How (Not) To Use Google Maps

Like it or not, a person sometimes has to visit IKEA. It can’t be avoided if you live in the modern world (unless you happen to live in New Zealand, a small country the Swedes are still looking for). It’s been years since I last roamed IKEA’s circuitous aisles, but there I was again today.

The last time I drove to our nearby IKEA was in the pre-smartphone era. Nearing my destination, I misinterpreted an oddly-placed highway sign and drove off in the wrong direction. That precipitated driving through a seemingly endless series of industrial parks and vacant lots in the vicinity of Newark’s airport. Not wanting to repeat that fiasco, I looked at Google Maps to find a safer route.

This is what Google Maps had to say about the best route through Newark to IKEA:

Drive from I-78 E to Newark. Take exit 57 from I-78 E.

Get on NJ-81 S in Elizabeth.

Continue on NJ-81 S to North Ave E. Take the North Ave East exit from NJ-81 S.

Continue on North Ave E. Drive to Ikea Dr.

I looked at the map, made a few notes and we were on our way. I’d considered letting my phone talk me through the trip, but why bother? Look at those directions! Besides, if we don’t use our brains to perform easy tasks, how will we be able to do hard things? (Although, scientifically speaking, I’m not sure there’s any connection.)

As you might expect, it wasn’t a smooth trip. The trouble started when I realized there were some variations on exit 57, such as 57-A and 57-B and north to this and south to that. The trouble soon got worse when there weren’t any signs directing me to NJ-81. There were plenty of signs with many, many destinations, but not one gave a hint about finding NJ-81.

Suffice it to say that we got to IKEA eventually, didn’t have to walk through the entire store and the trip home was uneventful. But I did think about sending Google some nicely-worded criticism. What good are instructions to get on NJ-81 if there aren’t any signs telling you where NJ-81 is?

Before giving  Google a piece of what’s left of my mind, however, I went back and looked at Google Maps’ directions, as well as the accompanying map. That’s when I decided to click on one of the little white dots scattered about on the road between I-78 and IKEA. Lo and behold! The little white dots bring up tiny windows with further instructions, such as:

Use the middle lane to keep left at the fork and follow signs for US-1 S/US-9 S.

Hey, that’s the kind of information I needed when I was trying to find IKEA!

Obviously, these little windows wouldn’t help anyone driving a car or printing out directions. That got me to click on a little gray “>” symbol next to one of the instructions I’d attempted to follow. Lo and behold again! Clicking on the “>” next to “Drive from I-78 E to Newark. Take exit 57 from I-78 E” revealed more detailed assistance:

Use the right lane to take exit 57 for New Jersey 21 N toward Newark Airport.

Use the middle lane to follow signs for Main Terminals/North Area/South Area.

Use the middle lane to keep left at the fork and follow signs for US-1 S/US-9 S.

In fact, clicking on the “>” next to “Get on NJ-81 S in Elizabeth” revealed an entire trip in itself:

Use the right lane to keep left.

Use the right lane to turn slightly right (signs for US-1 S/US-9 S).

Keep right.

Use the middle lane to keep left.

Continue straight.

Use the middle lane to take the ramp to NJ Turnpike/Interstate 95/Dowd Ave/North Ave/Elizabeth Seaport.

It’s certainly to Google’s credit that they provide such detailed directions and their directions almost always get you where you want to go. On the other hand, if I’d realized how challenging it is to get from, for example, I-78 to NJ-81 (my favorite instruction being “use the right lane to keep left”), I would have chosen a less interesting route.

In conclusion, therefore, I offer the following advice, which I should remember to follow myself:

  • When getting directions from Google Maps, click on the little “>” symbols in the list of directions or the little white dots on the map.
  • If the symbols or dots reveal a series of complicated instructions, look for a different route.
  • Turn on your damn phone when you don’t know where you’re going. Not wasting your brain power performing easy tasks will mean you’ll have more brain power for the hard things! (Although, scientifically speaking, that probably makes no sense at all.)
  • If that doesn’t work, shop online.