Google Bike Maps: A Cynical Cyclist Speaks Out
Hooray for Google adding bicycling directions to Google Maps -- too bad it isn't more useful. I'm not sure this is Google's fault, however, as many bike routes/lanes/paths are poorly documented and decisions regarding the "rideability" of a particular route are important data points that often require an on-the-ground investigation.
My guess: Google's bike maps feature will be mostly neglected until they are vastly improved. One suggestion, Google needs a better system to accept crowdsourced input. If cyclists get behind the project, however, Google's bike maps could become really helpful.
In my experience, the best route from point A-to-B-via-C is often learned from other bicyclists; although in some areas excellent physical maps do exist. It is not surprising that Google is struggling infusing biker knowhow into its tech tools. Here is an example:
I know of a ton of local bike trails that are not on Google Maps radar. For starters there is a 70-mile-long path along the California Aqueduct that really should be something a bike enthusiast should be able to find. It's not there. How can I share this information with Google? Right now there is no way for bikers to share information with bikers via Google Maps.
Google does have a means to report map errors and changes, but not one that allows me to easily mark-up the map and submit it. Also, bike maps often need annotations, something Google Maps doesn't support very well.
And would Google believe me if I sent the changes in? Building a crowdsourced bike map with comments will require a lot of outside input. How can it be quality controlled by someone sitting at the Googleplex in California?
My hometown, Dallas, Texas, has 365 miles of signed bike routes on city streets and another 150 miles that are unsigned. All were suggested by cyclists and I have ridden many of those miles myself. Google Maps doesn't seem to know anything about these bike routes, showing only actual bike trails in parks.
If Google (or you) want to download a Dallas bike map, here's the link. (And special thanks to Michael Carr, who many years ago helped create and map the Dallas Bike Plan.)
From what I can tell, Google seems to love bike lanes. I don't, and would like them to be marked differently than roads that are merely well-suited for cyclists.
Cyclists in Dallas wisely asked that money be put into signs rather than actual bike lanes. Why? Because lacking frequent street sweeping and the sweeping effect of cars, bike lanes tend to gather debris, especially gravel and glass. This can make them difficult or unsafe to ride. Trying to avoid this mess sends cyclists veering out into the regular lanes of traffic, sometimes suddenly. Drivers then try to honk the cyclist back into the bike lane, which the cyclist isn't actually required to use.
Over decades of cycling, I've become convinced that designated bike lanes are not the win they seem. Google should probably mark them clearly on the map, so they can be avoided, if desired.
I'd hate for Eric, Larry, or Sergey to read this and decide that cyclists are ungrateful and just drop the bike mapping project. Rather, I'd like to see Google make it easier for cyclists to help create a map that will best meet their needs.
David Coursey has been an on-and-off cyclist (currently on) for more than 20 years, almost as long as he has been writing about technology products and companies. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.