GPS Leads to Directional Illiteracy

If you use Uber with any regularity –which I do—you learn a few interesting things about how and why the world around us does NOT work.

Even with the wonders of the Uber app, the start-up’s 40,000 or so NYC drivers need to know many specific eccentricities of driving in NYC and must speak enough English to understand their passengers.

We New Yorkers know the city is (mostly) laid out on a neat grid and routinely ask a driver to stop on, say, the northeast corner of 78th and Lex. Try that in an Uber and you may end up in Trenton!

I have been using Uber for a while now and am confident that about 80% of Uber drivers simply have no sense of direction. When we New Yorkers give instructions using the cardinal directions, Uber drivers quickly become flummoxed and disoriented.

But the eccentricities of driving in New York go beyond how instructions are phrased (and knowing not to turn right on red).

For example, in New York, most even-numbered streets exclusively run east, while most odd-numbered streets run west and the main thoroughfares run both ways. I recently called a car with a driver who insisted he was on 72nd street when he was on 73rd. When he finally he showed up, he showed me his GPS, and the machine had it wrong! I asked if he knew that 72nd street was two ways, but he had not thought of that. UGH! Better knowledge of the city sure is helpful.

Often, when I have an Uber car coming, I call and ask where they are to gauge when they will arrive. Well over 2/3 of the drivers do not understand my question because they barely speak English.  And, even if they do understand, they rarely know where they are at that moment because they do not have a strong sense of the city’s geography and the GPS is looking ahead. Amazing!

It is now clear to me that the GPS is effectively PREVENTING these people from learning. Evidently, Uber tells them not to worry, that the GPS will take care of everything. As a result, they never even start to learn the city. Boy, is that a far cry from London, where taxi drivers bicycle around London for a minimum of two years to take The Knowledge of London, the taxi driver certification exam that The New York Times called potentially “the hardest test, of any kind, in the world” and that takes an average of four years to fully administer.

Of course, this is part of a larger trend in our society away from using human memory to using a collective internet memory.  GPS may enable some drivers to navigate a city without The Knowledge of London (or New York or DC). Still, the GPS does not have the speed of recall that an intelligent human should have, nor the ability to respond to rapidly changing traffic conditions or to self-correct after an error.

Perhaps someday a genius may figure out how to beam us directly to our destinations, without any driver or even a driverless car.

And, when our beam is out of order, we will have a perfect excuse to stay home and watch TV.


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