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

Over the past few months, I have been slowly putting together a series on the new Google Bike-There Feature, which was released in March of 2010. Part I of the series reviewed the overall application, how it works, and some of its advantages and disadvantages. Part II discussed various online options for mapping bike routes and then reviewed one option, Open Street Map, in greater depth in order to compare and contrast it with Google’s Bike-There. The third piece in the series will compare and contrast Google’s Bike-There with Ride the City, an online bike route mapping application that thinks like a cyclist in order to avoid busy roads and other cycling-unfriendly situations. Additional posts in the series will involve a series of test-runs using the various applications.

The purpose of comparing and contrasting Google’s Bike-There feature with other online bike mapping applications is to provide an exhaustive overview of the bike mapping options available online, and hopefully generate ideas and comments that will help improve those applications. In general, the overall purpose of our bike mapping component of Utility Cycling is to help you find better ways to commute by bike, run errands by bike, get around by bike, and generally utilize your bike. And why do all of this? Well, it is imperative that people who take up cycling for commuting or other utility cycling practices know where they are going. People often fear cycling because they fear the unknown (especially the unknown of not knowing where you are going when you don’t have a good map or route). Therefore, since we want more people to take up cycling for various utility purposes, we are going to have to show them where to go. Literally. So bike mapping will continue to be a growing area for many years to come. (Header image credit: NYC Bike Maps).

Ride the City

Ride the City is an online mapping application – much like GoogleMaps or MapQuest – that helps you find a good route from point A to point B. The main difference from most online route mapping tools is that Ride the City thinks like a cyclist and generates a route for you that avoids highways, busy streets, and other situations that are not conducive to bike riding. Much like Google’s Bike-There, Ride the City sends its users on routes that are bike-friendly with bike lanes, paths, and other bike infrastructure.

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When you enter your from destination and your to destination into Ride the City, you are given the option to select from three different route types: safer route, safe route, and direct route. I must admit that I am hung up a little on their choice of the words safer, safe, and direct, as I don’t necessarily think that a direct route can’t also be a safe route, depending on where you are, of course, but that’s a minor detail on the verbiage. It’s not that they are implying that the direct routes they tool generates are not safe, they just have less bike infrastructure, but it still gives a user some sense of risk (possible false, as there can be risks on bike paths and regular roads alike) when he or she chooses direct over one of the safe or safer options. How about most bike infrastructure, more bike infrastructure, and some bike infrastructure? Wow…that’s a mouthful…perhaps not.

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Anyhow, verbiage aside, the route that is generated is really helpful. I was recently in San Diego ogling over pedicabs, among other things, and I did a fair bit of riding while I was there. I used Ride the City to generate a route from my hotel to the convention center. The route that it generated was very helpful, as I found San Diego to be a rather confusing city to navigate. Although San Diego has a great Regional Bike Map, it can be difficult to choose a good route using a static map, so it was very convenient to have some input as to the best route from a dynamic system.

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The dynamic nature of Ride the City is not too much different from Google’s Bike-There feature in the sense that it provides a bike friendly route using a variety of input data sources and a general paradigm of what makes a good bike route built into the algorithm that generates the route. However, Ride the City has some cool features that Google’s Bike-There does not. One thing I really liked was the route summary. Not only do you get the total distance, time estimate, and elevation gain, but you also get step-by-step directions with information about the bike infrastructure (ie. this is a bike path or this has a bike lane or a caution sign on bad roads that the route could not avoid).

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With Google’s Bike-There route, you get three different options, as well (although they are not classed in any way other than total distance and estimated time), but the route summary looks the same as the driving directions with no special information about the kind of road or path you might be on at a given time.

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When you create an account with Ride the City you are given the option to set a default city, which I’d imagine is quite useful if you live and work in one of the cities that the tool is available for. However, it’s very easy to change between cities, as well. You can also save routes and
preferences in your account, as well as rate routes and provide input on the routes that the tool generates. As with Google’s Bike-There feature and Open Street Maps, it seems that user input is one of the best ways to improve the system.

Ride the City is currently only offered in Austin, Boston, Chicago, DC Metro, Louisville, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Toronto. However, according to their FAQ, they have plans to expand to other cities as quickly as possible. If you have a burning desire to have Ride the City in your town, they encourage you to contact them.

In general, I found Ride the City more enjoyable to use than Google’s Bike-There, mainly because it is specifically tailored to cycling, whereas with Google’s Bike-There, cycling is one component of a larger Google Map system and not their entire focus. What does seem to be conclusive between all three applications reviewed thus far – Google’s Bike-There, Open Street Map, and Ride the City – is that user input is key to improving these systems. Local riding knowledge (let’s call it LRK) is really important in the world of bike mapping. So please share your input whenever you can!

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