How Google Maps makes the world better for biking

There is no better way to see a new city than from the saddle of a bicycle. And you know this is a truism if a teenager (who doesn't love biking) tells you this is so, as my 15-year-old did this past week as we rode to Navy Pier in Chicago.

Chicago's Divvy bike share is a fantastic way to get around the city, and it's surprising to see all of the different types of people who use Divvy on a daily basis - from Oxford-shoed business men and women in office-appropriate black shift dresses and little cardigans, to backpacked teens and semi-hapless tourists types (like me).

© April Streeter
To city dwellers and tourists alike, Divvy (and all bike share) is greatly enhanced by GPS-based mapping software on smart phones. The match is almost better than chocolate and peanut butter, because without the ability to navigate and find bike-passable lanes, biking in a city is chaotic at best and crazily scary at worst.

Amazingly, Google Maps for bicyclists has a bit of a checkered past, in that the biking public had to wait much longer for the feature than driving directions or public transit tracking.

Fifty thousand grassroots cyclists had to lobby Google to "make bicycling safer for millions of bicyclists around the world," as the lobbyists put it back in 2008. It took two more years until Bike There appeared, and the bike world was thrilled. It then took considerably longer for Bike There to be iOS enabled, though it was available for Android much sooner. Now with the newest version of maps, it doesn't seem like Google refers to Bike There by that name, simply calling the feature "bike directions."

© Google
Whatever the name, Google Maps biking directions are a big boon to bicyclists, even if other apps - like the fancy Hammerhead - may keep adding new and fancier bits. In partnership with the Rails-to-Trails conservancy, the Seattle team that developed Bike There put 12,000 miles of trails into it. Just recently (in May), Google added an elevation profile for cycling maps, so you can see the big hills!

And with the new Google Maps cyclists can hear directions on the go (iPhone, Android), which is extremely helpful since looking at the phone constantly while biking is a hazard. In fact, the audio is so helpful and safer while on the go, that bike share bikes should come with a multi-purpose phone mount system!

And if something doesn't jive with the app, users are still encouraged to report glitches to the team.

And back to Divvy and Chicago for one moment. For some destinations in this big city (227 square miles), biking is the fastest form of transport in about 10 percent of cases. Certainly it was the quickest way for a party of two on Divvy to get from the Loop to all of our inner city destinations. Google Maps was a big part of that, especially with the audio on.

While there are other biking navigation apps out there for smart phones, the continual updating and resources behind Google Maps truly makes it (for the U.S. and the 14 countries where Google supports bike mapping) a great tool for cyclists to have.

Tags: Bike Accessories | Bike-Friendly World | Bikes | Bike Sharing | Biking

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