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A Technological Path to the Road Less Taken

by on July 04, 2017 5:00 AM

On this, the official day of our great nation’s birth, I think it appropriate to discuss something 37.5 million red-blooded, true-blue Americans will have done sometime in the last five days. No, not watch fireworks. And no, not try to set a YouTube viewing record for some explosion-related stunt (at least I hope not).

It’s traveling. Or more specifically driving. AAA forecasted that 37.5 million people will venture 50 miles or more from their homes during the Independence Day holiday travel period from Friday, June 30 through today.

In an effort to help those folks get to their destinations more quickly, we in the Hook clan got a little head start and did our traveling last week so the roads were available for others. How thoughtful, eh?

Last Wednesday my wife, kids, and I were ensconced in our family-truckster minivan returning to Happy Valley from — you guessed it — another soccer tournament, and we decided to take a break along the way and visit a dear friend and her children in New Hope. It was a wonderful stopover with three beautiful people, and the icing on the cake was the first hour of our ride home.

About that ride home… One of the really interesting benefits of all the technology advances we’ve experienced the last half-century is the almost complete elimination of the traditional paper, you-unfolded-it-but-can’t-possibly-fold-it-back map. I say almost complete because I still, out of a never-say-die habit, keep a number of state maps in the side door pocket of the minivan. Just in case.

When looking at a paper map to determine how to get from one place to another, my default, and I imagine the default of many people, is to look for the path that involves the greatest number of limited-access highways indicated by thick, easily visible lines and red-and-blue route numbers in a shield design, and the least number of single-lane asphalt roads indicated by thin black lines and three-number routes. And I imagine it is the default of many people because I often find many fellow travelers on those limited-access highways when I get on them.

Somewhere in the 1990’s mapping software on personal computers became widespread enough that we started printing out maps of our travel route before leaving, and then just threw away the printouts when the trip was over – so much easier than re-folding a map.

Then in the early part of this century, full-featured dashboard GPS navigators began appearing, the ubiquitous “recalculating” became a meme, and the paper paradigm really began to shift.

Nowadays a large chunk of the American population – 77 percent of us according to a Pew Research Center survey – own a smartphone. And virtually all came with a pre-installed navigation or mapping app. Even the most basic of these apps provide a plethora of information – updated maps, live traffic, voice-activation, and audible navigation.

Which means there are a lot of people on the roads these days with access to all the data they need to get them from point A to point B in the least amount of time regardless of what is happening along the way. Getting in a traffic jam is no longer an, “Oh well, nothing we could have done about it” moment, and now an opportunity to maximize the investment of your smartphone by pre-planning and diverting your path to one with the least resistance.

And as I noted above, an interesting benefit of these technology advances is we are no longer relying on paper maps. And when we are no longer relying on paper maps, we are no longer tied to the looking-for-limited-access-highways method of navigation. Which is what in turn makes the trip more interesting.

More and more these days I find myself driving along those previously avoided-like-the-plague single-lane asphalt roads indicated on maps by thin black lines. The trip home from New Hope was a perfect example.

We opened the app, identified home as our destination, and let technology be our guide. After exiting our friend’s driveway we turned right on a road as I anticipated. However, a mile further on we made a right I wasn’t expecting and we were off on an adventure. For the next hour we drove through hill and dale, forest and farm, past million-dollar mansions and thousand-dollar mobile homes – even through a covered wooden bridge—for more than 30 miles, all confident that the handheld device leading us onward was doing so in both a timely and efficient manner.

And not once were we “in traffic.” For most of the ride we were the only vehicle going our direction. We traveled through beautiful scenery on rustic roads – although the kids in the back seat may have some complaints about the roller-coaster quality of some of the terrain – and thoroughly enjoyed that portion of the trip.

Then eventually technology bowed to tradition and spat us back out on a limited-access four-lane concrete roadway so we could complete our journey.

But the initial portion of our trip, along back roads I have avoided for decades, is something I am finding technology leading me too more frequently these days. I find myself plotting a path, confident in my manly wisdom that I know the shortest and fastest route, yet technology begs to differ. And lo and behold, technology made the trip worthwhile. The path less taken is not only more scenic, but less hectic, and faster.

Perhaps I’m not such a Luddite after all.



John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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