Climate

How Google Maps could make biking better

A few tweaks could make no-carbon transit a lot more appealing and safe.

People ride bicycles in car-free streets during a CicLAvia event in Culver City, California.

While Google Maps increasingly offers information on where bike lanes are, its routing algorithms don't offer the same level of nuance that drivers enjoy.

Photo: Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

Google Maps has a suite of features to make driving easier. The app gives users options to avoid tolls and highways and even recommends low-emission routes where available.

Bikers using the app, though, have far fewer options, particularly when it comes to determining how safe a route is. Fixing that could get more people on bikes and e-bikes, two of the most accessible forms of no-carbon transit available today. Given that the transportation sector is the biggest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging the use of alternatives to driving — especially driving gas-powered cars — is more urgent than ever.

With its abundant data and mapping resources, Google Maps is well-poised to create a powerful tool that keeps people safe while navigating their city by bike. Doing so could encourage the use of one of the most reliable zero-emissions transportation technologies, a benefit that dovetails nicely with Google’s ambitious emissions reduction goals.

That’s not to say it’s a cut-and-dried task, though. The puzzle of how to set up a mapping algorithm for driving is relatively simple compared to doing so for biking. Estimating roughly how long it will take to drive somewhere requires little more than knowing speed limits and whether or not intersections have stop signs or stop lights. For biking, though, finding the “right” route is a lot more qualitative.

Often, safety trumps speed. A quiet residential road with speed bumps but without a bike lane can feel more comfortable for bikers — especially new bikers — than a busy thoroughfare with a painted-on bike lane where delivery trucks tend to idle.

While Google Maps and other mapping apps increasingly offer information on where bike lanes are, its routing algorithms don't offer the same level of nuance that drivers enjoy. Routing options for bikers, whose goals range from commuting to exercising, are largely missing from the platform. As a consequence, bikers have tended to rely more on crowdsourcing, either via the rider-to-rider grapevine or a patchwork of tech-focused alternatives that vary by country and city.

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

The status quo of simplistic routing options on the most popular mapping apps, said Warren Wells, the policy and planning director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, represents a barrier to entry for new riders. He worries that first-time riders will rely on Google Maps in the same way they do for driving and follow a route blindly; even if they use Google’s bike lane layer, it is not clear which bike lanes are fully protected by a physical barrier and which are simply painted onto the shoulder of a busy road.

“For 100 years, we have engineered every street to work fine for driving, more or less,” said Wells. “We have put just so little effort into making every street easy to bike on.”

If a new biker ends up on one of these many high-capacity roads that happen to have an often unprotected bike lane, they are liable 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 bicyclists are killed and over 130,000 are injured in the U.S. each year.

Some biking groups have stepped in to fill the route-mapping void, creating their own apps for cyclists. In the Netherlands, for instance, the national cyclists union, Fietsersbond, created its own mapping software that gives users qualitative options for their journeys. While the interface is not nearly as advanced as Google’s — Wells compared it to the early 2000s version of MapQuest — the app offers bikers many more ways to explore routes, including options like “easy,” “car-free,” “shortest” or “nature” routes. Google Maps usually offers bikers three options for a biking journey, but it is generally not clear what distinguishes one from another, especially for someone new to a city or new to a bike.

In 2018, the Chicago Reader’s John Greenfield created a guide to the city’s lowest-stress bike routes, dubbed the Mellow Chicago Bike Map, which incorporated the opinions of riders in a biking community forum online. (It was later updated as biking interest swelled mid-pandemic.)

Jean Cochrane, a Chicago-based civic technologist and casual biker, stumbled upon the map and turned it into a website with routing capacity, primarily for her own use. However, it has become widely used by others looking to get around Chicago.

A bike route on a map of Chicago Jean Cochrane, a Chicago-based civic technologist and casual biker, used the Mellow Bike Map, from the Chicago Reader's John Greenfield, and turned it into a website.Screenshot: Mellow Bike Map

“I think that has really been its own huge sea change in the way that I experienced biking,” Cochrane said, “where I do bike much further distances in the city between neighborhoods in a way that I never really have before because I feel like I have a way of accessing other neighborhoods safely.”

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

Demand is high for this kind of resource. Cochrane said people have reached out to her about creating a version of the same webpage for other U.S. cities, but absent the crowdsourcing that Greenfield did initially for Chicago’s “mellow” streets, redoing the project from scratch is a heavy lift. This is in part because determining which streets are “mellow” is harder than it might appear: Cochrane characterized it as a “data problem.”

At least in Chicago, installing infrastructure to slow traffic is a largely decentralized process, and public data is hard to find. The open-source project OpenStreetMap has some of that information, Cochrane said, but it’s incomplete and user-generated, and thus difficult for her to rely upon.

“I know exactly what I would build, if I could know where every speed bump is in the city of Chicago,” she said. “I would love to be able to restrict my directions to residential streets or to streets with traffic-calming infrastructure.”

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

“The value proposition of Google is that they have this omniscient understanding of all of the streets and businesses in so many different places in the U.S.,” Cochrane said.

In July, the company outlined plans to offer more bike route information. The routing sample included in the post illustrates a detailed breakdown of the type of road bikers encounter, from major thoroughfares to shared paths, and gives riders choices between routes with descriptors like “more bike lanes” and “less turns.” This functionality is slated to roll out “soon” in cities where Google Maps already offers biking directions, including New York, London and Tokyo; the company did not respond to questions from Protocol about a more precise timeline, though.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report emphasizes that walkable communities — including protected pedestrian and bike pathways — can help cities reduce their emissions by encouraging low- or no-emission transportation options. With a user base that is more than 1 billion strong, Google Maps is uniquely positioned to effect a virtuous cycle: If more people are comfortable navigating their city by bike, that’s more people with a stake in improving low- and no-carbon infrastructure for getting around.

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