It was going to be a quick trip to the Eastside on a weekend. Then traffic stopped, my husband scowled, and I looked at my phone, sitting idle in the holder between us, and said what we both were thinking.
“We should’ve Wazed this.”
Waze, if you don’t know, is a real-time navigation app that crunches a continuous stream of traffic data — most significantly from its community of 50 million drivers — to propose what it believes is the fastest route to where you’re going.
I didn’t believe Waze’s early users when they told me this weird-looking navigation tool featuring what looks like ghosts on wheels could get me there faster than the almighty Google Maps.
But after the third or fourth time I breezed past arterial gridlock with a stupid, primal grin on my face, the ugly little app whose design I still can’t stand dug into my brain and stayed there.
Most apps claim they’re essential. You need us! You do!
But Waze is the only smartphone app I’ve installed in the last three years that has ever made me regret — sometimes with a passion — whenever I don’t use it.
That’s stronger than addiction.
The view from the crowd
To make sure I wasn’t nuts, I asked friends if any of them were as hooked on Waze as I am.
Annie Ioannides Deleon uses it even when she to take her kids to and from school. Cheryl Richmond opened it every day when she had a downtown Seattle commute.
Marie Montemayor doesn’t drive, but uses it to guide her Uber drivers.
And Robert Quigley reached “royalty” level on the app’s game layer earlier this year.
“I couldn’t drive without it,” he wrote.
The bloodiest casualty of real-time traffic app dependence is, of course, battery life. A 25-minute Wazed drive can chop 10 percentage points off my iPhone 5’s battery, easy. Before I put an outlet on my old Civic’s passenger seat, my battery would be down to a red whisker and I’d look for parking near a coffee shop just to juice up. At 3 o’clock.
But plenty of people are not so Waze crazed.
Some said the app had led them down enough weird, senseless routes to seem useless.
Others were skeptical that any maps app — even one with those 50 million data-sharing users and 200,000 Wikipedia-style map editors — should replace a human compass and good old fashioned common sense.
And many said they just prefer Google Maps.
Google Maps has changed since it acquired Waze last year for a rumored $1 billion-plus. The godfather of maps apps now uses some of Waze’s data in its own navigation, recently adding a slick feature, for example, that shows you a shorter route when one materializes, and lets you change course mid-drive to take it.
But contrary to what you might expect, Google is not using all of Waze’s data. It’s not even using the great bulk of that data, as I learned in a chat with a Waze spokesperson this week.
No one can say conclusively which app gets you there faster most, probably because it’s not conclusive.
Google’s strength is its comprehensiveness and its interface. It’s more intuitive, easier to follow and less irritating (Waze’s pop-up ads, frankly, border on unbearable).
The combo of humans and machines
Waze’s strength is its crowdsourced reports. It’s stronger in denser areas than in rural ones and has the advantage, as unquantifiable as it might be, of pulling in both human and machine knowledge.
The company harps on its crowdsourcing prowess, as do loyal users who love its game layer, its system for rewarding and promoting human map editors, its ability to follow friends who Waze or its chummy options to display your car as a Porsche or have Elvis speak your directions.
Most handy to most users is Waze’s dashboard for reporting everything from real-time road hazards and accidents to the crowd favorite — police speed traps. These police alerts, the Waze spokesperson confirmed, Google Maps doesn’t get.
I’ll switch to Google if I’m confident that it’s going to save me more time and hassle on the road than Waze does. The fact that Google hasn’t shut Waze down yet tells me it knows the value of a productive, carefully cultivated community too well to risk renovations.
So Waze, for now, will continue to be not just a daily thing, but practically an every ride thing. If I’m driving more than a half a mile from my house, I’m as certain to open Waze as I am to put on my seatbelt.
This is fitting because both habits, I’ve realized, are a kind of insurance: I put on my seatbelt to know I’m protected in an accident. I put on Waze to know — or at least believe — that I’m not going to drive even a minute longer than I have to.
How could a bajillion eyes on the road — human and machine — not be smarter than mine?
Until I get new data, I think my route is set.
Update: This post has changed to correct the spelling of Annie Ioannides Deleon’s name.