Google Maps for Bikes

By Josh Cohen March 10, 2010

I'm almost as much of an Internet addict as I am a bike nerd, so you can imagine my delight when I logged on to Twitter last night and saw my feed brimming with news about the addition of bike maps and cycling directions to Google Maps. I briefly neglected my house guests and the dirty dishes to spend some time comparing Google's bike route suggestions to my own regular routes around Seattle.

Launched late yesterday (and created by a team of Google engineers based in Fremont), the bicycle layer illustrates bike paths (dark green solid line), streets with bike lanes (light green solid line) and streets with low traffic (dotted green line).

To turn the bike layer on either click on the "More..." box on the top right of the screen and check the "Bicycling" box or click on Get Directions and select "Bicycling" from the drop down menu. According to the Google Maps blog the directions function uses some crazy, space-age math equations to determine the fastest, easiest route from point A to point B. This often means going a few extra blocks to avoid the biggest hills.

In my series of scientific trials, I found that Google's bike directions are surprisingly accurate.

For example, the fact that Google favored climbing up Pine for almost all the Capitol Hill trips I plotted was a testament to its functionality. Pine is arguably the best balance of steepness and directness when riding to Broadway. The directions also seem to incorporate bike paths and bike lanes as much as possible into suggested routes, which makes a lot of sense.

Of course, it isn't perfect. When I asked for directions from my apartment in lower Queen Anne to a friend's place in the International District, it told me to ride down along Alaskan Way on the bike path (out of the way and adds an extra mile to the trip). Admittedly, that's a pretty benign fault, but I prefer the straight shot through downtown up and over 5th Ave.

Obviously nobody is going to turn to Google Maps to tell them how to ride around parts of a city they already know well, but the bicycling directions have the potential to be a valuable tool for new cyclists just starting to commute around their city or cyclists venturing off into unknown territory. I've done plenty of rides in new areas where a road looked reasonable on paper and turned out to be a fast-moving thoroughfare in reality.

The bike directions are still in beta (and being Google, will likely be for the next seven years), so you'll probably find glitches in the mapping. One notable piece missing from the Seattle map is Street View for the city's bike paths. You can drop the little Street View man onto the Burke-Gilman trail along 34th Ave, but it's just pictures that the van captured as it drove by. Not that useful. Street View trikes, like the one above, have been spotted mapping out bike paths in other cities, but as far as I know they haven't made it to Seattle yet.

In fact, Google Maps people, if this post makes it into your news alerts, I would like to put my hat in the ring to be one of the Seattle trike riders. I even promise to smile instead of scowl like the above triker when the cameras flash.
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