Photo credit A. Streeter.
If Google's GMail is any indication, Google Maps Bike There may be in beta for a long, long time. And that's likely a good thing. Many of us encouraged creation of the bicycle mapping tool, are using it every day, and really appreciating it. However, we've also discovered that Google Maps Bike There has its slip-ups and shortcomings - some simply hilarious, others potentially dangerous.
1) Over the Train Tracks and Through the Woods.Google built the Bike There algorithm using the network of streets already available, and adding data from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy plus dedicated bike lane data from 150 U.S. cities. Obviously, that data has some gaps. In addition, the algorithm tries to work around steep slopes, avoid fast roads, and map away from busy intersections. The limitation of this approach can be seen in a recent trip between the inner southeast and the Sellwood district in bike-friendly Portland, Oregon. The route did avoid one busy street that would be the most direct way to ride. However, not more than a half mile into the alternative route, the map led this rider to a 50-stair staircase over the railroad tracks, which meant lugging the e-bike 50 steps up, and 50 steps back down. For a quarter-mile after this, the map recommended riding right beside the railroad tracks, and then led the rider onto stretches of unimproved, gravel city streets. While not exactly dangerous, it wasn't much fun. What to do with these types of Google Maps boondoggles? Report, report, report. Google makes no bones about the fact that the product is in beta, and is relying on crowdsourcing to relay all the boo-boos so they can fix the glitches.
2) DC to Arlington - Skip the Cemetary, Please.Soon after Google released Bike There in March, NPR correspondent Jacob Fensten and a friend, Mike Brown, tested the application with a trip from Washington DC to Brown's home in Arlington, Virginia. After being refused permission to bike on Executive Avenue, running a few circles around the National Monument, and then not being allowed to bike through Arlington Cemetary, the pair arrived at their destination in twice the time (an hour and 15 minutes, versus the 34 minutes) estimated by the application for this 5.4 mile ride. Fensten submitted an error report to Google Maps Bike There, so by now plotting a similar map won't generate the same forbidden route through the cemetary. This problem - the map advises the bike to go where bikes aren't allowed - is a common one, and experienced cyclists say riders should take a look at a bike map, if available, to have a back-up route plan.
3) Bridged.Looking at a map may or may not have helped Ken and Jen Ballentine, who are biking across the U.S. this summer on Terra Trikes recumbents to raise awareness for organ donation in honor of Jen's daughter Alex who died after being hit by a car. The Ballentines are using Bike There for daily route maps, and on the road to Yorktown, Virginia were suddenly stopped short by a NO BIKES ALLOWED sign on a short one-mile bridge. As Jen recounted on the couple's blog:
"The alternative route was a ferry, 30 miles back the way we had just ridden! Google bike maps fail us again, this time REALLY BADLY. We turned around and I went into the gas station and was looking at a map... I was about to cry when I walked out the door and heard a man say to Ken, "Well, if you can get those things into my truck, I'll take you over the bridge."
4) Bridged, Part II.Keeping track of which bridges are available to cyclists and which are prohibited is of course a monumental task that Google couldn't hope or be expected to do on its own. But there is another problem with heavily-trafficed bridges that Oregonian writer Joseph Rose discovered. Clearly, not all cities have as many bridges as Portland does, but many have more than one. That fact, combined with all the other caveats (reduce hills, reduce riders' contact with heavily motorized roads) seems to send Bike There into a tizzy - Rose was instructed to cross three bridges in order to take a fairly simply trip from the northeast quadrant of town to the southwest.
Though there will be routes like Rose's that seem obviously too long or roundabout because of Google Maps for Bikes preference for bicycle facilities over street routes, a rider can take advice from cycleiciou.us and "grab" a part of the route that doesn't look good and change it. That way the saved map with streamlined corrections can be used at a later date.
5) Bad In The Burbs?Bike Shop Girl, aka Arleigh Jenkins, experimented Google Maps Bike There on her suburban Charlotte, North Caroline bicycle routes and felt the program thus far is "hit or miss." Jenkins biggest beef? That Bike There doesn't consistently, in her area, correctly indentify roads that are suitable versus those that are dirt paths, or heavily car-centric, etc. On an approximately 8 mile journey from the small town of Davidson toward home, Jenkins encountered two dead ends. She does recommend that intrepid riders be able to tell Google which are the best bike friendly roads in their communities - she also thinks if Google can't positively identify a road as good for biking, they simply don't make a route on it...ever.
Want more bike mapping aps? Read at TreeHugger:
Going by Bike? There's an App or Two for That
CycleTracks iPhone App Tells San Fancisco TA Where Bike Paths Should be Built
Woot! Bike There Feature Added to Google Maps! (Video)