There’s a new blog GoogleMapsBikeThere.org that’s leading a petition to get bike directions added to Google Maps. In other words, when you type an address into Google Maps, you could request biking directions instead of driving directions.
So why not do that for bikes? Google apparently likes bikes. They sell Google bike jerseys. Their Ann Arbor office has secure bike parking. They encourage their Birmingham employees to commute by bike.
I think the biggest problem is safety.
Driving and public transit routing provides optimal routes based primarily on time and distance — safety is assumed. When cycling, safety becomes a top consideration. Unfortunately safety is not measured in seconds or miles or printed on schedule. Route safety can change throughout the day (e.g. rush hour) and throughout the week. Safety expectations vary with cycling experience. And sometimes cyclists’ perception of what’s safe simply doesn’t match what is truly safe, e.g. riding against traffic.
So how can Google include safety when determining bike routes?
They could try collecting road conditions (e.g. width, shoulder conditions, speed) with average daily traffic (ADT) counts to determine a cycling stress ratings for roads. One problem is that road design information is probably not readily available nor in a uniform format. We discovered that issue while developing the SEMCOG bike maps for Southeast Michigan.
In addition, road crossings are a safety issue. In most cases you wouldn’t route someone across a major street like Woodward Avenue except at signalized crossings. Google would need to know that, too.
And finally, there’s the issue of liability. If Google Maps gives you a bad driving route, you might get lost. What if a cyclist is injured or killed on a Google recommended route that just wasn’t safe?
There are other bike routing considerations beyond safety. Some road cyclists won’t want to be routed on unpaved roads. In the spring, those gravel roads might be muddy and impassable. In some communities, laws may regulate or prohibit bicycle travel with respect to roads and sidewalks.
But maybe Google can avoid the issue of safety and road condition data collection, compatibility, and crunching.
Instead, they could provide a mechanism for cyclists to submit their preferred routes. Cyclists would need to register first and answer some questions to determine their experience level. Next they could draw their preferred routes on a map and label them accordingly (e.g. weekend only).
Local government planning agencies could also submit preferred routes. Those preferences could be weighted higher. For example, Ferndale’s bike network provides preferred routes throughout the city.
They could also submit the local regulatory information.
[One caveat: Not all local governments are in tune to the needs of cyclists and cycling safety. There would need to be some mechanism for removing invalid or unsafe data -- and providing education on why they are unsafe or unsuitable. ]
If enough data were collected, Google might be able to route cyclists on the more preferred routes. They could let you choose between beginner and experienced cyclist routing. They may not be the fastest, shortest or even safest routes, but they would be the most preferred by other cyclists.
Personally, determining an optimal route for yourself or cycling group is one of the most fun and challenging parts of cycling. They’re something that develop through years of riding. Expecting Google to deliver the same is no easy task. But, if anyone can pull this off, it would be them.