How Google Maps Ruined the Surprise

Toronto to SimcoeMy husband celebrated a BIG birthday recently and to mark the happy occasion, I decided to invite our closest friends to a special, surprise dinner at our favourite hometown restaurant. The plan followed the classic surprise party paradigm. On the five-hour drive back to our hometown from where we currently live, I casually suggested a nice dinner out and said I would ask the grandparents if they would mind caring for our kiddos. My husband agreed that a dinner would be nice and, of course, though he didn’t know it, his parents had already agreed to babysit weeks ago.

On birthday night, I took a little extra time getting ready and we arrived at the restaurant, at about 7:10. The arrangements with our friends had been carefully detailed. They planned to leave in good time from Toronto and would be at the table by 6:45. They would welcome us and say “surprise”. The plan was simple, straightforward and virtually fail-proof.

On the way into the restaurant, my husband asked, “Did you make a reservation?”
“No,” I foolishly replied wanting, in that moment, to be all non-chalant so he wouldn’t expect any sort of hullaballoo (which, he generally hates).

When we entered the restaurant I quickly scanned the dining room and our friends were nowhere to be seen. Minor Panic. Maybe they were around the corner?

The hostess greeted us and asked if we had a reservation.
“Umm….” I said. (Of course, we did…but stupidly, I had just told my husband that we didn’t! My mind started to race — where were our friends?)
“No, actually, we don’t” chimed in my husband.
“Well, I’m not sure that we have a table to accommodate you tonight,” replied the hostess, “but I’ll check.”
“Ummm…I said, could I come with you?” I stared at the hostess hoping she would get the hint…but she just frowned and said, “Um, ya, I guess — but that’s a bit creepy?!”
“I know, I said…I would just like to see…” When my husband also looked at me like I was insane, I knew I had played this totally wrong. Oh boy. Our friends were nowhere to be seen and here I was making everyone awkward.

Ten steps into the dining room, I caved. Our friends really weren’t there.
“Okay, I said, it’s my husband’s birthday and we were supposed to meet friends here — and they’re not yet arrived. It was supposed to be a surprise. We do have a reservation. The name is Hagerman.”

I was seething. How could this have happened?
Where were our friends? If they had been waiting, there would have been no awkwardness! We had all been planning this for weeks. What could possibly have gone wrong?

When they finally arrived at the restaurant, our friends, Sylvie and David, apologetically explained that they had made a serious navigational error. “We missed Talbot Road, they said, and we got lost.”
“Talbot Road? You took Hwy 6?” I couldn’t believe this was the route they had taken. It was SO much less direct than the major highways. “Why did you go that way? “I asked.

“It’s the route that Google Maps suggested,” they replied, “and it was the shortest distance, so that’s how we went.”

In that moment, I didn’t know what to say. Obviously, my friends — who are totally reliable and absolutely hate to be late to anything — didn’t do anything wrong. They just missed a turn, which cost them 30 minutes and the surprise. And yet, I couldn’t believe that Google Maps, which I have trusted numerous times to get me to where I’m going, had lead them so astray. Anyone who grew up in this small town and the surrounding area knows that you never take Hwy 6 to get to or from Toronto. Why would Google have suggested it?

“Wow,” I said. “I can see why it took extra time. Sorry it was such a trial getting here.”

Despite the failed moment of surprise, we had a lovely evening, but the next day, I was still annoyed with Google Maps. My husband and I checked the routes ourselves.

Sure enough, the route our friends took was exactly the route that was suggested. The other two suggested options were actually worse. The simplest and most efficient option — taking the big 400-series Highways to Hwy 24 — wasn’t even suggested.

How could this be?

While reliable for many routes, Google Maps clearly isn’t so reliable for others.

I thought about this for a minute and realized that with Google Maps, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of crowd sourcing for “most popular” or “most trusted” routes between destinations. Although the current algorithms are way more sophisticated than can I probably understand, it occurred to me that if these online direction generators could also draw from the collective wisdom of “locals” they would work SO much better. Ask anyone in that restaurant how to get to Toronto and I’m sure the most-cited recommendation would have been Hwy 24 to Hwy 403 — a no-brainer.

So, here’s my question. Why doesn’t Google have a way for people who drive from my hometown to Toronto regularly to share their most-trusted routes? I can imagine a quick survey — select the route you usually take when you drive from point A to point B. Is this the fastest route, in your opinion? Is this the most direct route, in your opinion? Is this the most scenic route? Imagine how powerful this data source would be if hundreds and thousands of people affirmed Route A as the best and Route B as a scenic alternative!

Personally, I would love to know whether local people would choose a given route to and from any given destination.  Google Maps, as it currently works, does get me to where I’m going. But when time is of the essence and I’ve got a surprise party to attend…I’d really like to know how a local expert would go. Wouldn’t you?

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