Twin Peaks, which offered a pleasing view of much of the city, San Francisco Bay and Oakland. The directions then guided me through the historic Castro district and down Market Street back to CNET Central.

A Web map odyssey
Credit: CNET News.com
America Online's MapQuest took me
onto a highway, which would have
been trouble at rush hour.

Driving down Market Street was not the best option because, like I said, it's full of street trolleys and, even worse, tourists. Folsom Street, two blocks to the south, wider and less traveled, would have been faster. While Market Street ostensibly has two lanes going each direction, the left lane each way is reserved for buses. The trip down Market would have been a bummer if not for my bold, aggressive and often rule-breaking driving.

Finally, I compared the online driving directions with human knowledge. Getting into a cab, I was tickled to say: "On the double, driver. I'm on deadline," which my Hungarian driver either ignored or pretended not to hear.

Fortunately, the driver lived not too far from my destination. For his route, which cost $37 roundtrip not including tip, he avoided annoying downtown traffic by driving up Howard Street, right by the office, turned right onto a major street, 9th Street, before heading up Market Street. For the return, he again avoided the heart of downtown and turned onto another big street, 8th Street, and then onto Folsom, that big street without all the darn trolleys and tourists.

In the taxi, the drive took 23 minutes out and 24 minutes back, for a total of 47 minutes. While the journey took a little longer than most of the routes navigated by the Web sites, it had a great big upside: I wasn't driving and getting peeved at slow drivers screwing up my unofficial survey.

Did I mention I'm an aggressive driver?

A Web map odyssey
Credit: CNET News.com
Google took me on a circuitous,
sometimes confusing route.

So it looks like Yahoo's directions were pokey, and MSN's, near as I can figure, would have had me jumping a divider. Asked to explain the apparent glitch in its driving directions, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company uses the most accurate and up-to-date data from its providers within the algorithm used to calculate routes.

"In some cases there are anomalies in the maps or driving directions, or there are road developments that may not yet be in our datasets, and we encourage customers who find them to alert us about them at gmmer@microsoft.com," said Trina Seinfeld, group product manager, Microsoft MapPoint.

In fairness to both, really, a Yahoo spokeswoman said: "We have one of the better geo-coding and routing capabilities to date. All mapping products out there are going to have some inconsistencies."

If there's one thing I learned from my day on the road: She's right.

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