Do smartphone traffic apps really work?

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2014 - 4:16 PM

Mobile apps promise real-time traffic info, but — honk! honk! — picking the best route is still a gamble.

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Traffic crawled into downtown Minneapolis on a recent commute.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune,

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It’s the commuter’s constant question: Stay the course despite the traffic jam or stray in search of a faster route?

Winter weather only ups the ante.

Routine and gut instinct, plus a well-timed radio traffic report, used to be our guides.

Then the smartphone-turned-navigator came along, giving us real-time traffic updates with the tap of a touch screen. Apps like Waze and Google Maps highlight the fastest routes based on traffic data, while MnDOT’s 511 app posts traffic and road conditions.

But computers aren’t always the best co-pilots, especially in a Minnesota snowstorm. The technology can provide a nifty snapshot of the present, but can’t say with absolute certainty what will come next.

Elisa Poquette found that out on a recent snowy morning. According to Google Maps, her trip from south Minneapolis to her Wayzata office should have taken 45 minutes.

“It took me over an hour just to get to the basilica,” she said. “It was just absurd how wrong it was.”

So is our faith in such apps misplaced? Our hope for technology too high? Will we be stuck in traffic forever?

“[Apps] can tell you what may happen in the near future, assuming that nothing out of the ordinary takes place,” said John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory. “During your trip, a billion unexpected things can happen that are going to push your experience out of the ordinary. It’s quite unpredictable, bottom line.”

Inside the apps

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has been tracking traffic in real time for decades. The department uses sensors on freeways and many state highways in the metro area to figure out where traffic’s moving and where it’s jammed.

Construction updates, road conditions (reported by snowplow drivers), plus hazards or crashes reported by the State Patrol have long been available to traffic reporters and the general public by calling 511 or checking www.511mn.org.

That wealth of public data is often the basis for other navigation apps.

Google Maps, which displays real-time traffic flow with red, yellow and green lines, also draws data from the GPS coordinates of Android phone users who have opted to anonymously share their locations.

Waze, purchased by Google last year for a reported $1 billion, is even more fervent about crowdsourcing. Its millions of users worldwide, all tracked by their phones’ GPS, update the Waze map in real time just by driving. They can also report specific incidents, from slow traffic to police car sightings, with voice commands. Waze added the hands-free controls so people wouldn’t be tapping while driving. The MnDOT 511 app asks users to agree not to use it while driving.

Before setting out on snowy mornings, Diane Kulseth checks three different apps.

She uses MnDOT for winter road conditions, Google for a quick overview of traffic flow and Waze to pick a route from her home in Maplewood to work in Eagan, based on travel time.

“It’s been a little bit of a tossup. There have been a couple times where it’s been great and I’ve ended up cutting off a good chunk of time,” she said.

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