Analysis of Google's Bike-There Feature: Part II

In April, I wrote the first part of an analysis of Google’s new Bike-There feature on Google Maps. Google announced their game-changing new feature in early March of 2010. When I first reviewed Google’s Bike-There feature, I had some criticisms of the underlying factors and variables that Google used to build the algorithm, which is the process that generates the map and direction outputs based on the locations to which you would like to ride. Those criticisms included Google’s decision to avoid major intersections and their prioritization of bike trails over established bike lanes, among others, which I felt indicated some underlying biases and misconceptions about cycling, in general. Additionally, the lack of actual human/local knowledge or input, is also problematic for me, although Google claims to be solving this problem through their feedback option. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is fantastic that Google is taking the time to develop a Bike-There feature, and given Google’s prowess in all-things-Internet, it’s sure to improve with time. Not to mention, the importance of a company like Google supporting bicycle transportation cannot be overlooked.

Nonetheless, the purpose of this series is to discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of Google’s current Bike-There feature; to compare and contrast Google’s feature with other online bike mapping tools; and to help you find the best options for getting around by bike. Therefore, today’s post will compare and contrast the Google Bike-There feature with OpenStreetMap, which is an open-source, free, editable online mapping service. Future posts in this series will compare and contrast Google’s Bike-There feature with other online bike mapping tools, for example Ride the City and others. Finally, I will do a test run with the different options to find a route in the same city to compare and contrast the results. In the end, we hope to have provided a comprehensive overview of your online bike mapping options.

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Online Bike Mapping Options

First, a bit about online bike mapping. Not all online bike mapping tools are created equal. Some sites allow you to add and edit your own data, as well as view other users’ data, while other sites spit out routes for you based on your to and from locations. Additionally, some sites have more of a sport or recreational cycling focus, such as MapMyRide, giving you information about popular routes for training, while others are more neutral in terms of the route options.

Thus far, Google’s new Bike-There feature is definitely one of the most comprehensive options available online, as many of the online bike mapping sites are only available in very limited places. At the same time, many city or county governments in the U.S. have GIS (geographic information system) divisions who have developed bike route layers and maps for the local area, which can provide great insight at the local level, as well. For example, Tucson, Arizona, has a great local bike map. With all of the options from local government to Google, it is possible to piece together information about what routes to take by bike, but wouldn’t it be great if you had all of that useful information in one place?



OpenStreetMap solves the problem of having to look in multiple places for route information – to some degree. OpenStreetMap is a free, editable map of the entire world. What separates OpenStreetMap from Google Maps, MapQuest, or other similar online mapping tools is that it is dynamic, user-oriented, and transparent. Perhaps the OpenStreetMap Wiki sums it up best:

OpenStreetMap creates and provides free geographic data such as street maps to anyone who wants them. The project was started because most maps you think of as free actually have legal or technical restrictions on their use, holding back people from using them in creative, productive, or unexpected ways.osm_logo

The basic problem that OpenStreeMap is trying to overcome is the capitalist one. Yes, it seems like knowledge about where things are, where roads go, etc. should be free and available to all, but it’s not. This kind of knowledge is owned by someone, licensed by someone, etc., including all of the maps you get from Google. Therefore, OpenStreetMap is open source, wiki-style project that is owned by everyone. Yes, this does mean that there may be accuracy issues, but hopefully I am not the first person to tell you that all maps have accuracy issues. And some maps even have errors placed in them on purpose. Maps are indeed human constructions and therefore, can lie and mislead.

OpenStreetMap gets some of its map data from free government resources, such as TIGER, in the U.S. The rest of the map data comes from users around the world who contribute to the database through a variety of different methods. You can learn more about where OpenStreetMap gets their data, their views on mapping, and much, much more at their FAQ.

With regard to cycling, OpenStreetMap allows each individual cyclist to edit or view data based on his or her riding preferences. One is not limited to avoiding major intersections, like Google’s current Bike-There feature does, for example, and instead, one can choose a route bas
ed more on personal preferences. This is limited however, by lack of elevation and terrain information, as this kind of map data is often expensive to obtain or copyrighted, and thus, doesn’t really fit with the OpenStreetMap model. Nonetheless, the bike routes that one gets from OpenStreetMap are not inherently limited by the algorithm that generates them, rather, they are limited by the users. There are indeed trade-offs to both.

Additionally, a useful cycling-focused spin-off of OpenStreetMap is OpenCycleMap, which is somewhat limited in scope at this time.

In general, OpenStreetMap is a great open source option, which allows for much greater flexibility and transparency than Google’s Bike-There feature. At the same time, Google’s feature does allow for very quick generation of routes when you really need to know how to get somewhere by bicycle quickly.

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