Here's hoping we can avoid a future in which you need to consult three apps to get out the door.

When I first started trying Google Now, I kept thinking Google had the wrong guy: How could the automated personal assistant in its new Android release suggest someone like me, a regular rider of D.C.'s Metrorail system, drive everywhere?

No matter how car-hostile the event, Google Now's directions required four wheels and a license. Neither crawling traffic, expensive parking nor a driving-not-recommended description like "Open Bar" could knock the app out of its windshield perspective.

It turns out that Google is OK with me putting down the car keys. But its interface needs work, and illustrates a broader flaw with single-mode navigation apps.

Google Now's transit option hides at the bottom of its screen: Tap the vertical-ellipsis menu button there and select "Settings," then "Google Now," "Traffic," and "Transportation mode" to switch between driving and transit.

But this binary switch bears its own problems: equally unhelpful directions that result from a transit-only setting.

In Washington, Google Now provided an hour-plus itinerary from an Arlington Metro stop to the Fairfax County Government Center that ended in a long walk. (Google skipped a more convenient Fairfax Connector bus; that system says it will finally publish its schedules in GTFS format later this month.) In southern California, Google Now's suggested field trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (based on my Mars Curiosity searches) would have taken almost three hours from my hotel in Santa Monica.

Shouldn't an app that reads my calendar, contacts and even search history know to list a faster way between points A and B than my current choice? At some level, Google must agree (although its PR office wouldn't answer on the record); its maps site notes transit times when providing driving directions and vice versa.

But Google's Android app does not, and neither option will advise if bicycling would be quicker. If vehicle-sharing systems like D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare or the wonderfully flexible car2go service enter the picture, things get even more complicated. 

Apple's upcoming iOS 6, meanwhile, exiles transit and bicycling directions to separate apps. And thanks to short-sighted open-data policies, those tools may offer weaker guidance than iOS 5's Google-powered software.

Can we avoid slouching toward a future in which you need to consult three apps to get out the door? I don't know. Ask Google Now instead.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of yellow vest protesters in Paris, France.
    Equity

    To Understand American Political Anger, Look to ‘Peripheral France’

    French geographer Christophe Guilluy has a controversial diagnosis of working-class resentment in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the Yellow Vests.

  2. A rendering of a co-living building in San Jose.
    Life

    The Largest Co-Living Building in the World Is Coming to San Jose

    The startup Starcity plans to build an 800-unit, 18-story “dorm for adults” to help affordably house Silicon Valley’s booming workforce.

  3. Design

    How 'Maintainers,' Not 'Innovators,' Make the World Turn

    We need more stories about the labor that sustains society, a group of scholars say.

  4. A man walks by an abandoned home in Youngstown, Ohio
    Life

    How Some Shrinking Cities Are Still Prospering

    A study finds that some shrinking cities are prosperous areas with smaller, more-educated populations. But they also have greater levels of income inequality.

  5. A cat lays flat on a bench at a park on the outskirts of Tokyo.
    Life

    Why Don't Americans Use Their Parks At Night?

    Most cities aren’t fond of letting people use parks after dark. But there are good lifestyle, environmental, and safety reasons to reconsider.

×