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.