Toll Roads – adding another dimension to Google Maps

Yes, I’m going to talk about Google Maps again. I know, I’ve been writing a lot about travel apps, but they are one of the most popular mobile apps category and a road trip in new places always surfaces new needs.

Our road trip took place in the approximately 250 mile distance between New York City and Washington DC. Our way had multiple toll roads, bridges, tunnels, and pay-to-use express lanes. All were conveniently paid for by an in-car transponder, the EZPass which we had to load with funds every few days. Our tolls ranged from a high of $11.52 to cross the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge to $0.50 for a section of the New Jersey turnpike. That said, it’s not always obvious on the road how much a certain highway, express lane, bridge, or tunnel actually costs and I was quite surprised at the variation when the fees appeared on my EZPass bill. All our routes were decided on by Google Maps, where the goal is clearly to minimize travel time.

The system of toll roads in the mid-Atlantic states present a different challenge to route planning. It’s not just about the fastest way to get from point A to point B, but could also be about the cheapest way. The only way Maps deals with the cost issue is by allowing users to avoid highways, toll roads or ferries when planning a route, which unfortunately ends up being too crude as completely avoiding toll roads for a longer journey creates unnecessary and long detours. When the way between point A and B has multiple, crisscrossing freeways connecting it, where some are toll roads and others not, some have pay-to-use express lanes and some just regular HOV lanes, finding the best route shouldn’t be just a question of time. Also consider that that the toll highways and express lanes will almost always be less congested than a parallel highway, so perhaps the Maps algorithm prefers them right off the bat.

So, how can Maps help users with toll roads?

  • Google Map, three alternate routs from JFK Airport to Philadelphia, all with similar times, all on some toll roads. Labels currently include travel time and toll road icon.

    Step one: include cost per route. There are already tags on routes to denote travel time on the selected route and additional/less time on alternate routes, so users are already used to looking for that additional information. The tags currently have a “this road includes tolls” icon, but no cost breakdown.Also, it’s not always obvious on the road how much a certain road, bridge, or tunnel actually costs and I was quite surprised at the variation when the costs appeared on my EZPass bill. 

  • Step two: offer more route options. Currently Maps offers two or three but that doesn’t seem like it would be enough to offer users the combination of time and cost that make sense to them. Citymapper, for example, offered 17 different subway and bus combinations to get from Bryant Park to Hamilton Grange in New York under groupings that include 5 routes under the Suggested header, 4 under the Bus Only header, 4 under Subway Only, and 3 under Rain Safe. All include travel time and cost. So while it is easy to just pick the top suggested route and get going when in a rush, it’s also easy to take a quick glance at all options when there are additional concerns.
  • Step 3: be smarter. The overarching directive to find the fastest route doesn’t consider possible compromises when a user is willing to, say, spend 5 more minutes on the road but avoid a $10 charge. Because that tradeoff can be individual, Maps will need to offer a list routes, not just two or three “best” ones. It also needs to start learning from user behaviour to start prioritizing the routes that are a better fit. These are exactly the on-the-fly tradeoffs in cost and time that machine learning can do best: solving problems that are “easy for machines and hard for humans

The interesting question is why hasn’t Maps done this up to know? Is it a product blindness due to lack of exposure? Up until about a year ago, the San Francisco Bay Area had tolls only on the bridges and recently added pay to use express lanes, so I wouldn’t have thought to add cost to routes because not taking a bridge in the Bay Area is a significant detour. Or maybe cost just isn’t an issue for most users who just care about time? Though even without adding route options and balancing speed and cost, Maps should at least provide the expected tolls. Just that would help tourists immensely (and I bet a few locals, too!)

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