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Google Biking Directions

The online cycling community is buzzing today about the addition of bicycle directions on google maps.  It’s been in development for a long time & I’m glad it’s finally available.  Google cautions that it’s still in beta testing.  I thought I would give it a shot.

The first thing that stood out to me was that google doesn’t have the most up-to-date info about the Twin Cities bicycle network.  There are several significant trails that aren’t on the map: the  Northeast Diagonal trail in Minneapolis; the trail along County Road C in Roseville; the Hiawatha LRT Trail from the Greenway into downtown.  The network is missing a lot of the pedestrian bridges over freeways and railroad tracks: the Sabo Bridge along the greenway; the Cedar Lake Road bridge over the railroad tracks.  In addition, Google is using pretty dated info about the downtown cycling network: the now nonexistant bike lanes on 2nd, Marquette, and Hennepin Avenues are still in the database, but the new bicycle lanes on N 1st Avenue aren’t.  Also, a couple pretty surprising routes were identified as cycling routes: TH-55 north of E 28th Street in Minneapolis into downtown is identified as having bicycle lanes, which it doesn’t.

I put Google to the test by having it give me directions for my daily bicycle commute to work.  This is what it gave me:

Google smartly identified the Midtown Greenway as my best option for the first half of my commute, but I wasn’t very fond of the second half of the route Google identified for me.  Google recommends I zig-zag through some local streets and then ride along the TH-100 frontage road to get across the railroad tracks – a very unattractive route.  It chose this route primarily because of the missing pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks at Cedar Lake Road.  Had the Google database included this bridge, I expect it would have recommended it to me.

This highlights an important urban planning principle: Our cities are full of barriers that cyclists and pedestrians have to figure out how to cross (or go around).  In my case, I have to figure out how to cross the railroad tracks, but other common barriers include freeways or other large roadways, rivers, or lakes.  Removing a single barrier crossing has significant impacts on cyclists and pedestrians.

One of the biggest benefits of riding a bicycle is that bicycles can safely do things that cars can’t.  Many of these things are difficult to incorporate into a formal mapping program, usually because they are too small for someone without detailed local knowledge to identify.  For example, my daily commute involves walking my bicycle over a set of railroad tracks.  Technically, of course, this is illegal, but there is a well-worn path across the tracks because local cyclists and pedestrians all know that it’s a good place to cross.  There are probably legal implications if Google Maps incorporated an illegal pathway into the network – no matter how well used.

But not all of these movements are illegal, of course.  There are perfectly legitimate movements that a cyclist may take that may never be incorporated into the Google Mapping utility.  For example, maybe a cyclist is able to shave significant distance off their route if they cut through a parking lot, or ride on the sidewalk against traffic on a one-way street for a block, or ride through an empty lot.  There are a lot of ways that cyclists aren’t bound by the same network that governs where cars can drive.  The pedestrian and cyclist network is much more finely grained.

A local Twin Cities researcher, Reid Priedhorsky, has attempted to solve some of these problems by allowing users to create and modify the roadway and trail network with the geowiki Cyclopath.  Cyclopath also allows users to mark which routes are bicycle friendly, and which aren’t.  Cyclopath does a better job predicting my route than Google Maps, but it is primarily because it includes the key pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks that isn’t yet in the Google network:

However, while one of the Cyclopath users (probably me) has identified (with text) the crossing where I typically walk my bike over the tracks, the illegal crossing is not formally in the Cyclopath network either.  And rightfully so, I suppose.  Professional utilities shouldn’t be encouraging illegal activity, no matter how benign.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to seeing future updates to the Google bicycle network.  It’s really a phenomenal utility that will help cyclists of all experience levels choose the best routes.  Google also says they have plans to allow local users to modify the bicycle network.

So give bicycle directions a shot.  Let me know your experiences in the comments below!

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