Smartphone Traffic Apps: Are You Gambling With Your Commute?

Gone are the days of simple radio traffic reports and plotting out your travel route before hitting the road. Today, commuters use a variety of smartphone apps designed to show real-time traffic and travel times. But is banking on an app to give you the fastest route really effective?

Navigation apps, such as Google Maps or Waze, highlight the fastest routes and provide a quick glimpse of your upcoming commute. The shiny, convenient apps offer a great resource to commuters, but they don’t have all the answers to your commute problems.

From a map showing just how long a traffic jam extends to alternate routes available, the apps are a useful tool for drivers looking to shave time off their commutes. But still, the apps, which are mostly based on users’ GPS coordinates and rely heavily on commuter reports, aren’t always the most reliable way to get around.

For one, they can’t predict the future.

Officials with the Minnesota Travel Observatory tell the Star Tribune that the apps can tell you an estimated travel time, but that’s only accurate assuming nothing out of the ordinary occurs – like an unexpected snowstorm.

Additionally, more populated areas tend to have more accurate traffic apps.

For instance, the Star Tribune reports, the Twin Cities has approximately 200,000 Waze users. Officials with Waze say that’s enough to create up-to-date maps. While officials don’t say less populated cities have less accurate apps, the utilization of user data and input would suggest that if less people use the app in an area, the traffic patterns wouldn’t be updated as frequently. And in the past inaccurate maps have cause problems for commuters – remember the maps debacle back in 2012?

Sometimes traffic apps only add to commuter problems. If an incident, such as a traffic jam occurs, an app will give commuters the suggestion of an alternative route. When too many users take that suggestion it can create yet another jam.

While traffic apps are convenient and provide great interactive elements, sometimes the experience of well-established traffic monitors trumps the new technology.

State departments of transportation, like the Minnesota Department of Transportation, have been tracking traffic patters for decades using a combination of construction updates, road conditions and hazards reported by the State Patrol. That information is readily available to commuters by calling 511.

Traffic reporters often use information provided by local DOTs and other information, such as weather reports, to offer a more comprehensive travel plan for commuters.

So while traffic apps are a convenient option, sometimes nothing beats hearing your traffic report from an actual person.

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  1. mobafett says:

    My area has only the most vague traffic reporting on local radio, updated about once an hour. Not useful at all. Waze, on the other hand, can tell me if there’s congestion ahead on the Interstate in enough time for me to take the next exit and go around it. No comparison.

  2. MarthaGaill says:

    We used Waze the other day to take us to a restaurant downtown. While the route was supposed to be two minutes faster, I think with stoplights and all the bizarro turns it had us make down side streets the time ended up being about the same, plus I think we used more gas doing all the extra turns. Not worth going out of our way.

    Google maps is good enough for me. It lets me know when to expect traffic and gives me the standard routes instead of taking me down crazy backstreets.

    • Unholy79 says:

      Yeah that’s one of the downsides of any GPS app – it doesn’t always provide the best route. Sometimes the shortest/fastest route is anything but. Waze is one of the better ‘free’ GPS apps out there though. If you really want an adventure, allow dirt roads in the app… just make sure you have a 4×4 lol. :)

  3. APK1080 says:

    Well no kidding, that’s how traffic works. This reads like a FUD PR release by the traffic reporters.

  4. Unholy79 says:

    Yes… and when a cop gives me a $150 ticket for using my cellphone, I don’t think he or she will care that I was checking traffic conditions. While the technology isn’t perfect, it’s better than nothing and a decent alternative to listening for a radio traffic report. Nice plug for this whole 511 scheme but this sounds like a crony report at best. The technology can only improve especially as more people use it. I’ve relied on Waze from the start, contributed to its development, and seen it go from niche popularity to a very useful tool for commuters. If anything, these tax funded folks should consider finding a way to tie into one of the most popular GPS apps out there and help to fill in the gaps instead of expecting drivers justify their funding and risk a ticket by using their phone while driving.