Google Maps, Apple Maps, What Each Can't Find

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As you may have heard Wednesday (unless bad directions had you lost in the Australian countryside), Google now offers a standalone maps program for Apple's iOS. The long-awaited release gives iPhone users a compelling alternative to Apple's occasionally underinformed, transit-handicapped mapping app for iOS 6.

But for all of Google's progress (for a deeper assessment of its interface, see Jacqui Cheng's writeup for Ars Technica), it's not the last stop in mobile mapping. The ways each program dealt with a few Washington-area itineraries showed that both have things to learn.

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Discovery Communications to National Airport: Both apps agreed on two of three possible routes from Discovery's Silver Spring, Md., headquarters through the District to the airport. Google factored traffic into its time estimates and Apple did not. 

The high cost of parking at National would lead me to take Metro anyway. But Google's app, unlike its website, didn't note transit travel times on the same page as its list of driving routes. And if you did plan on parking at National, you'd also want to check on its availability; understandably, neither app offered help with that.

From my home to my friend Scott's house: This is a trick question: Because Google Maps ties into neither iOS's contacts list nor your Google contacts, I had to type in the address instead of choosing his name off a list. (Because you can't change iOS's default mapping app, you can't start a search from the Contacts app either.) On the other hand, Apple had me take a needless detour along the way to my friend's Annandale, Va. abode.

FedEx Field to Rosslyn:

Google offers a 30-minute route via U.S. 50 and D.C. 295 that includes a recently opened offramp. Apple suggests taking 50 and 295, but then would have you exit to eastbound Pennsylvania Avenue SE, make a U-turn to go west and then proceed along I-395. Bad idea: The first mile of that last stretch of highway closed two weeks ago as part of the same construction project.

McPherson Square to 16th and U Streets NW: Both handle walking directions fine. Google listed which Metro buses were scheduled to head north next, while Apple's app required me to switch to a third-party app; I opted for The Transit App, which has worked well in my earlier tests, but you can also use Google Maps itself.

But Google doesn't provide real-time estimates for those buses, thanks in part to Metro's clumsy interface for that data. Although The Transit App claims real-time support, that only applies to trains, not buses. (Try nextbus.com/webkit instead.)

And neither offers the bicycling directions Google's Web app provides — an even more pleasant option in this case, thanks to the separated cycletrack you can ride up 15th Street.

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Now ponder the travel choices that even Google's excellent Android app leaves out: In Washington, they go beyond cars, your own two feet, a bicycle or buses and subways to include a variety of innovative shared-transportation services.

You can borrow one of Capital Bikeshare's red bicycles for a short run from one neighborhood to another. For a longer ride, you can use a smartphone app to hail a cab or summon an Uber sedan. You could jump into one of car2go's Smart ForTwo vehicles for an on-the-spot, one-way rental, or you could employ ZipCar for a round-trip drive.

Our options for getting around are only increasing, but without more comprehensive apps we may wind up going in circles on our phones first.

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery