Beating the traffic woes: Trapster vs. Waze

I drive a lot. Since mid-2009 I’ve put 45,000 on my 2010 Prius. Almost every mile of that has been with my trusty iPhone, usually on a holder on the dashboard or in one of my drink holders.

Lately I’ve been testing out two apps (Waze and Trapster) to help make driving more fun, and I invited execs from both companies to my house to go on a drive and learn about the philosophies behind both companies.

Trapster started out stronger, with its “share where the cops are” approach. It quickly got to 14 million downloads, although I doubt many of them are active anymore, based on my experiences driving around San Francisco.

Waze didn’t focus on just cops, but on the overall driving experience. You could report road closures, or obstacles in the road (I reported a ladder in the middle of the freeway once) to other drivers.

Since Waze started in Israel, and because Google had better maps and driving directions in the United States, its growth had been slower, which meant its utility wasn’t nearly as good.

But that was a year ago. Today Waze is blazing a new path with a very nice and newly-designed app. Every day, at least in San Francisco, I see more and more drivers using it, which means traffic reports are getting more and more accurate and more and more granular. Now it’s not uncommon for me to be right behind another Waze user, even on mountain roads. Unlike on Trapster, where you have to guess where drivers are, you can see exactly where they are on Waze (don’t worry, you can be totally anonymous, although I always am totally public so you’ll see me driving around).

On Trapster, drivers leave “blue lines” where they’ve been (they last a couple of hours) so you can at least tell where drivers have been. Tonight we drive home at 11 p.m. from Milpitas and I was using both services. On Waze I saw lots of other drivers, but on Trapster I saw no blue lines. The crowd has moved, it seems, and that makes Waze more useful.

Trapster does have one new feature that’s very cool. Trapster was recently sold to Navtek, the mapping folks, and they’ve mapped the speed limits on many of the region’s roads. So, as you’re driving along you’ll know the speed limit. Handy, because in many areas the speed limit signs are infrequent (it warns you if you are exceeding the limits, too, which is nice).

If you watch the video I did with Trapster, you’ll see that the company has started moving away from just being about spotting cops and traffic cameras, and is now also about sharing traffic info, like blocked lanes, and such. But here Waze is innovating faster (Trapster really hasn’t added many new features lately, while Waze has gotten a total overhaul) and has more users, so that’s the one I find myself reaching for the most.

What about you? Are you using any traffic apps on your phone? If so, which one?

Here’s videos of both teams: