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Google Walks the Walk

Yesterday, Google added an overdue feature to its Google Maps site: the option to request walking as well as driving directions from one point to another.

A blog post announcing this feature outlines its basic workings. You'll only be offered pedestrian pointers for routes shorter than 6.2 miles, and while Google's cartographic algorithms do let you save time by taking one-way streets in the "wrong" directions, its data doesn't include all the off-street paths that might be available. Hence, the Mountain View, Calif., company is releasing this feature with a "beta" label -- but you probably guessed that anyway.

(In many other cities -- from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Walla Walla, Wash. -- Google also lets you request directions via public transit. But that feature, like Google's Street View option, still hasn't reached D.C. And biking directions remain a wish-list item everywhere, as far as I know.)

A test of a few sample routes around the District revealed a few flaws in this new option. Consider Google's suggestions for the walk-to-work commute I enjoyed for a year and a half: Its driving directions almost match the path I'd take on foot, while its walking directions include a pointless detour that adds two-tenths of a mile.

Then there's the inefficient, zig-zag route Google suggested for the walk from the Capitol South Metro stop to Nationals Park. It's about 20 percent longer than the most direct route (though that involves cutting through a park, something that Google's computers probably don't know about).

Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo wrote in an e-mail that "we try to reduce the number of turns, within reason," for simplicity's sake. She also noted that its time estimates assume a "standard average walking speed, 5 km/hr" -- or just over 19 minutes a mile, a pace that will get you elbowed aside in many Northeast Corridor downtowns.

Do Google's walking directions steer you right? Try some of your own neighborhood trips and report back here on whether Google's advice would save you any time.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 23, 2008; 4:27 PM ET
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Walla Walla is the Ann Arbor of eastern Washington.

I know. I've lived it.

Noah Leavitt
Walla Walla (formerly Ann Arbor)

Posted by: Noah | July 23, 2008 7:59 PM | Report abuse

At the risk of sounding like Gates when he proclaimed no one will ever need more than 640K of RAM...

Google will never be able to record every walkable path and shortcut. I also doubt they'd be able to give good directions to people for all those unnamed trails out there ("turn onto that little dirt path after you cross the green bridge"). In the cities it could work but not in the 'burbs.

That said I would love to have a way to track my trail running routes. There's a bunch of trails right around the community where I live and no one knows about them!

Posted by: BR | July 24, 2008 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Interestingly, Google Maps for Mobile on my BlackBerry already offers the Transit option for DC.

Posted by: Woodley Park | July 24, 2008 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I've tried a few routes here in DC, and also in Boston where I lived for quite a few years. It seems pretty clear that, at least at present, Google mostly knows about routes via streets/roads. As RP notes, it is smart enough to know about one-way streets, and that you don't have to go the right way when you're walking. Most times, it won't route you through parks and the like.

However, I was impressed that it does seem to know you can walk across the Public Garden and the Common in Boston. Try this route: 50 Commonwealth Avenue (at Berkeley St.) to Beacon Street and Joy Street (close to the State House). There are a couple of odd little "jogs" in the route, but it's a pretty good effort.

Posted by: Rich GIbbs | July 25, 2008 5:53 PM | Report abuse

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