Bicycle Mapping

We are all map-users. Whether or not we recognize this fact (or like it, for that matter), is a whole different story. Maps are made for accomplishing a wide range of tasks from navigation to defining boundaries to measuring bits of information to showing elevation and much, much more. Maps are literally visual representations of the “real world.” Maps can be extremely useful, but they can also be quite deceiving and tricky to use. A map can never show you every piece of information about a particular place, as it would be too much information to comprehend all at once, and the map would cease to be useful or even readable. Thus, every map is made with particular purpose in mind, but it is important to remember that there is always something missing from every map, no matter how complete it might seem.

I have studied geography in school for many, many years now. I have been a cyclist for…well, most of my life, I suppose, However, declaring that I am a geographer or declaring that I am a cyclist doesn’t actually mean much, as there are many different types of both “geographer” and “cyclist.” As far as geographers are concerned, what does matter is that all proper geographers are fond of maps and space (no, not outer space), rather the three dimensional space in which things occur. As for cyclists, they are a bit like geographers in that they are all connected in some way or another by the bicycle. And much like maps, there are many kinds of bicycles. And of course, there is nothing wrong with appreciating more than one kind of map or more than one kind of bicycle.

Anyways, you may have guessed that since I am a geographer of sorts and a cyclist of sorts, I am interested in bicycle mapping. The main point of going on this little tangent is to say that I plan to devote a good deal of time and energy on to researching, experimenting with, and consequently, writing about bicycle mapping. As always, I welcome your comments, tips, experiences, stories, photos, maps, and whatnot. And for the introductory post, I plan to broadly review the field of bicycle mapping to introduce the topic.

What Is Bicycle Mapping?

Well, first off, bicycle mapping is basically a term that I just threw out there to describe any kind of mapping exercise that is focused around the bicycle. At the moment, when most people talk about “bicycle mapping”, what they are referring to is route-finding and navigation. However, there are many other types of interesting bicycle mapping activities going on all the time.

For example, if your local government has recently expressed an interest in counting the number of bicyclists at certain key places throughout the city (as mine has), then they are most likely going to develop some maps associated with the data they collect that might show information about bike trends, crash statistics, density of cyclists on certain routes, bicycle infrastructure conditions, the need for better conditions and so on. In addition to statistics and route finding, it is usually nice to know a bit about the infrastructure of a place, so some bicycle mapping exercises might refer to collecting data about bike racks, bike shops, etc. with a GPS. Bicycle mapping could also refer to the practice of mapping and taking measurements via bicycle, but not necessarily about bicycles. For example, in Europe, researchers used a cargo bike to ride around two cities taking climate measurements. Not to mention, Google employees have been spotted using a tricycle to take photos for Google Maps. Of course, there are many other types of bicycle mapping possibilities, so really, the opportunities to talk about “bicycle mapping” are quite vast.


This map is from a research project I did using spatial statistics to try to analyze if US counties that had high bicycle use were more likely to be located nearby other US counties with high bicycle use. There were lots of problems with my research. To name one, for example, the scale of a US county is quite too large to analyze bicycle use (which doesn’t really occur at the county level), though that was the only data I could get at the time. Nonetheless, this map shows bicycle use/ population for the East Coast using data from the 2000 Census of the US. Light -> dark means low -> high use.

pag-bike-countsHere is a map of Tucson, Arizona, from the Pima Association of Goverments that shows the density of cyclists at the bike count points around the city.

A Bit About Navigation and Route Finding

As far as navigation is concerned, I can’t even begin to emphasize how important it is, especially to a cyclist. When you arrive in an unknown place, it is always somewhat challenging to navigate that place. For some, it is even more challenging to navigate a strange place on bicycle, because not only are you out of your comfort zone (simply by being in a strange place), you are also likely to feel more exposed and vulnerable (no matter what mode of transport you choose), though this feeling is often magnified when you are on a bike. The same concept also applies when you change your standard mode of transportation in a place that is familiar to you. There is always an initial learning curve to be expected as you figure out the in’s and out’s of a new way of navigating through space, and this time during the learning curve can be somewhat scary, and oftentimes, exhilarating.

Therefore, it is always nice to have a good map handy. However, the majority of maps online or available in print are made for the purpose of navigating an automobile, not a bicycle. Nonetheless, this is changing as of late, as local governments, mapping organizations, and bicycle advocates and organizations are advocating for more bicycle-focused mapping and established bike route systems in the US. Indeed, it is always a bit of a shock to me when I get in my car and drive someplace to which I typically ride my bike, and discover that I can’t go the same way in a car that I can in a bike. So it is really nice to have a map that shows all of the little tricks and shortcuts you can take on a bike that aren’t going to appear on a map made for a motorist and to help you avoid roads or situations that might make you uncomfortable.

Many cities have bicycle route maps available, which are often free and can usually be found at bike shops. These maps are great as they usually show which roads have designated bicycle routes. Check with
your local government to see if your city has such a map. Here is a PDF of my city’s bike routes.

What is Already Available?

Well, bike mapping is a rapidly growing field, but what’s already out there, you might wonder.

  • The folks over at Bike Hacks have a great post that lists over 50 free bike route mapping tools.
  • Bike Commuters also has a good post on route finding tools.
  • Commute by Bike has a really useful post on how to use Google Maps online to make a great bike route.
  • And of course, there is a petition out there to get Google to include a “Bike There” option for Google Maps. Go sign it!
  • One of the best online programs I found was created by the GIS division of the City of Boulder. It’s called Go Bike Boulder, and it will create routes for you depending on specifications. Log in as a guest to try it. I’m a bit of GIS nerd, so I really like this one.

Do you know of others? Let us know!Note: the header image I found here, where there is also a nice discussion about route-finding in a strange place.

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