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.
Cyclists in the United States do not have a reputation for successful activism. Causes to which their efforts would be well applied rarely get the effort they deserve. Group rides are facing increasing pressure from police and cities to clean up their acts, races are losing permits and mountain bike trails have been closed.
Strangely, though, this unusually Internet-savvy bunch made its presence known to Google, arguably one of the most powerful companies in the on-line world. Its application Google Maps provides a service with greater flexibility and more substantive information than anything you could get from the auto club. And while it offered more variations on mode of travel than the auto club did, those options were limited to driving, public transit and walking.
However, in the near future another option will be added: bicycling. Cyclists have been lobbying Google for more than a year to include cycling in its mapping routes and can now celebrate because the Palo Alto data aggregator listened.
The announcement was all but buried in a post on Google’s Lat Long blog, which is maintained by the folks at Google Earth. Four paragraphs down, software engineer Andrew Lookinbill mentions new datasets (now there’s an arcane noun) that include bike trails and paths. Lookinbill writes, “Soon we even plan on providing you with biking directions to take advantage of this new data.”
One wonders how far behind Map My Ride can be. That site is so forward thinking (and fun) it’s a wonder they don’t already offer proactive suggestions on routes.
Many riders in bigger cities complain that bike commuting is difficult and dangerous for the simple fact that finding a route composed of bike-friendly roads can be difficult. If Google gives weight to bike paths, bike lanes and bike routes, the feature could help usher in a new wave of bike commuters. And for map fiends (like yours truly), the ability to map a route that includes bike paths in advance and get accurate route notes and mileage is a dream come true. Imagine planning a European tour down to the last kilometer before ever leaving home. Where’s my passport?
There’s no word on how long until Google implements the new feature, but RKP will bring you an update once it is out and we’ve had a chance to test drive the mapping and compare it to existing software. Stay tuned.