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March 16, 2010

Google Announces (Sort of) Bike-Friendly Direction Generator


Route
A Tale of Two Cities: The theoretically bike-friend route generated via Google Maps (left), and the one modified by a bike commuter with ten years on the road.  The short diagonal jag on the right will help my sister avoid the hell that is 16th Street, NW, during rush hour.

Last week Google announced that their mapping system can now generate routes for cyclists. Select “By Bicycle” in the dropdown when getting directions, and the route generated will be the most bike-friendly—at least in theory; a cursory survey of the new feature by five dedicated commuting cyclists in our DC office showed that, while the idea is sound, the suggested routes are less than inspired.   

The map does show three types of bike-friendly routes, each denoted by green lines; solid dark green indicates bike paths, light green marks dedicated bike lanes on a street, and dashed green lines highlight bike-friendly streets. Except that most of the bike lanes in the District of Columbia aren’t marked on the map, and the suggested bike routes either directs you into chaotic traffic or forces you to cycle well out of your way to stick to a dedicated bike path. My sister is about to start biking to work from upper Northwest to Dupont Circle, and Google would have her pedaling down 16th Street for most of her trip, a road that’s so congested during rush hour with daredevil motorists that a cyclist feels like Han Solo dodging asteroids.

Google’s announcement has been met with both accolades and jeers—but we echo Bike Snob NYC’s cautious optimism. As with most programs in beta, Google’s asking for user input for future refinement. And advice from cyclists, a community seldom known for keeping their opinions to themselves, will  certainly help.

In the interest of community-service, here’s a few other details we’d like to see adopted:

1. Give users the ability to submit bike-friendly routes, perhaps by creating a variant on the drag-a-route feature that lets you re-trace the suggest path and upload that data to inform future bike-friendly suggestions.

2. You got most of the paths right, but let cyclists mark bike-friendly streets, and those with designated bike lanes.

3. Let us mark streets that are just plain scary, either because of crazy traffic, bad road conditions, or killer hills (the latter is theoretically part of the algorithm, but DC-based searches didn’t suggest avoid some of the city’s real leg burners).

4. We know, we know. Cycling the wrong way down a one-way street is a no-go. But sometimes a quick one-block zip going against traffic or slicing through a narrow alleyway can be safe—and could save loads of time. It’d be great to be able to tag roads that qualify for these exceptions, as well as one-way streets (like DC’s 15th Street) with bike lanes for pedaling in both directions.

5. Short-term variables like time of day and road construction will be naturally difficult to take into account.  But let us tag particular sections of a road and intersections with, say, and exclamation point so that people are warned that the intersection of 14th Street and Irving is a fiasco of construction, traffic, and tunnel-vision pedestrians, making it a headache even if it appears to be the most direct route.

Don't get us wrong. What’s there certainly shows promise—and little add-ons like a free gadget that lets you upload your routes to your own website proves that this feature is more than just a passing interest.  But until the database gets more refined, I’m going to give my sis the best route.


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