Remember when a Martha’s Vineyard vacationer would place a telephone call for directions to the Capawock movie theater? Or, she might dig a fold-up map, colored with snaking, crisscrossed lines, from the glove compartment, and with her pointer finger, trace a route from her location to her destination. These navigation tactics, though still used today, have largely been antiquated by global positioning systems—tiny devices that consult earth-orbiting satellites to display the common traveler’s location on a roadmap and direct her next move.
The modern Island visitor has a GPS system clamped to her rearview mirror. Tucked in her pocket is a sleek smartphone equipped with a mapping system that differentiates routes by car, foot and public transportation. Physically, she maneuvers her vehicle, but her GPS takes hold of the wheel in every other sense
The instantaneity of the Internet and the genius of the gadgets that harness its power did not breed the Vineyard newbie to fear nor think twice before traversing unfamiliar land. With a bit of two-thumb typing, she can summon the Island’s roads, climate and topography to a playing card-sized screen in her palm.
The Vineyard vacationer wants—and expects—to be where she’s going before the third ring of a landline telephone call for directions from point A to point B.
Of course, GPS devices have never been unerring. But they are accurate enough to have earned millions of users. Yet on the Vineyard, more often than not, one of these mapping systems in particular is notorious among locals and out-of-towners alike for plotting flawed routes based on faulty roadmaps.
Google, a web-based information organization company best known for its search engine, is also home of Google Maps. This free mapping service catalogues geographical information from around the globe to provide users with roadmaps and route planners. Google Maps is bookmarked in the browsers and loaded onto the smartphones of millions as their go-to navigation system. It can chart a runner’s early morning jog, direct a party guest through a neighborhood of cookie cutter homes and, especially on the Vineyard, it can get you lost.
“Everything’s wrong. It’s awful,” says Edgartown resident Ellie Bassett. “I love Google in other ways, but their maps are just not right here.”
Ms. Bassett manages the rentals of four homes on the Island. In the summer, these homes are divvyed into weeklong rentals. Google Maps, she says, misspells street names and misdirect her vacation renters—often into private neighborhoods nowhere near the rental home.
Type 290 West Tisbury Road in Edgartown, the address of Morning Glory Farm, into Google Maps as the destination from a starting location at any point west of Holly Bear Lane, a residential road sprouting from Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. On a quest for a carton of blueberries from the farm stand, the newbie Vineyarder would find herself off-course with a right-hand turn onto Holly Bear Lane. From here, Google Maps instructs her to continue on to Pennywise Path. Before she even enters the miniature roundabout at the end of Holly Bear, the Island newbie would see that all she can “continue on” to is a thickly wooded forest or a second spin around the neighborhood cul-de-sac.
View Holly Bear Lane, Edgartown, MA in a larger map
Morning Glory Farm assistant manager Aria Nevin says that in July—just before peak season—the farm receives two to four phone calls for directions each week.
“They’re usually not related to problems with direction systems,” she says, adding, “I’ve had a few cases where people say, ‘My directions told me to go down Meetinghouse Road.’ And that’s all pot holes and dirt.”
When the traveler finds herself on a dead-end path to nowhere, her journey is disquieted. With a bit more investigating, she would find that Yahoo Maps, MapQuest and many GPS devices would have correctly routed her trip to the farm. Why doesn’t Google?
All across the Vineyard are ancient ways—narrow dirt paths that wind across meadows, inside forests and between private property plots. They are roads—though not officially—long ago hashed out and used as shortcuts by Vineyarders of generations past.
“Rules and regulations involving roads are very lax,” says Edgartown Planning Board assistant Georgiana Greenough. “People used to ride horse and carriages over trails they made, calling them roads. The cow paths were once roads. But they aren’t now.”
Maintained by neither towns nor associations, these time-honored passages are neither public nor private. Some still lure traffic and others—like the roadway Google indicates lies just beyond Holly Bear Lane—are buried beneath green and beige brush.
“It’s an Ancient Way, which is a special way, and the town preserves it, but it’s not a standard public road,” Ms. Greenough says. “A long time ago, people may have been driving down it, but [now] it’s blocked off with rocks.”
“I don’t know how Google is getting its information,” she adds. “They should be talking to the towns.”
Google Maps formulates driving directions using algorithms based on geographical data collected by a third-party provider. Tele Atlas is Google’s provider for digital maps of the United States.
Tele Atlas composes its maps from a range of tens of thousands of sources including mapping vehicles, public safety officials and its own community of users. Anyone can report a road change or mapping error by visiting http://mapinsight.teleatlas.com. A Tele Atlas spokesperson, Erin Delaney, said in an e-mail message that community input is especially helpful in rural landscapes like the Vineyard because information regarding road changes is less frequently available.
“The company gathers and validates changes and updates its maps every day,” she said. “Typically, Tele Atlas partners [like Google Maps] currently integrate these updates within their maps four times a year.”
Sean Carlson, manager of global communications and public affairs at Google, said in an e-mail message that Google updates its maps “as new data is made available.”
But when the data, long-existing or newly updated, fails to differentiate ancient ways from proper roads, excess traffic leaks onto trails unfit for conventional travel.
Plug 509 State Road in Vineyard Haven, the address of The Black Dog Bakery and Café, into the Google Maps destination box from many locations in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, and the route will send the Island vacationer along Head of the Pond Road in Oak Bluffs. The route then directs her to continue on to Stoney Hill Road, which is an ancient way that does, in fact, eventually lead to The Black Dog Bakery on State Road.
The zoning map of Oak Bluffs recognizes Head of the Pond Road, which turns into Stoney Hill Road across the Tisbury border, only up to a certain point. The road stops where an ancient way begins, eventually feeding into State Road.
Because this ancient way is less than twenty feet wide, Oak Bluffs Zoning Administrator Adam Wilson says, it is not a proper road. “A road has to be wide enough so that two emergency vehicles can pass each other,” he says. “You can’t live off an ancient way because there is no way an ambulance could get to you if your house catches on fire.” It may be the shortest route from point A to point B, but it is neither the safest nor the easiest course—the Vineyard newbie retreats before even attempting to drive her Camry down the haphazard passage.
Katy Drahos, manager of the State Road branch of The Black Dog Bakery, says that despite Google’s muddled routing, most customers find the shop without a problem. The colossal hunter green train and dining car banked in front of the bakery, she says, is a landmark most people don’t miss. “Just being on a main road has helped us a lot. I can see if we were a little bit more tucked away, it might be a problem.”
Google Maps is not a botched mapping system. In many of the most difficult cities to navigate, Google has its roads, and even the shape of the buildings that line them, recorded accurately. The Vineyard newbie can only follow so many routes and drive so far until she reaches the sea. Long-term disorientation is not a risk on an 87-square mile island. Despite its slip-ups, GPS technology has modernized and simplified travel tremendously. Driving with a Google Maps-loaded smartphone as her chauffeur, the modern vacationer needn’t graze the passing landscape for landmarks. But on the Vineyard, perhaps she should.