Getting from Point A to Point B has gotten more complicated in recent years. Crowded highways, road closures, construction projects, speed traps and road hazards now can make driving feel like running a gauntlet. And things can change so fast out of the mean streets that I check of traffic via a website on your computer before you start your commute doesn't always cut it.
Road-Testing Four Smartphone Traffic Apps
Fortunately, technology is keeping pace with driver needs in the form of smartphone traffic apps with features such as real-time traffic data and road-congestion prediction derived from a variety of sources. The on-demand, location specific features of these traffic apps also mean you don't have to wait to for a generic traffic report on the radio. Besides your usual cup of java, one of these traffic apps could be your new favorite companion on your morning commute.
Pros: Forecast function selects best drive time
Cons: Route planning requires $24.99 upgrade
Compatibility: iOS devices (3.1 or later), Android, BlackBerry, Windows 7
This app is from INRIX, a well-respected provider of traffic data for various OEM and aftermarket navigation suppliers. It's based on Google Maps, so the interface should be immediately familiar. It also pulls traffic data from INRIX's massive database that's partially (and passively) sourced from the app's users as well as through a crowd-sourced "citizen traffic reporter" function.
Go-to functions on the main screen are "Comparative Traffic" (which gives you a color-coded indication of current road conditions vs. their normal flow) and a "Forecast" function to gauge the best time to travel. Your input also helps make the app work: The "Alerts" icon on the main screen gives you three options to quickly provide updates to fellow users. Categories include "Police," "Accident" and "Traffic Color is Wrong" (for incorrect traffic assessments).
We found the "Incidents" screen a great feature for evading congestion: The day we were testing it, it gave us a heads-up about a Dodgers game that was sure to muck up a commute and reported an accident near the intersection of two major freeways. Another feature that gets a thumbs-up from us is the ability to toggle off high-resolution maps for quicker load times. Finally, if you want live traffic feeds as well as the ability to have your favorite routes planned out and saved, opt for the pricey $24.99 Traffic Premium upgrade.
Pros: Good incident updates featuring Bing images
Cons: Useless routing feature
Compatibility: iOS devices (3.1 or later)
Sometimes you can't judge a book by its cover — or an app by its colorful graphics. We liked the look of the iTraffic app, but while putting it through a test-drive we hit a roadblock. The Map screen utilizes Google Maps, so no issue there. But the app showed red lines (indicating congestion) on streets you could shoot a cannonball down and green lines (indicating no traffic) when cars were barely moving. That had us scratching our heads.
The "Incidents" screen, which lists local trouble spots, was useful and provided helpful satellite photography courtesy of Bing. But where the app really fell down was the "My Routes" function. It supposedly provides the "quickest way through traffic," using dynamic route planning that takes into account road-speed data, real-time traffic info and daily map updates.
What we found, however, was that My Routes consistently rejected addresses, so we couldn't even initiate routes. And we're not talking esoteric destinations either: We tried mom's house, a Trader Joe's market and Los Angeles International Airport. Just for comparison, we jumped out of the app and into good ol' Google Maps — and it offered up one of our preferred routes to LAX.
Price: Free or $2.99 Upgrade (without ads)
Pros: Ability to save commutes; handy "dashboard"
Cons: Slow map loads; color codes obscure road signage
Compatibility: iOS devices (3.0 or later)
Sometimes the minute you pick up an app and start to navigate its features, you immediately know the designers got it right. For the most part, that's the case with Traffic.com. The app gets its smarts from multiple sources: maps and historical traffic data supplied by NAVTEQ and other road info supplied by traffic sensors, GPS monitors and proprietary traffic operations centers.
We found the real-time traffic data accurate on several L.A. freeway commutes, but heard online grumblings about inaccurate data. And we found it slightly annoying that highway markers are obscured by the colored lines used to denote traffic flow status. For instance, it's helpful to know the Santa Monica Freeway is congested, but it would be great to actually see the "I-10" highway marker.
But the positives outweighed the negatives. We were impressed by the main "Dashboard," which in one handy screen gives you an excellent rundown of traffic on preferred roads, the current conditions in your area (such as incidents and road work) and even weather forecasts provided by AccuWeather.
We also liked the Hotspots screen that gives you an at-a-glance list of trouble spots in your area. Each has an assigned "Jam Factor" that lets you know the severity of the problem. And if you want to notch up the personalization factor, the app also lets you create a Traffic.com account. With it, you can upload and save your drives and related data for future reference.
Pros: Social media interface; good incident search function
Cons: Limited settings; usefulness varies by area
Compatibility: iOS devices (3.1 or later)
Traffic Tweet combines the popular social media tool Twitter with a user-friendly interface. And what ultimately makes this app a solid traffic co-pilot is that it does a good job of meshing Twitter — in this case to crowd-source traffic data — with simple tap-and-go screens.
Just don't look for anything complicated here: There are no deep settings menus, so you won't be able to save routes or get cool dashboard views. But you will get reasonably accurate reporting (data varies by region because of the heavy reliance on crowd sourcing), intuitive ways to send and receive updates and the ease and familiarity of Google Maps, which the app uses as its map source.
Functions we liked include the ability to tweet road conditions ranging from clear to jammed with one tap, as well as another function button that lets you report hazards from accidents to speed traps via a menu. Your reports go immediately to your Twitter feed and auto-fill with brief details and your location.
Another handy feature is the search function, which gives you results in the form of a "pinned" Google map of your location and all area incidents. (We noted that U.S. urban areas like New York and L.A. had lots of helpful data, while international locales, like Heathrow Airport, had no available data due to lack of user updates.)
Bottom line: If you're in an area with plenty of Traffic Tweet users who are providing data, put this in your app tool kit. If not, pass.