Can technology help your commute?

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Traffic data provider Inrix recently looked at a wide range of traffic information and crunched the numbers to come up with the top 10 worst traffic cities, based on the time drivers spend idling in their cars.  Believe it or not, Honolulu tops the list, but LA is number two.  Even with Kajon’s help, Angelenos spend an average of 56 hours every year idling in their cars.  So the question is: can better technology help you get there faster?
You certainly heard all the bad press about Apple’s new Map app. But what is an everyday, tech savvy Southern Californian road warrior supposed to do?  Well first of all, Apple’s obviously going to improve their app.  But in the meantime, there are a lot of other options.
Photo by davidwatterson via Flickr/CC (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Adam  Dachis looked at mobile apps for He said that for Android phones, his team looked at Google Maps Navigation, Navigon, Sygic, Skobbler and Mapquest Mobile.  And on IOS, there’s Navigon, Garmin, Gokivo, NavFree and then Mapquest.

“We’re looking for an app that will give you very clear, correct directions and not screw you up,” Dachis said.

That’s not a slam dunk. If you’ve used these apps, you know their instructions can be really confusing or just plain wrong.

“I happen to really like Google’s navigation,” Dachis said. “If you’re an Android user I think that’s the way to go.  But it terms of sheer information and features Waze is really wonderful.  It’s on both platforms.  It can help you get where you’re going.”

Of course, in LA it’s often less about knowing how to get there and more about finding the fastest route.  And Waze does a pretty good job of that.  Instead of relying on one of a few sources of traffic data that most apps use, Waze gets its information from drivers like you and me.  In fact, Wazers – as the people who use Waze are known – created the Waze maps as well.  It’s like social media for navigation.

“It’s crowd-sourced mapping,” said Michal Habdank, director of communications at Waze. “Or citizen-sourced mapping. When you get things like Malaysia and Israel, which are countries that we had no map in whatsoever, but those people made maps of the whole country.”

Of course, the whole thing works best in places where there are lot of tech-savvy people in their cars – like LA.  Habdank says Los Angeles is the biggest market here in the States, with an estimated 10 percent of drivers using it, and over 800,000 accounts.  But that means that a lot of people are entering road hazard info on their iPhone instead of keeping their eyes on the road.

Photo by albyantoniazzi via Flickr/CC (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Johan Til-Broer, a spokesperson for Garmin, one of the world’s biggest makers of navigation devices, says it seems like the biggest issue with all smartphone navigation apps is that they’re on your smartphone. “The smartphone is kind of turning into a Swiss-Army knife that does everything,” said Til-Broer. “I think for certain purposes it makes sense to have a separate device.  I mean when you take a phone call it can be distracting to do that on the same device that you use for navigation.”

Garmin and companies like TomTom make make dashboard-top boxes that can give turn-by-turn navigation and traffic info just like smartphone apps, and with their bigger screens they’re probably safer.  Some of them can even connect to your smartphone to show all sorts of other cool information.  But the point is that you don’t need cell service at all.

“The GPS device saves the maps on-board so you don’t rely on the cell phone signal,” said Til-Broer. “A lot of the free apps they’re off-board.  That means when you calculate a route you need to connect to a server and download the maps.  That will use up your data plan and whenever you are in an area where you don’t have cell reception, you won’t be able to calculate a route.”

Those on-board maps also have information that free apps don’t – like what lane you need to be in to make that next turn.  Garmin and TomTom also make Smartphone apps with on-board maps so they’re a great choice for someone who doesn’t want to buy a dashboard box but where cell reception is spotty.  Of course, ultimately, the question really is: if you have to go from Torrance to Studio City in bummer to bummer traffic, how is any of this technology going to help?

“Do these apps really save you time? No,” said Dachis. ” I think your own brain is the best mobile app for navigation.  It saves you time because you know where you’re going.  It saves you time because you know where you’re going and because you actually pay attention to how you’re driving.”