It’s all over the (map/bike) news: Google added the long anticipated Bicycling layer to Google Maps, which shows bicycle facilities and enables bicycle directions. Excellent!
It’s a great move for bicycle advocacy and helps increasing awareness about cycling as serious urban transportation mode. According to that blog post on the Google Lat Long Blog, the Google Maps engineers developed some solid bicycle routing algorithms. The data is apparently coming from Rails-to-Trails, public sources and Google’s Street View and Imagery. In the areas I viewed, all data was (c) Google, which is, after we saw the parcel layer (c) by Google, not surprising at all.
Nice side effect: bicycling is available in Google Maps API V3 (which recently made it into OpenLayers).
Even though the bicycle layer looks pretty impressive at a first glance – lot’s of green lines in the Boston area – it’s clearly in beta stage. For my daily commute it suggested three basically realistic alternatives, only with 1 to 3 blocks detours from the route I usually take. My usual route includes going up a quiet one-way street which Google doesn’t suggest, instead it would send me to the car packed 4-lane highway.
Playing around with the marker, the routes get a little funkier:
- It’s not the shortest/quickest route. Bike trails are clearly weighted very high in the algorithm.
- You’re allowed to ride through the Boston Common, but not through the Public Garden as the algorithm suggests; missing restriction.
- The shown bike facilities in Cambridge are pretty messy and Boston looks way better than it actually is – Mass Ave preferred for bicycling? That’s one of the craziest streets you could possibly ride on.
- At Kendall the algorithm clearly gets confused with some turn restrictions and would send you up and down the street.
Despite those few glitches, Google has done an amazing job in introducing bicycle transportation to Google Maps – very exciting!
For the first time in my life I got pulled over on my bike. It was three of us running a red light this morning in Cambridge (Hampshire / Windsor btw). To be clear: there were absolutely no cars in the street we were crossing. No suicidal attempts or speeding blindly into a busy crossing. Just a totally empty street and a cop hiding between parked cars on the other side.
At least it was a cop on a bike, so we were all somewhat equal. The first cyclist tried to fight it, claiming the light was green. “Here is a $20 fine that you can fight”, said the cop, who apparently was not in arguing mood at all that morning. I and the cute blond girl switched to “Yes Sir, sorry Sir” mode and got away with a warning. Or maybe it was just the cute blond girl effect.
My favorite: “Car Alarm Over 10 Minutes” for $300 – nervous car security systems can be expensive in The People’s Republic of Cambridge!
If I had to think of a solution to start creating a bicycle routing system, I’d do exactly what The San Francisco County Transportation Authority has done: create smart phone apps, gather information where cyclists are riding, data mine those tracks and build route suggestions on top of that knowledge.
Bicycle routing is in my opinion far more complex than car routing. Car routing is mostly based on well known and documented rules, also known as road traffic regulations. Mix in estimated traffic figures, average speeds and fuel consumptions and you get pretty decent car directions.
For cyclists, a similar rule set exists, but it’s maybe a little more, let’s call it, elastic. Cyclists use short-cuts, turn where cars can’t, go against traffic, ride through parks and on poorly documented trails. High traffic doesn’t mean slowdown for cyclists. They ride by on the bike lane on the right side of a traffic jam at almost the same speed as without traffic. But high traffic creates a security risk some cyclists aren’t comfortable with taking and rather choose a different route.
A perfect route from A to B for speedy messengers doesn’t necessarily mean it’s also an ideal route for kids. For your daily commute you probably pick another route than for weekend rides, even though it connects the same points.
Bicycle routing criteria is manifold, sometimes psychological, hard to measure and to quantify. Researching how cyclists are going, for what purpose and under what conditions, is a very smart way to get started on that topic.
Michael Moore suggested 9 action points to President Obama regarding the bankruptcy of GM. Bottom line of his article: convert GM’s car factories to mass transportation factories and promote energy efficient technology. Basically I would agree, though, I think it’s only one side of the medal and that there are a few more things one might consider:
Working on symptoms never cures the disease. Transportation needs are caused by urban planning. I’ve seen Jacksonville, Florida and I can’t possibly imagine how an urban structure like that one can be run by mass transportation. Providing public transportation services for such spread out areas – I’m talking about population densities as low as 970.9/sq mi in Jacksonville compared to 12,172.3/sq mi in Boston with decent public transportation for instance (source: Wikipedia, see map below) – is a tough task, and not very cost efficient or green. Urban sprawl at such dimensions leaves in most cases no other options than to rely on cars.
Other ways of individual transportation – bicycles, walking – require shorter distances to daily services (groceries, schools, doctors, etc.). Again, a large residential area and a huge mall somewhere along the highway make it impossible to introduce anything but car transportation.
Apart from being the most unpopular word in that country, increasing taxes on energy prices, like proposed in point 9, will hurt poor people first if the policy is not balanced out well. Wealthy people don’t care as much about gas prices, they can afford better cars and probably live somewhere close to city centers where they don’t even need them so much. Poor people on the other hand are the ones who have to take a 2 hour daily commute in an old inefficient car to get to work or bring kids to school. Taxes are an interesting lever in transportation and energy policy, but not the holy grail.
Rethinking urban structures, transportation and energy policies is a time consuming issue. It took almost a century to create the status quo, it’s not gonna change in a single presidential term of 4 years. I believe this country must be prepared for a long way ahead.