Climate

The easy fix Google Maps could make to help cut transportation emissions

Combining the app’s existing biking and mass transit directions could save people time while reducing emissions.

A woman stands in silhouette in front of the Empire State Building holding her bicycle after carrying it out of a subway station on 34th Street.

Google Maps already has a massive impact on how people get around.

Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

More than 1 billion monthly users task Google Maps with figuring out the fastest way to drive, walk, bike or take public transit to wherever they need to go.

But a trip across town can sometimes lead to a convoluted array of public transit transfers, a long walk or getting snarled in a traffic jam. With a simple fix, though, Google could unlock a way for people to get around that would save users both time and emissions: combining bike and transit directions for a multimodal option that allows users to largely avoid both traffic and transfers.

It’s an approach that plenty of people already cobble together on their own: hopping on a bikeshare for a mile or two to reach the most convenient subway station, then taking a single train to their destination. Many daily commuters even take their bikes on the train, and use them for the first and last miles of their journey. But it’s a trial-and-error process given that Google Maps and its competitors largely don’t offer multimodal trip planning.

“You shouldn’t have to be a transportation planner to figure out how to use our transportation system,” said Warren Wells, the policy and planning director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition.

Google Maps already has a massive impact on how people get around.

“The fact that they have transit directions totally changes what people’s experiences of new cities are like,” Wells, who doesn’t own a car, said. “Our legacy transit systems are not user-friendly, and are meant for daily riders, and not for new arrivals, whether you’re a tourist or someone who just moved to the city yesterday.”

The app’s functionality has evolved dramatically over the years, and today offers transit options from “fewest transfers” to “least walking,” as well as bike-share directions down to the nearest station and how many bikes are available. However, it seems that the company has yet to prioritize combining these functionalities for its whole user base.

Google announced the launch of multimodal functionality in 2019, saying it would make “it easy to pair transit directions with biking and ridesharing options.” But nearly three years later, the app suggests walking or even using rideshare apps for the first and last miles in the vast majority of situations, even when biking would save time.

Wells said adding a toggle between “have bike” or “do not have bike” within Google Maps’ transit directions could optimize a journey accordingly. Google did not reply to questions about the inconsistency of its multimodal directions, though a spokesperson did note that Amsterdam, Paris, Zurich, Madrid, Dublin, Tel Aviv and Boston are among cities with biking and transit options linked up — and that the company plans to keep expanding to other locations.

In the U.S., the transportation sector is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. While the transition to electric vehicles is underway, the vast majority of vehicles on the road are gas-powered and will be for decades to come. That’s contributing to climate change and local pollution, as well as urban sprawl and safety issues. But cities have not historically prioritized alternatives like biking or public transit, much less multimodality.

“Driving is a default for most people in America,” Wells said. “But we need to make doing something different easier. And Google Maps is right there on everyone's phone.”

Google has an ambitious climate plan, including a commitment to operate using solely carbon-free energy by 2030. But making low- or zero-carbon transportation more appealing and easier to navigate could have an even larger impact on reducing emissions given the size of Google Map’s user base.

Jacob deCastro, a spokesperson for the New York City-based Transportation Alternatives, concurred with Wells, adding that “Google has a responsibility to encourage more sustainable forms of transportation.”

Multimodality also has the added benefit of improving community health and livability. A recent report from America Is All In, a coalition of non-federal climate leaders, found that in dense areas like cities, transportation systems should prioritize a combination of biking, walking and mass transit in order to beget climate and other benefits.

The timing couldn’t be better for linking biking and transit in a more formal way. Biking has become increasingly popular since the onset of the pandemic. Bikeshares are also seeing an uptick in usage; just last week, New York City’s CitiBike bike-share program had its most rides ever, averaging nearly 124,000 per day.

In New York specifically, deCastro said the recent “shift” in bike enthusiasm has seen more people incorporate biking into their journeys, even if the bulk of their trip is via train or bus.

But an app that explicitly connects the dots and tells people how and where to go for maximum efficiency “would be super helpful in encouraging more people to ride bikes and take transit,” deCastro said.

This kind of multimodal model could be made even more useful with the addition of bike parking information, he said. A recent Transportation Alternatives report found that the lack of bicycle parking is the No. 2 reason that people in the five boroughs do not bike more. One of the report’s recommendations is that the city formally request that both Google and Apple “add bicycle parking as a layer in their mapping applications,” given that plentiful digital tools exist to facilitate car parking and laws but no analog exists for bikes.

In this way, advocates like deCastro hope that the digital transportation world will begin to inform the physical one, and vice versa, at least in terms of what people demand from their transportation infrastructure as more people become acquainted with it.

“We would love to see this technology be a way to get people to ride their bikes,” deCastro said. “But we also need to have the physical infrastructure in place, like protected bike lanes to keep people safe … I think there’s also a responsibility for city governments to build out that network, and then for Google Maps to route people on those protected bike lanes.”

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