Google has announced at the National Bike Summit that they have added a “bike there” option to their popular mapping service. It’s a big development for the cycling community. In yet another example of a company taking seriously cycling as a real-world means of transportation, one of the world’s best-capitalized companies has taken an important step in showing Americans that cycling is a viable form of transportation.
The move is important for two reasons. First, it gives cyclists an important resource for using their bike for transportation in unfamiliar locations. Second, it sends a message to the rest of the population that cycling as a means of transportation is, uh, gaining momentum.
Twelve months ago the possibility of using Google’s mapping function to plan a usable bike route seemed a pipe dream. There was a petition, but most petitions have all the power of voodoo dolls. Except this time. Some 50,000 people signed the petition and Google listened. So far the function works for 150 cities in the U.S., but the company says it plans to expand it everywhere and eventually make it usable for portable devices such as the iPhone and Droid.
But we owe our thanks to more than just Google. The Rails to Trails Conservancy provided data on some 12,000 miles of bike trails. The League of American Bicyclists contributed data on bike lanes, bike ways and bike paths.
The contribution of data by the Rails to Trails Conservancy and the League of American Bicyclists allows search results to return routes that combine flat routes over known cycling corridors. Because it skews routes toward the flat, some routes will be longer than you might anticipate.
I’ve played around with the tool some and can confirm it will create routes based on the flatest possible route. Fortunately, you can change a route by dragging it onto the roads you prefer.
Google reports a five-person team based in Seattle has been working on the project since October. Google employees who commute by bike vetted routes before the tool was unveiled and were able to make suggestions that help the tool recommend routes cyclists would more naturally pick.
The reality check for any cyclist using Google Maps to create a bike route is bike-specific color-coding it uses. Bike paths are indicated in dark green. Bike lanes are indicated in light green. Roads that aren’t specifically meant to be bike ways but are suitable for reasons of topography receive a dashed green line.
While it won’t tell you where the group rides are, Google Maps is a powerful new tool for people to discover a city—whether their own or a new one. It will also present bicycle advocates with a graphic presentation of a city’s weaknesses when it comes to bicycle infrastructure. In Los Angeles, advocates are already using it to point out the deficiencies of several bike paths to nowhere.