Imagine you’re from Argentina, right off the plane, standing on the second floor of a downtown Minneapolis office building, staring at a map of skyways. It looks like angular snakes playing Twister.
You are here.
You have to get there.
Because this is Minnesota and people are good, a local person notes your confusion and offers to help. He hears where you’re headed. He points out two routes. One involves three blocks of outside walking, but it’s cold. The other goes all the way, but there’s a tunnel.
A tunnel? A skyway tunnel?
Right, well, you have to go down two floors, then under the street, then across the street kittywhompus, or caddywhompus (I don’t know which term you use in Argentina), but that’ll take you right there. Oh, to heck with it. Follow me. …
It ought to be easier for strangers. The simplest approach: someone sitting in a chair by the map, like an old elevator operator, offering to lead you to your destination, handing you off to another guide when you cross the street.
Neither Google nor Apple maps show skyways. Ask them for a route to a restaurant from your hotel, and they’ll only show the streets. So people look at the maps on the wall, which present a flat overhead view that doesn’t really match up with the lateral, 3-D experience. Imagine all the Super Bowl visitors next year who will be lost and flummoxed. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an app for them? There is. In fact, there are several. Let’s see how they work:
Sky Walker (iPhone; free at the App Store)
The first thing it says when you fire it up: “Make sure you can see your starting place!”
Oh, so I should take the blindfold off? Got it.
A nice 3-D image of downtown appears, with all the cafes and hotels provided by the omniscient Google. You touch the location where you want to be. A blue arrow appears; it says “Follow me!” and it points you where you need to go. As you move, it moves, always ahead, like a helpful dog leading you to the well into which Timmy fell.
When asked to find a route from City Hall to a bar on Hennepin (a route that might appeal to someone who’d just dealt with bureaucracy), the app led me to Rand Tower and, sadly, no bar. The second time it found a route, but no one using the app for the first time would know the brown line indicated a tunnel under the light rail tracks.
Sky Walker has a homemade feel, but it works. It gets you from one point to the other, which is enough.
Minneapolis Skyway (Android; free. Available in the Google Play Store)
The first review seems to highlight a few small problems: “It didn’t tell me where I was and it couldn’t tell me where I wanted to go.”
“This is basically a screen shot of Google maps and someone drew on blue lines to indicate the sky walk. No way to find things that are near by. It does, however, pop up ads at you every few seconds, so that’s nice.”
At least you have to keep dismissing the ads, which keeps you alert so you don’t walk into walls! Look on the bright side.
Skyway Finder (iPhone; free. And for good reason.)
This app is not as helpful as Sky Walker. And that’s putting it kindly. Enter a location and a destination, and it’ll draw a red line that doesn’t give you a sense of where you are or where you’re going, but at least you’ll get some exercise. I tested it by plotting a route from City Hall to Nicollet Avenue, and it wound through the Government Center, headed in the wrong direction to the parking ramp, dragged through the Thrivent building, then pointed me toward the IDS Center.
But before I got to the IDS, it juked southwest, taking me all the way to Orchestra Hall, where it dead-ended in a parking ramp, a block short of Nicollet.
On the plus side, the app also has the Hong Kong skyways.
More info is better
Are these apps more helpful than looking at the skyway maps on the wall and wandering off with a tiny guttering flame of hope in your heart? Sure. But a better app needs to be made. Not by the city. Municipal apps are lame. If a business consortium wanted to throw a few bucks at a hungry web developer, he or she might want to consider the matter of the Thirsty Texans.
They were staring at a Minneapolis skyway map, tracing lines with their fingers as if downloading the route. I went into Good Samaritan Mode and asked if they needed help. They were trying to get to the U.S. Bank Stadium, because they figured there’d be good bars and restaurants there.
And there’s the rub: The skyway maps, like the apps I tested, aim to tell you how to get to the place you want to go. They also should tell you what’s around — the restaurants, the bars, the famous places, the history of the building, some old street photos, maybe even some details about the skyway itself (i.e., it was the first built, the most recent, the one Mary Tyler Moore used, etc).
If a new app were really good, even people who know the skyways by heart would use those apps because they’d show you something off your usual route through the Habitrail. The app could even make your phone buzz when the lunch joint you’re approaching has a coupon.
The skyway is a commercial ecosystem with its own particular culture, and deserves a good app. If it were a good app, out-of-towners would blend right in.
They’d be walking around staring down at their phones — just like the rest of us.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858 • @Lileks