ARE WE THERE YET?
People don’t care enough about directions. I had several hours to ponder this fact last weekend, when my boyfriend and I drove down from New York to Washington, D.C., to attend his granddaughter’s college graduation, with me in the navigator’s seat.
First, I have to admit I’m a bit of a fanatic about the subject. I’ve always prided myself on having a good sense of direction, something I think may be related to a mild trauma I experienced a great many years ago when I was about seven or eight and we were visiting our Dutch cousins in the country in Holland. I was out for a long walk with my mother and brothers when we got separated; I cried a lot but somehow found my way back to the family house, slowly and doggedly, recalling odd-looking trees or houses I’d seen along the way, to be greeted with joy and relief by all (the police had been called!). So I’m proud of the directions I give people, whether they’re about operating the washing machine or telling members of my tennis team how to get from Brooklyn to the courts on Roosevelt Island.
What makes for good directions? Bad ones are pretty easy to identify. When we got into the car and headed for D.C., my boyfriend handed me the Google instructions he’d downloaded, using the basic method of inputting our address in Brooklyn at one end and that of the hotel in Washington at the other. This produces a list of indicators (“I-95/New Jersey Turnpike to exit 1,” or whatever), with each stage annotated with varying distances (“0.3 miles”) and times (“93 minutes”). The semi-uselessness of this style is fairly obvious—the main one being the impossibility of knowing whether Google’s 93 minutes is remotely close to one’s own, especially allowing for traffic interference (or the lack thereof). Besides, only anal-compulsive types who endanger their lives by looking more at their odometers than the road can keep on counting the 0.3 and 1.6 mile chunks you’re supposed to monitor.
This inadequacy didn’t matter so much in the early stage of getting out of Brooklyn (when I knew the way anyhow) or heading down the Turnpike (which is a straight line with decent signposting). But it had a serious impact in suburban Maryland and D.C. proper, where we really had no idea how long each stage between turns was supposed to take—not to mention that Washington street signs are really hard to see after dark. We also got the distinct feeling that the Google Map algorithm tends to go for highways and straight lines—whether or not they really get you there any quicker. When we told our hotel receptionist downtown that the map had sent us via Silver Spring, he just laughed, rather pityingly.
It’s all about the landmarks
The thing is, snippets of odometer miles and times aren’t how human beings really find their way around in real life. After all, roads and features of the landscape were there long, long before cars and odometers. People have been giving each other directions using landmarks and other helpful clues for, presumably, thousands of years. I find that when you’re driving in New York City it’s important to know, say, that you stay on a street until it passes under a railroad bridge, after which you take the next possible sharp right turn. That way, you’re alert, you’re ready for the turn, and you’re looking at the road and what’s around it, not at the bloody odometer waiting to see it click from 0.2 to 0.3.
There’s nothing in a Google Map instruction to let you know that when you get on the Long Island Expressway at a certain spot in Queens intending to take the next turnoff for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), you have to do an instant zero-to-60 dash from a left-hand ramp to a right-hand exit across four lanes of traffic. If you delay, you either miss the exit or you’re dead (or both). So the instructions I write for such situations have a lot of detail. If you’re being told to take the Fort Hamilton Parkway exit off the Prospect Parkway, it helps to know that you’re going to pass a completely different Fort Hamilton Parkway exit several miles earlier on the aforementioned BQE and that’s not the one you want. Think Google Maps is ever going to tell you that?—TAMARA GLENNY