The pluses and minuses of using GPS navigation

GPS navigation systems are undoubtedly helpful. But at the same time, having those devices and following the instructions obviates the need for having a mental image of where you are and where you want to go, the way that a paper map gives you. A study finds that as a result you may be less efficient at getting to your destination.

A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.


  1. daved says

    GPS systems aren’t magic, either. And they don’t always know where you want to go, or send you by the most efficient route.

    I have a Garmin, myself, and it’s incredibly useful when I have to drive in Boston (a horrible city for navigation). But I’ve studied the routes it prefers closer to my home, and it often makes choices I wouldn’t recommend. In particular, it doesn’t seem to know about traffic lights, or which roads tend to have the heaviest traffic.

  2. Lofty says

    I have a gloriously antique GPS (ten years old, gasp!) that merely tells me where I am in relation to the stored map. This is very useful when I’ve pre-planned my trip on a paper map and use the GPS to judge the shape of an intersection. Particularly when I cross country on the mountain bike and want to know the next time I hit some pavement, as to which way to go.
    The modern GPS as a map replacement horrifies me. And there’s the solar storm interference, once my GPS claimed I was travelling at 410km/h at 85 km altitude. But I already knew it was lying through its bytes so I cycled on.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    GPS isn’ t the problem. The problem is stupid use of navigator devices. Especially the small ones that don’t show a proper map. Outsourcing thinking to an electronic box that only gives turn instructions will sooner or later lead to trouble.

  4. lochaber says

    I’ve been in some situations where a GPS can be a wonderfully helpful tool in some situations.

    That whole step-by-step thing — complete bullshit.

    I’ve been in a vehicle where the driver looped through one of those cloverleaf intersections repeatedly, because the GPS got thrown by the change of speed/location and couldn’t update the instructions quick enough, and the driver had no clue where they were, where they were going, or how to deal with momentarily being lost…

    I don’t quite get the people who take them backpacking/camping either. Most parks I’ve been to have topo maps detailed enough, and trails clearly marked, that you don’t even need so much as a compass if you’ve had a class or two on orienteering. Plus, when I’m backpacking, the last thing I want to take with me are batteries (or anything running on batteries) – I usually don’t even bother with a watch (though, I will likely have a little pocket LED light somewhere or other on me),

    Granted, most GPSes aren’t terribly big, but most are significantly heavier then any compass, and tend to be less useful and reliable.

    maybe I’m just getting old…

  5. voidhawk says

    It’s a little scary just how bad people are with maps nowadays. I went rambling with a group of friends an offered to show them the map so they could check and agree or disagree with my decision regarding which direction to go in. I may as well have showed them a Picasso for all the understanding they got from it. That GPS rarely show topography is very dangerous.

  6. sailor1031 says

    The shoal just off our dock is not on any charts but GPS-equipped boaters sometimes find it anyway. They must be very clever.

  7. jamessweet says

    As many people are saying, it’s not so much the tool as how you use it. Mostly.

    I will admit, however, that despite being pretty good about maintaining general awareness of where I am, it can take me as much as 2-3x as long to learn how to get to a new friend’s house (or other new destination) if I am using a GPS. If it’s in a neighborhood I don’t know, so that my geographical awareness is only in a general and not a specific sense, I tend not to memorize the turns as quickly if I am using a GPS.

  8. flex says

    I don’t use a GPS, having never seen the need since maps are so useful.

    However, I do remember the pre-GPS days and working with people for whom maps were completely incomprehensible.

    I’m not talking about the problem of getting directions from my parents who are wont to use the, “turn left at the road just after Jenkin’s barn which burned down seven years ago”, form of directions. I’m referring to the people who unfold the map and can’t find the arrow telling them which way is north. And once they do orient themselves on a map, as soon as you make a turn, they have to turn the map to compensate.

    So there is an alternative hypothesis for the increase in wilderness rescues. The people who could not read a map before GPS came onto the scene are fooled into a false sense of capability because they have a GPS. So they venture into areas where they would never have gone before, relying on their GPS to get them out.

    Having a good sense of direction myself, and the ability to read maps, I usually can get within two blocks of an unknown destination without trouble. Then I get lost in the last 200 yards because I have to find the one little sign for an address or business name while at the same time driving on a busy street and looking for parking. I really like Google street view.

  9. mnb0 says

    Like others said explicitely, indicated or implied good GPS navigation systems offer a map on screen and add arrows to tell you which route to take. That’s very helpful indeed.

  10. left0ver1under says

    I do not understand the fascination (read: dependence) on GPS that many have. There are several major problems with GPS that can easily render it useless (slow coordinate updates, jamming, solar wind and flares, etc.). But even if technical problems were eliminated, I still wouldn’t see the appeal.

    People fixate on the GPS screen or system and stop paying attention to everything around them, whether other drivers (e.g. car crashes) or their environment and locations. Part of the fun of travel is discovery, whether in the city I live or places I travel. I’m constantly checking my location on a map, and because I have to check for landmarks, I sometimes find interesting things, sites, routes or stores I didn’t know about. If my head was glued to a GPS screen and oblivious to the world around me, I wouldn’t find such things. I also like being able to mark down things I find on the map. I doubt GPS systems are designed to allow that.

    And let’s not forget the most basic problem of electronic gadgets: electricity. Maps and compasses don’t need batteries, and they always work. Even watches are more reliable than GPS for finding directions. Then again, few people I know who live only in cities can even find the cardinal directions. If I tell people, “Go east from Main Street”, a few will say “Which way is east?” while others will say, “What’s ‘east’?”

    Safety and the potential for terrorism are also an issue. Airports and airplanes used to use radar (triangulation by morse code and doppler effect) to find direction and location, and many still use it as a backup to GPS. Some short sighted cretins, though (e.g. US congress) want to completely get rid of all radar location systems from all airports.

    In August 2012, a New Jersey airport’s GPS system was “borked” by a GPS jammer, a multimillion dollar system rendered useless by a $100 off the shelf product. Imagine if there had been no radar system to back up the GPS, if planes had crashed or collided.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    A study conducted in Tokyo

    I took a look at the paper. I cannot find any mention of who funded the study.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    GPS is useful while driving. Trying to read a paper map while on the highway is difficult and dangerous. And if you run into something unexpected, like a street closed for repair, GPS can quickly recalculate an alternate route for you.
    I like paper maps, and have a couple shoe boxes full of them. I use them for advance planning and orientation.

  13. Mano Singham says

    The researchers were based in Tokyo universities but the study was in Kashiwa, Chiba which is just outside the city.

  14. Anniemouse says

    There’s a comedian who talks about crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and halfway across, the GPS demands he turn left. I thought it was just a joke, but since I’ve been in friends’ cars when their GPS units demanded equally stupid things. I’ve also gotten invitations to places with the note “The GPS insists X, but you really need to do Y”. I’m an Old, so I grew up with paper maps, and that’s what I have in my car. They don’t rely on batteries and aren’t going to get stolen if people see them lying on your carseat or in the window.

  15. elpayaso says

    timely post. did you see the news item on the Beeb this week about people glued to their GPS who missed all the warning signs and drove laterally across the runway at the Fairbanks airport?

    and maritime navigation in Mexico is a real joke with GPS…the charts they use often show you to be on dry land when you’re in the middle of the sea of Cortez (based on old and inaccurate USN surveys of the Sea of Cortez….GIGO)

  16. Mano Singham says

    No I did not see that but it does not surprise me. It adds to the list of stories about people driving off docks or dying in the desert or getting stranded in remote snowy areas because the GPS told them follow an abandoned road.

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