Are Google Maps' Bicycling Directions a Game Changer?

Last night Google made a “game changing” announcement at the national bike summit in Washington DC. The long awaited “Bike There” option has been added to their options for route types. The dropdown next to Google Maps “Get Directions” button now has “Bicycling” as the fourth option following “By car”, “By public transit” and”Walking”.

We are very excited to hear this long awaited announcement. The implication of Google’s map update to the world of cycling are enormous. has long been advocates of bicycle mapping as a way to improve cyclists knowledge and access to routes. With Google now fully entrenched in supporting cyclists through Google Maps, we now have very high hopes for a continued growth in bike commuting and bike touring in the US.As we know all to well, putting bicycling infrastructure into place in the US is a serious uphill challenge. Even with recognizable momentum in places like Portland and New York City, the ability to offer cycling infrastructure throughout the US seems like a Eutopian dream. But utilizing mapping technology, Google offers cyclist a glimmer of hope. Google’s bicycling directions offers up a tool that will have both an immediate impact as a tool that that provides immediate results and a pathway towards long term integration of bicycling into the US transportation infrastructure. Google’s bike map’s will only encourage increased number of cyclists to go out on bikes. With more cyclists out, a demand for better cycling infrastructure will follow. A correlating growth of cycling infrastructure and the improvement of Google’s bike mapping capabilities can potentially compound eachothers impact. This could play out with first, more cyclist hitting the streets using Google’s cycling directions, second, greater cycling infrastructure being put into place to meet this demand, and third, Google integrating the new cycling data into their maps. This back and forth interaction could unleash an exponential growth of cycling as an integral part of our transportation solutions.The potential for Google cycling map to help push forward strong growth in cycling infrastructure is partially reliant on Google’s continued focus and dedication to improving their bike map route creation technologies. Having briefly reviewed the Google’s methods for generating their bicycling directions, it appears that they’ve definitely gotten started in a good direction. Google has leveraged a variety of types of data to recommend their routes, including available information about bike trails, bike lanes, recommended routes, uphill and downhill routes, busy roads and busy intersections.To get an understanding of the accuracy of Google’s bicycling maps, I quickly mapped a regular bicycle trip that I make here in Flagstaff, Arizona from our offices at back to my house. I noted that the route comes close to following my preferred route however misses a few nuances that I use for safety and efficiency. The route swings me through a high traffic underpass while I prefer to take a bike path that goes along the railroad tracks and through downtown. It was also interesting to note that when I reversed my route, half of the route was no longer along the safe and efficient side streets that were given in the opposite being said, I quickly noticed Google’s statement:”Bicycling directions are in beta. Use caution and please report unmapped bike routes, streets that aren’t suited for cycling, and other problems here.”Clicking on the “here” button offers a variety of options to report on and critique the route.Google’s opportunity to harvest user generated data, is one of the best opportunities for Google to fine tune their bike mapping directions. Google’s bike mapping success will be directly linked to their ability to harvest user generated route data. Google already has a significant database of user generated bike routes. Google’s ability to continue to reach out to a broader spectrum of active cyclists and cycling organizations who can help fine tune their map data will be critical to the overall improvement of the routes.Beyond harvesting user generated data, Google will need to balance a variety of data types to continue to fine-tune their routes. Possibilities for relevant data that can be more automated than relying on user support include finding ways to harvest cyclist’s GPS signals and analyzing GIS data to draw intelligent conclusions about recommended routes. As all of this information comes into play, Google’s challenge may be in properly balancing all these different forms of data to generate the best overall bike route recommendations.By titling this post, “Are Google Map’s Bicycling Directions a Game Changer?” I was interested in starting a conversation about the potential for growth in our cycling infrastructure that could be possible through the wide use, adoption, integration and improvement of Google maps for bicycling routes. Please let us know your thoughts.

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