Thursday, March 11, 2010

Google Maps Adds Cycling Directions...

Well, this is interesting. One of my favorite bike blogs lately (because he's so darn acerbic) is Bike Snob NYC, and that's where I stumbled across the discovery that Google Maps has added cycling to their "get directions" function. I love his dismantling of the New York Post's reportage about the subject, though: seems they sent a reporter out to rent a bike and follow Google's directions to the letter. Well, of course he instantly wound up in traffic: and as BSNYC points out, if you have to rent a bike, then you don't normally ride... so, um, welcome to the normal morning commute of those who do.

But it's pretty obvious, I think, how having cycling directions is both good (which it is) and problematic (which it also is.) Me, well, for a while now I've been relying on to plot routes around Ottawa - mostly because that way I can work around the highway, skip off roads where I know there's a bike path, and have an idea how far the trip is. But you can't, on MapMyRide, plug in a starting point and a destination and have a route suggested to you. Not to mention that I have to ignore the extent to which MapMyRide is so fitness-oriented that it wants me to plug in nutrition and hydration stops, log my favorite training routes, enter my calorie-burning goals, and sign up for inspirational workshops to boost my "training."

But if you don't know the area you're traveling through, MapMyRide's not much help. It doesn't show off-street trails, doesn't indicate how busy, fast, loud, or scary a road is, and doesn't show bike lanes or one-way streets. So, having something like Google Maps directions could be great. Sure, nothing makes up for personal knowledge, but if I'm visiting a city, I'd love to be able to plot bike routes to get around town.

Google Maps, though, seems to have a ways to go. No one knows the best routes around town like other cyclists, and what Google really needs is some sort of wiki-style means for cyclists to suggest and add improvements to the routes. To be able to say things like, "That's a really big, fast stretch, you can skip over a block and it's a lot quieter, just cut through the Quickie parking lot at the end of the street to get back on track" or something similar. There's a great, thoughtful piece on PC World about this, and what Google should really do to make this work. If Google Maps relies on official bike routes posted by the City of Ottawa, for example, they'll get sent right down Albert Street, dodging Transitway-line buses on possibly the most bus-heavy street in downtown Ottawa. As I've mentioned on this blog before, city bike routes can bottom out at busy parkways, or vanish where a one-way street becomes a two-way, dropping the hapless cyclist on the yellow line.

So yeah, Google - don't tell me you don't have the mad programming skillz to let us cyclists suggest the best routes. Get input from those of us with wheels on the ground and this is a brilliant idea: and kudos for adding it and getting the ball rolling, by the way.

And as an aside, I went to Google Maps and plugged in the addresses of Library and Archives Canada and the Mayfair Theatre (the two venues for this Spring's Writers Festival) and was informed that Google Maps can't calculate directions between the two. Okay: I plugged in my own address and the address of my GM. (Yes. My roleplaying Game Master. Outed.) Still no luck. I can only assume that this functionality is still restricted to the USA. I wait patiently up here north of the border.

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