In an announcement today on the official Google Blog, the company announced that it was now offering information on bicycling routes, and directions for cyclists, on its popular Google Maps service. The map data includes information on about 12,000 miles of cycling or multi-use trails, mainly supplied by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, along with data on the availability of bike lanes, and on other routes that are well-suited to cycling, covering 150 cities in the USA.
The directions function works much as the existing functions for auto or pedestrian directions do (“bicycling” is now a choice on the drop-down menu). The directions are computed using an algorithm that, according to Google, takes into account bike-friendly routes, traffic congestion, and topography.
Biking directions can help you find a convenient and efficient route that makes use of dedicated bike trails or lanes and avoids hills whenever possible. To find biking directions, select “Bicycling” from the drop-down menu when you do a directions search:
It’s probably to be expected that some of the route data may be incomplete, or just wrong, at such an early stage in the product’s life, but Google encourages users to submit feedback.
I’ve tried generating directions for a few trips that I know fairly well, here in the Washington DC area, or in the metro NYC area, and the results are reasonable, if not always ideal. The algorithm favors routes on trails or roads with bike lanes, and does seem to try to avoid big hills. On a trip from Piermont NY (on the west bank of the Hudson) to Manhattan, it chose an inland route, rather that the route along Route 9W that is heavily used by cyclists, but that is probably explained by its wishing to avoid the big climb up the Palisades (on Kloster Dock Road, for example). Similarly, for some trips in northern Virginia it suggested a route along the W&OD Trail — perfectly reasonable, although I probably would have chosen a somewhat shorter route just using roads. But being comfortable with that choice comes with experience, and I have a fair amount of that.
All in all, though, I am really pleased to see this service introduced. I have a feeling that there are a fair number of people who might try using a bicycle for some short trips, if they had a bit more confidence that they wouldn’t get into trouble. Giving them a set of directions may help convince them that cycling is not just for Lycra-clad nut cases like me.
You can try out the service for yourself here.