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With its abundant data and map resources, Google Maps is well positioned to create a powerful tool that keeps people safe while navigating their city on a bike. This could encourage the use of one of the most reliable zero-emission transport technologies, an advantage that aligns perfectly with that of Google. ambitious emission reduction targets.

That’s not to say it’s a simple task, however. The puzzle of setting up a mapping algorithm for driving is relatively simple compared to that for cycling. To roughly estimate how long it will take to drive somewhere, all you need to know is the speed limits and whether or not intersections have stop signs or stop lights. For cycling, on the other hand, finding the “right” route is much more qualitative.

Often safety trumps speed. A quiet residential road with speed bumps but no bike lane may be more comfortable for cyclists — especially new bikers — than a busy thoroughfare with a painted bike lane where delivery trucks tend to idle.

While Google Maps and other mapping apps offer more and more information about the location of bike paths, its routing algorithms don’t offer the same level of nuance that drivers appreciate. Route options for bikers, whose goals range from daily commutes to exercise, are largely absent from the platform. As a result, riders have tended to rely more on crowdsourcing, either through the vine between riders or through a patchwork of tech-driven alternatives that vary by country and city.

But the lack of a single, comprehensive bike-routing app presents an opportunity for tech companies like Google and Apple, especially as the pandemic-related bike boom seems to have the power to stay. Both companies have rolled out new features to flesh out their bike mapping capabilities over the past year and plan to continue improving them, but there’s still a long way to go before mapping apps serve as an alternative. reliable to crowdsourcing.

The status quo of simplistic routing options on popular mapping apps, said Warren Wells, director of policy and planning for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, represents a barrier to entry for new cyclists. He worries that novice drivers will rely on Google Maps the same way they do to drive and blindly follow a route; even though they use google’s bike lane layer, it’s not clear which bike lanes are fully protected by a physical barrier and which are just painted over the shoulder of a busy road.

“For 100 years, we’ve designed every street to work well for driving, more or less,” Wells said. “We put so little effort into making every street easy to cycle through.”

If a new rider finds themselves on one of those many high-capacity roads that have an often unprotected bike lane, they’re likely to arrive at their destination scared or jaded and never get on a bike again. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1,000 cyclists are killed and more than 130,000 are injured in the United States each year.

Some cycling groups have stepped in to fill the route mapping void, creating their own apps for cyclists. In the Netherlands, for example, the National Union of Cyclists, Fietsersbond, has created its own mapping software that provides users with qualitative options for their travels. Although the interface isn’t as advanced as Google’s – Wells compared it to MapQuest’s version of the early 2000s – the app offers riders plenty of other ways to explore routes, including options such as “easy”, “without car”, “shortest” or “nature” route. Google Maps usually gives cyclists three options for a bike trip, but it’s usually unclear what distinguishes them from each other, especially for someone new to a city or new to cycling.

In 2018, John Greenfield of the Chicago Reader created a guide to the city’s less stressful bike routes, dubbed the Mellow Chicago Bike Map, which incorporated the opinions of cyclists into an online community cyclist forum. (It was updated later as interest in cycling has increased amid the pandemic.)

Chicago-based civic technologist and occasional biker Jean Cochrane stumbled upon the map and turned it into a website with routing capability, primarily for its own use. However, it has become widely used by others looking to move to Chicago.

A bicycle route on a map of Chicago

Chicago-based civic technologist and occasional biker Jean Cochrane took the Mellow Bike Map, by John Greenfield of the Chicago Reader, and turned it into a website.Screenshot: Soft bike map

“I think that’s really been its own huge sea change in how I’ve experienced cycling,” Cochrane said, “where I cycle much longer distances around the city between neighborhoods of a way that I never really had before because I feel like I have a way to access other neighborhoods safely.

The website distinguishes between off-street bike lanes, soft streets (which are largely residential and often have infrastructure like speed bumps or roundabouts to slow cars down), main streets (which usually have cycle paths) and other streets. The simple routing software that Cochrane integrates into the site prioritizes cycle paths and gentle streets by suggesting routes to users.

Demand is strong for this type of resource. Cochrane said people approached her to create a version of the same webpage for other US cities, but absent the crowdsourcing that Greenfield originally did for Chicago’s “mellow” streets, redo the project. starting from scratch is a heavy burden. Part of the reason is that determining which streets are “soft” is harder than it looks: Cochrane called it a “data problem.”

At least in Chicago, installing infrastructure to slow down traffic is a largely decentralized process and public data is hard to come by. The open-source OpenStreetMap project contains some of this information, Cochrane said, but it is incomplete and user-generated, and therefore difficult for her to rely on.

“I know exactly what I would build, if I could find out where every speed bump is in the city of Chicago,” she said. “I wish I could limit my routes to residential streets or streets with traffic calming infrastructure.”

But, Cochrane said, if anyone can pull together relevant data for bikers, it’s Google, which she described as a “data leviathan”. The company has confirmed that it uses a combination of imagery and data from both government authorities and community input, and has partnerships with more than 10,000 local governments, transit agencies and other organizations around the world. Google also has access to data on the type and quality of roads, stairs, hills and elevation.

“Google’s value proposition is that they have this omniscient understanding of all the streets and businesses in so many different places in the United States,” Cochrane said.

In July, the company sketched plans to offer more information on cycling routes. The sample route included in the post illustrates a detailed breakdown of the type of road cyclists encountered, from main thoroughfares to shared paths, and gives cyclists the choice between routes with descriptors such as “more cycle lanes” and “fewer bends”. This feature is expected to roll out “soon” to cities where Google Maps already offers cycling routes, including New York, London and Tokyo; However, the company did not respond to Protocol’s questions about a more specific timeline.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last report emphasizes that walkable communities – including protected pedestrian and bike lanes – can help cities reduce emissions by encouraging low- or zero-emission transport options. With a user base of over a billion users, Google Maps is uniquely positioned to create a virtuous cycle: if more people feel comfortable cycling around their city, more people have an interest in improving low-carbon or zero-carbon infrastructure for getting around.

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