Google’s biking maps (and alternatives)

So it is exciting that Google Maps now gives directions by bicycle (at least within the U.S.) and even has a lovely new style of rendering the map for biking. This new style shows bike routes and lanes where Google knows about them, and you can also activate it in conjunction with the terrain layer, which I think would’ve been nice as the default. Google’s routing algorithm tries to avoid hills as much as it can, which is also nice.

It’s not available in Vancouver, unfortunately, but at first glance the data for some nearby cities (Bellingham and Seattle) looks pretty good. The rest of the world will have to wait, but for now there is the creative commons alternative: OpenCycleMap, based on OpenStreetMap. Because it’s wiki-based, the amount of coverage varies, depending on how active the locals have been in adding to the map, but in Vancouver the map is pretty complete.  It doesn’t do bicycle routing yet, but for that we’ve got the UBC Cycling in Cities project for Vancouver.

The mapping of cycling infrastructure is tricky in a lot of ways. In North America, our cities simply weren’t built with bikes in mind, and what little retrofitting we’ve done is often incomplete (bike lanes that end abruptly, missing signage, lack of places to lock up, etc.) or, in some cases, could even make matters worse (if “improvements” give cyclists and/or drivers a false sense of security, leading to more accidents). For this reason, the social infrastructure–by this I mean the local knowledge of individuals and groups about which routes are best for various reasons–is more important for biking than it is for driving, walking or transit (to name the forms of transportation that Google already includes in its directions).

Google prominently asks users to report problems with the map, which is a good start, although fixing problems with Google’s maps is a very slow process.  On OpenStreetMap, by contrast, you can fix a problem yourself, instantaneously. OpenStreetMap is also a bit better at incorporating local knowledge, since the person mapping a particular bike route probably has direct, recent experience actually biking that road, unlike Google Maps which is based on municipal bike route data (which, even if it’s up to date, still might not match what the signs actually say on the ground) and then, at some later date, is translated and rendered by developers in another city to create the Google Map you see in front of you.

Neither option is perfect, of course, nor do they come close to fully incorporating all the possible forms of local cycling knowledge. That’s quite a lot to ask. As always, you need to think critically when using a map and use your wits when you’re trying to get someplace new. That holds true if you’re getting around by car, on foot, or using transit. But with bikes, there’s a lot more that I wish the map could tell me.

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