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John Bissell & Associates

Google Adds Biking Directions to Maps

By John Bissell
Posted: 2010-03-11 10:11:28
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Google introduced its Beta bicycle route finder in Google Maps this week. In short, it’s pretty cool and well thought out. However, I have been reading the one and two sentence e-mail quips coming form bike clubs, and the criticism is high. So to understand why bicyclists are griping I went online to create a few routes. Here’s what I found:

There are several things to remember when using this tool. First, the route I like is not always the route that the other cyclist will choose. This seems to me one of the biggest gripes “I used Google Maps for Bicycle routes and it routed me this way when I prefer that way”. Here’s a tip – The computer can’t read your mind. Sometimes it feels like it can, but it can’t – really.

The real test here is “would that route have worked for someone from out of the area who does not know the nuances of the local roads?” So I asked Google maps to get me to places I know well to see if the routes were o.k. In each case Google gave me routes different from what I would have selected for my self, but the routes would have worked if I were from out of town. It appeared the main difference between the Google routes and my own was hills. Google notes in their blog that they will try to avoid hills. I like hills and don’t make an effort to miss them. Thus I see lots of neat stuff and take routes that are less traveled. However, that’s me – not everyone. When I tried customizing the routes to go on the hills, the entire route adjusted much more to my liking.

Next I went to cities that I am less familiar with and asked Google Maps to get me from one likely touristy place to another. In Denver went from Sloan Park to the Denver Zoo, and on the eastern seaboard I went from Veteran’s Park in Trenton NJ to Long Beach NY. In both cases Google Maps gave me options. I reviewed the routes against other data and found that the selected routes were really very good. Were there other secret routes the local cyclists would use to go to the same place? Probably. However, the routes selected by Google were better than I would have done on my own, as a geographer, map geek, and cyclist.

The second thing to note is that Google is only able to work with the data available. In the Seattle Area, the City of Seattle and King County (in which Seattle sits) have done a very good job of created bike route maps. Whereas Snohomish County, the next county north of King has done a poor job of creating bike rout maps. When using Google in both King and Snohomish Counties, I find Google lacking in Snohomish, while doing very well in King. Google is apparently trying to fix this lack of data. They note that the bicycle route function is in Beta and that they would like input on errors. If all of us cyclist tell Google about issues, they will fix the issues and the maps will get better and better. Remember how bad the car routing was when Map Quest first came out? Now you can get good reliable routing from Map Quest, Google, and Yahoo without any worries. I think we should expect the same improvements from Google Bike Routes as well.

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