- Step one: go to Google Maps™
- Step two: click on “Get directions”
- Step three: enter “New York City” in the start address
- Step four: enter “London” in the end address
- Step five: click the “Get Directions” button
Or just click here.
I got this link at work, forwarded as a joke. “Ho ho, look at step 24 asking you to swim 3,400 miles across the Atlantic,” sort of thing. And yeah, I thought it was silly too. But then I thought about it some more; and really, it makes sense if you accept that Google Maps doesn’t know about ships or planes.
And then I started wondering about the details of this route. Why, for example, are we supposed to first drive from New York to Boston and then start swimming? Well, it’s probably the most efficient route. Not the shortest as the crow flies, but it makes for the shortest distance you have to swim. And since driving is faster, it’s a bit more efficient time-wise than if you cast off from, let’s say, the eastern tip of Long Island.
Right. That part’s clear. But the European end makes less sense. If we’re going to London, why are we first landing at Le Havre, then taking the highway to the Channel Tunnel? Is it really faster than landing at, e.g., Plymouth? According to Google Maps, it is. I also tried going to Cardiff, Dublin and Plymouth, and all three times I have to land at Le Havre. Likewise for Bordeaux, Madrid and Lisbon. Huh, is all I can say.
Just for a second, I wondered if the algorithm takes ocean currents into account and I’m actually taking the most efficient swimming route. But, nah. After experimenting a bit more, I found that even starting off from Ottawa, Montreal, Fredericton or St-John’s, Newfoundland, I always swing by Boston. (The only difference being that for Canadian cities distances are measured in kilometres instead of miles. Go metric system!) So it looks like the algorithm has just this hard-coded connection between North America and Europe. The developers probably figured they wouldn’t need anything smarter. Can’t say I blame them, because who uses Google Maps to plan a transatlantic trip?