Monday, March 15, 2010

Google Maps Bicycling Directions

As widely reported by the people I follow on Twitter last week, Google Maps now has bicycling directions. As someone who bikes 30 to 35 miles a week, I'm thinking...woohoo! What took so long?

Bicycling directions differ from driving directions in that they: 1) can use dedicated bike trails; 2) use bike-friendly roads (e.g. wide roads without too many hills) and avoid bike-unfriendly roads (e.g. interstates); and 3) show you a color-coded map of dedicated bike trails, roads with dedicated bike lanes, and other roads that are "preferred for bicycling". Sounds great! Sign me up!

So...does it work? I'm going to test it out using a few bike routes that I'm very familiar with, starting with the work commute. Unfortunately, it won't let me embed the bicycling view of the maps directly into the blog yet, but I can embed the traditional view, at least.


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This one was easy; the best driving route is also the best and most direct bicycling route. But I'm most impressed with the time estimate: 19 minutes is just about right. (My average morning commute time via bicycle is 17 minutes.) More impressive, at least to me, is that Google Maps says the return ride is one minute shorter. That is also accurate, because the morning commute is uphill and the afternoon commute is downhill. Not bad! (By the way, given that Google Maps itself says that the estimated trip times are "conservative", I am relieved that I can at least do a little bit better.)

But really, that wasn't much of a test. Let's give Google a more challenging real-life scenario. Last month, I was trying to figure out the best route to take to Umstead State Park. Here's what Google Maps thinks:


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Google Maps only gets partial credit here, mostly because it included the Black Creek Greenway with my route. The rest of the route is completely different from what I did, a slightly longer route on roads with lighter traffic. A couple of roads on the suggested route have what I would consider to be "too much traffic for comfort". And therein lies the biggest problem with Google Maps bicycling directions thus far. On the color-coded bicycling view, many roads are labeled as being "preferred for bicycling" that I wouldn't actually consider biking on, due to high traffic. (These aren't real major roads, just four-lane roads with steady, but not overwhelming, traffic.) But maybe more experienced cyclists wouldn't hesitate to use these roads, and this is just a matter of personal preference? Are these directions intended for experienced cyclists, new cyclists, or somewhere in between? That isn't clear. Perhaps an option to take a slightly longer route in order to stay away from traffic as much as possible (within reason) would be useful. Almost all of my biking excursions are more for recreation than for getting from Point A to Point B, so I would almost always rather take a slightly longer route if it will be more enjoyable.

Or, maybe just the color-coding is still a work in progress. Info regarding dedicated bike lanes in Durham is incomplete (I reported a few omissions this morning), but that's nothing compared to Jacksonville, which has almost no color-coding whatsoever. Google does advertise that all this is still in beta, after all.

Speaking of Jacksonville...what if I wanted to ride my bike from my parents' house to my high school? I used to think biking that far would be completely and utterly crazy. But I just did a 30-mile round trip yesterday, and a round-trip to the high school would be about 33 miles, so...I could do it. Easy!


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(Google Maps gave me two route options; this is the second option.)

Knowing what I know about Jacksonville roads, is this route reasonable for a bicycle? Actually, for the most part...yes. The only problem I have with it is that even if Atlantic Blvd does have bike lanes (or at least wide shoulders), the idea of crossing the Atlantic Blvd Intracoastal bridge on a bike is rather terrifying. So if I were to actually attempt this - and I'm not going to rule it out - I would take the Wonderwood bridge instead, even though it would make the trip two or three miles longer. The Wonderwood bridge has less traffic, wider shoulders/bike lanes, and a higher guard rail on one side.

So...here's my final verdict on Google Maps bicycling directions. Many bike paths in the Triangle are already recognized, and that's great. Once they add all dedicated bike lanes and bike paths to the database, then this will be really, really nice. But even when that's done, I can't really use the directions as-is, local knowledge is still very important, and this is simply another tool I can use when coming up with a route. In other words, it's just like driving directions.

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