User Beware. It was interesting to watch all the hoopla yesterday when Google announced their new bicycle routing tool. At first I was elated shouting “google to the rescue!” I had previously written about bike route tools (Route Planning) and have found most of them useful but lacking in some important features. Here was new hope that perhaps we finally have a robust tool to help people plan their rides, commutes, trips.
In the calm light of a fresh new day I have to say that I’m a little disappointed. I share Paul Andrews’ (Bike Intelligener editor) concerns about The Dark Side. I decided to do a little test with a destination that I’m very familiar with. In fact, I have three or four separate routes I choose to get there depending on my mood. For those of you familiar with Austin, I start out near Parmer & Metric and head to Central Market on N. Lamar.
When I typed in the origin and destination, I was glad to see the robust Google map features that don’t require a precise address. It knew what I meant by the intersection of my start point. It then gave me several choices for Central Market, the first of which was dead on. My pleasure turned to puzzlement when I saw the route it chose. I immediately rejected the algorithm’s idea of a good route. Here are just two of several reasons.
Rundburg Lane?!!?! You have got to be kidding me. Google bypassed a perfectly good bike route (Bittern Hollow to Parkfield) to choose Metric to Rundburg. Metric has nicely painted bike lanes but is busy beyond belief at certain times of the day. In addition, segments of Metric have no bike lane marked and have moderate industrial traffic. And Rundburg is a no-no unless you have a death wish. Parkfield on the other hand is a wide residential street with painted bike lanes and relatively calm drivers.
The algorithm seems to have no discrimination of the classification of bike lanes (in Austin they are color coded for ease of use by cyclists). The algorithm seems to favor short distance and elevation changes over other considerations. Although I would have to say that the elevation choice is ludicrous–I’ve been both routes and the level of effort is the same.
The second example comes as you approach Central Market. Google’s routing takes you on to Lamar Blvd. Again, if you have a death wish, feel free. Most times of the day Lamar is not a place to be on a bike unless you’re one of those die-hard vehicular cyclists, hell-bent on being part of traffic. It skips several nice quiet routes in that area.
The key issue for me is the audience that this tool is talking to. If you’re an experienced cyclist, with knowledge of an area, Google Bike There is an ok tool. If you’re a novice with no idea where to go or concept of the risks of participating in traffic flow, Google Bike There is a dangerous tool. In the U.S., bike use is low. Those people who have a desire to bike are already on the road. If we’re to improve things we need to tap into the next 40, 50 or 60% of users that would bike if they felt safer.
Robust mapping and route planning tools are one of many things we need to attract a bigger cyclist base. Showing people how easy it really is to get from A to B is a good start, but we must ensure we’re not leading these people down the wrong path (pun intended).
Don’t get me wrong. This is a good start. Perhaps the next version will begin to tap into knowledge bases like Bike Wise and local experts. Certainly municipal GIS data sets need a lot of work to help Google and others develop these tools.