I have written in previous articles on this blog about my passion for navigating to unfamiliar places. I love going for walks around the neighborhood, finding new restaurants and meeting friends at their homes.
Getting to these unfamiliar places, however, can be a challenge because, unless I have enough previous knowledge about the surrounding area, I need to get directions to get there – just as sighted people need maps when they visit a new place. Unfortunately, many maps are designed to be visual – I would have to look at the map, zoom in and out and follow the route on the screen. There are blind-specific GPS apps (Seeing Eye, Nearby Explorer, or BlindSquare for example), but they are expensive and potentially cost prohibitive. Thankfully, the two most common GPS apps (Apple Maps and Google Maps) are mostly accessible. Since I need a reliable app to confidently navigate, I decided to try these two apps on the same route to see which one provided better directions and which one had a better interface.
For my test, I used a familiar route that would allow me to know if the apps were accurate or not. It was a long route from work to home that required walking, getting on a bus and then walking again to my final destination.
Starting the Route
The search feature of both apps is similar. There is a search bar that will start showing results as soon as you start typing, and tapping on one of the results takes the user to a page with more information about the place and the option to get directions.
Both apps were similar in the transit portion of the route, but unfortunately neither was very useful. When choosing the transit option, Google shows a list of steps: Walk 0.3 miles to the Bus stop, take the bus, and get off at Maryland Avenue and 6th Street (my stop). However, I had no way of getting directions to the bus stop (the only option it gave me was to zoom in on the map). Also, once I was on the bus, I had to rely on the driver to announce where we were because the app does not tell me which stop I am closest to as the bus moves. Apple is similar. However, instead of providing a list, the app has screens that allow the user to swipe from one step to the next (from walking to the bus stop to taking the bus to getting off). Apart from this, however, there are no real-time directions to the bus stop or on the bus.
Once I got off the bus, I relied on Google and Apple to tell me where to go (I did this route multiple times in order to use both apps). Google’s starting directions were confusing. It said “head Southwest on Maryland Avenue toward 6th street”. I had to use the Phone’s compass to figure out what direction it wanted me to go. Even then, the compass directions were confusing because I was starting on a sidewalk with only two options: East or West. If I actually tried to go directly southwest from my starting location, I would hit a building. Apple, on the other hand, was much clearer because it simply said “turn left.”
Once I started walking, both apps worked in very similar ways. They each told me when to turn when I was about 500 feet away and took the same route from the bus stop to home. However, there are some slight differences worth pointing out.
Apple has a “tracking” option that announces streets as I passed them. This helps avoid the frustration of walking a few blocks only to realize I was walking in the wrong direction, but the GPS hadn’t updated yet. It also helps me stay oriented and more aware of my surroundings. However, I couldn’t get this to work consistently. In one trial run, Apple maps announced all the intersections as I approached them. When I tried it again, however, nothing was announced. I am not sure why this happened, but it was frustrating not to get consistent results. On a similar note, Apple updated distance faster. While Google only told me when I had to turn in increments of 50 feet (jumping from 150 to 100 feet) Apple was constantly updating and told me when I was 50 feet away from the next turn, 38 feet, and so on. Apple also told me if my destination would be on the left or the right earlier in the process. While Google told me if the destination was on the right or left right as I arrived, Apple gave me this information as soon as there were no turns left in the route. For example, even when I was three blocks away from my apartment, Apple told me the destination was on the left, and the distance I still needed to walk. This difference may not seem like a big issue, but knowing that I need to go to the other side of the street earlier is helpful because it allows me to choose where I want to cross to the other side of the street. It also avoids the annoyance of walking to the middle of the block only to realize the destination was on the other side of the street, which would force me to backtrack and find a crosswalk again, instead of knowing ahead of time and crossing before walking to the middle of the block.
Apple has a “current location” feature that gave me the closest address as I walked. This was useful when I wanted to check if I was still on the right block and gave me an idea of where I was.
Google also has its own advantages. Its directions were slightly more accurate. It told me to turn exactly when I needed to turn. In Contrast, there were a few instances when Apple told me to turn in the middle of the block, when there was no way I could turn anywhere. I later realized that it wanted me to turn at the next corner, so the inaccuracy was relatively small, but this could have been more confusing if I had been in a completely unfamiliar area.
Overall, both apps are very similar in terms of accessibility. Which one you use depends on which features are more essential as you navigate. Google is slightly more accurate, but given that Apple has the current location feature, it will tell you sooner if you are on the right side of the street, and it will give you more frequent updates when a turn is coming up.
There are features that both apps lack but that someone looking at a map would have access to. For example, even though it is possible to see bus stops and other landmarks with no address on the map, it is not possible to get voice directions to those places, even though someone could get there by looking at the map. Additionally, neither app gives multiple walking routes – they both have one option. Having multiple options can be very useful. I live near a park, and often, both apps will try to get me to cross the park to get to my destination, but they are not very good at giving directions to navigate inside a park. In this situation, it would make more sense to choose an alternate route that avoids the park, even if it takes slightly longer. A person looking at the map can make that decision, but there is no way to do the same without looking at the map. I can make that decision for the park near my house because it is familiar, but there is no way I could get this information in an unfamiliar area.
There are also frustrations that come with navigating unfamiliar places that no GPS will be able to fix. For example, when I come to a corner and the GPS tells me to turn left or right, I don’t know if I am supposed to cross the street and then turn or to turn without crossing. This decision can affect the rest of the route. However, it is difficult for a GPS to be this accurate because the difference between crossing a street and only turning is only a few feet, and most apps cannot be that precise. GPS apps also do not replace paying attention to road characteristics and traffic. However, these apps, used in conjunction with good mobility skills, can be very helpful to get turn by turn navigation. Which one you choose depends on which features are most important in navigating – Google may be more accurate by a few feet, but Apple has clearer directions, especially at the beginning and end of routes.