THINGS started badly. Sitting outside the Evening News office, I turn on my iPhone to begin the roadtest to end all roadtests.
This was it – can technology succeed where countless people fail every day? Can a phone really manage to plot its way through Edinburgh’s baffling roadworks and ever-changing diversions as efficiently as a veteran cabbie?
Quick as a flash I’m offered Holyrood Road as my current location. All good so far . . . until, that is, it transpires that my phone believes I am in Holyrood Road, Edmonton, Canada.
Old-fashioned map 1, iPhone 0.
Persevere I must however, especially as Neil is already firing up his rival HTC.
We’re conducting the experiment, pitching Apple and Google Maps systems into battle as more and more people – and importantly tourists – rely on their smartphones to find their way around Edinburgh.
As roadworks go, those laid on by the city in recent months and years must easily rank among the most convoluted to ever be tackled by motorists. Dead ends, no left or right turns, Broughton Street’s continuously changing junction with Albany Street and the ongoing conjurings thrown up by the closure of York Place and the West End have all conspired to test city drivers to the limit.
So it was that Neil, armed with Google Maps and I, with iPhone Maps, set out to tackle three relatively simple routes through the city centre, throwing caution to the wind and vowing to follow the directions wherever they took us . . .
1. Edinburgh Evening News on Holyrood Road to The Assembly Rooms on George Street: 10 minutes – 1.7 miles
With a weary sigh, I select “cancel” to remove Edmonton as my current location, resisting the urge to give up before I even start. The app speedily redraws my route and within seconds any suggestion of transatlantic travel disappears as a clear blue route to George Street emerges.
However, the Google Maps app on photographer Neil’s HTC phone continues to ruminate on the precise location of Holyrood Road, Edinburgh so we decide to set off on my plotted course. Within just yards it is clear that there may be trouble ahead, as it suggests turning left on to the Pleasance and travelling as far as Deaconess Gardens before performing a U-turn and coming back on ourselves to head along Jeffrey Street and Market Street (you can’t turn right on to St Mary’s Street).
By now Google Maps has “connected” and it’s offering a more sensible route of continuing on to the Cowgate before turning right up Blackfriars Street on to the High Street and down The Mound.
At the same time Neil states he’d go up Victoria Street himself – clear as mud.
Eventually we make it to the Assembly Rooms using the iPhone (and its initial entirely wrong direction mapping) three minutes later than suggested and with just as many routes offered.
2. The Assembly Rooms on George Street to Playhouse on Greenside Place: 9 minutes – 1 mile
From here we head towards the abyss of York Place. Both navigational apps suggest the same route, down Hanover Street to Queen Street and along to Picardy Place. We’re no sooner on to Queen Street though before banks of red lights rear into view. A quick redrawing of the routes and snap! – both suggest Abercromby Place and Albany Street as our avenues of escape.
We duck down Abercromby Place but are soon confronted with another wall of brake lights and gridlock. A common sight then transpires – white van men and delivery drivers perform abrupt U-turns, leading us to wonder just what shortcut they are seeking to take and whether we could use it too.
Fortunately the traffic moves. We are now sitting in traffic on Broughton Street.
After what seems an eternity, we clear York Place and the Playhouse looms into view. A perplexed-looking bunch of tourists poring over a map outside the Conan Doyle serves only to highlight just how baffling the whole scheme must seem to those who do not possess any local knowledge. Fortunately for them, they also fail to possess a car – two feet good, four wheels bad in this scenario.
Even so it takes us just under 20 minutes and both apps prove remarkably fleet-footed in plotting a way through the tram works.
Whether this would prove the same for that group of tourists all piled into a camper van scouring the walls for street names and landmarks remains to be seen though.
3. Playhouse on Greenside Place to Haymarket Bar . . . then returning to Holyrood Road: 12 minutes – 1.8 miles
We both tap our next destination – The Haymarket Bar – into our phones and once again the iPhone rattles off a route within seconds – through York Place, down Queen Street, left to Charlotte Square, straight ahead on to Princes Street and out along Shandwick Place – easy.
Google meanwhile continues to ponder its course, eventually settling on the same route. Both Neil and I raise our eyebrows to this. “You can’t get through Shandwick Place, can you?” asks Neil.
No, you can’t.
So instead we follow Charlotte Square around to Hope Street and on to Queensferry Street. This sends both systems into a strop, Google Maps “has gone mad” while the iPhone steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that we have changed our direction, instead believing us to be chugging nicely along Shandwick Place. But we aren’t.
Finally new routes are drawn and we head left down Drumsheugh Gardens before turning left on to Palmerston Place. Wrong. Fencing prevents us from turning on to West Maitland Street.
Instead we are sent over Grosvenor Place and down on to Haymarket Terrace.
The Haymarket Bar is now behind us but still we are shuttled away and west. Next we pass the former Donaldson’s School for the Blind building and the dawning realisation that both systems seem intent on directing us past Murrayfield to the West Approach Road.
And yes within minutes we’re travelling along the aforementioned road, well aware that if we had followed the originally suggested route on to Princes Street we most probably would have been directed up Lothian Road and here – shaving minutes off our time.
Following a left turn on to Morrison Crescent, we are then ushered on to Morrison Street and soon are outside the Haymarket Bar to read a sign that “apologises for any inconvenience caused during the tram works.”
Next up, we’re on the home stretch – heading to the office on Holyrood Road and back to work. Once again my iPhone spits out a relatively sensible route between the two locations while Neil’s Google Maps seems confused, taking its time on the precise orientation.
Eventually consensus is reached and we speed away from the tram project and its labyrinthine-like roadworks.
All in all, and a little surprisingly, Apple’s map system comes out of it with its head held high, while Google Maps still has its buried in an A to Z.
Both navigational apps could benefit from a tram filter, though.
You’re driving not the sat nav. If you have an accident or commit an offence you can’t blame the sat nav or map system. It’s your fault.
What you see must take priority over what the map says. People have been marooned in fords, and driven into rivers and down railways because their sat nav told them to. If the road looks wrong – don’t take it.
You know what you’re driving, the map probably doesn’t. If you have a large vehicle, or a trailer, you can’t be sure the road is suitable just because the sat nav tells you to go down it.
Watch the road not the map system. A sat nav can give all sorts of information about where you are going, much of which you don’t need.
Check the route is practical before you start. Is the sat nav taking you to the right place? Does the route look right?