Sunday, May 17, 2015

Still Life With Robin: How to Trick Your GPS into Doing What You Want

Google Maps - The Elusive Chain Bridge
by Peggy Robin                  

I mainly use Google Maps to get around. I have it on my computer at home and use it as a talking guide on my smartphone. In all the years I have been using it, I have learned it has certain flaws. Or call them predilections. For example, when taking me to Silver Spring, it has a very strong preference for putting me on the Beltway, even during rush hour, when the Connecticut Ave to University Blvd stretch is apt to be more like a parking lot than a freeway. I know if I stay on Connecticut Avenue it will turn into University Boulevard, and I’ll keep moving the whole way. But how do I get my GPS program to understand that? Yes, I can tell it to “avoid highways” – and that may solve the Silver-Spring-at-rush-hour dilemma, but not, for example, the Chain-Bridge-to-Northern-Virginia problem. For some unknown reason, whenever I tell Google Maps to direct me to ANY address across the Potomac, it wants me to take I-66. And I almost NEVER want to take that road. It means I have to drive all the way down Rock Creek Parkway and then do that complicated little crossing of Virginia Avenue to follow the ramp up past the Kennedy Center -- where I need to avoid that bait-and-switch exit that seems designed to get you to stop off and see a show -- and concentrate on merging onto I-66, when I know perfectly well that it will be less stressful, and probably quicker, too, to go by way of Chain Bridge instead. Yet my GPS hardly seems to know that Chain Bridge even exists. It won’t route me over Chain Bridge unless I am already on Arizona Avenue whenever I enter an address in McLean.

Oh, I’ve tried various ways to force my GPS to show me the way I’d like to go. On my computer at home I can take the route it shows me and drag the blue line to my roadway of choice. But sometimes it fights back, and it ends up drawing its own complicated loops to squiggle its way back to the route it prefers. This is very frustrating! But just recently I discovered a way to force my will upon it, to make it show me just the way I want, and nothing else. And I can do this whether I’m plotting the route on my desktop PC or on my phone. 

Here’s the trick: I tell it that I’m starting from identified point as near as possible to the road I prefer to take. For example, if I want to take Chain Bridge, I look for an identified landmark as near to the bridge as I can find. There’s a Wells Fargo Bank at the corner of Arizona Avenue and MacArthur Blvd (probably because Wells Fargo pays Google an advertising fee to mark its locations). I click on that as my starting point, and then I enter in the unfamiliar McLean address I want to reach. This time for sure it will tell me to go over the nearest bridge – Chain Bridge – and it does!

The other day I was driving to the DC Central Kitchen drop-off site at  4900 Puerto Rico Avenue NE. I had never been there before, so I mapped it before I set out. Annoyingly, Google Maps wanted me to enter Rock Creek Park during rush hour by making a left turn onto Beach Drive from Porter Street – something that is perfectly legal in the late afternoon but not really doable. A perfect opportunity for me to try out my new “trick the GPS” technique: I looked over the map, saw it would make more sense at that hour to get into the Park at Tilden, and saw that Google Maps had marked the location of Peirce Mill just where Tilden goes into the Park. So I clicked on that landmark and made it my starting point. Then it routed me exactly as I wanted to go – no struggling with the program to try to drag lines from here to there, no clicking through turn-by-turn lists of alternative routes to see if any matched my preference, no trying to insert a mid-point stop along the way, without messing up the sequence. (These were but three of the ways I had attempted to solve this problem in the past.)

The beauty of this trick is that you don’t need to know ahead of time what starting point to pick. Google Maps is full of paid markers for Starbucks, and gas stations and banks and many other points of interest. Just zoom in close to where you want the map’s guidance to kick in, and click. Start there and the rest is smooth sailing!


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local sometime over the weekend.

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