Google is set to introduce a feature providing directions for bike riders to Google Maps – but before you get too excited, it’s our fellow cyclists over in the US who will feel the benefits first.
However, if evidence from past innovations such as Google Street View is anything to go by, features and functionality first introduced in the US do eventually make it across the Atlantic.
And with Google’s portfolio of sites collectively ranked the leading destination for the UK’s internet users by research firm comScore, that could be good news for cyclists here.
Members of the stateside cycling community have been pushing for some time for Google to add bike-friendly route suggestions to its maps, which currently provide directions for motorists and those looking to reach a destination by public transport.
One petition, organised by a campaigning website called GoogleMapsBikeThere.org – a name that pretty much does what it says on the tin, as well as highlighting other bike-friendly mapping initiatives – attracted more than 50,000 signatures urging Google to include more bike paths and trails and provide directions for cyclists.
And it appears that the Mountain View, California-based search engine giant was listening. Last month, on its Lat Long Blog, Google announced that following an overhaul of its dataset, cyclists would “now find many more trails and paths to explore.” The blog post continued, “ Soon we even plan on providing you with biking directions to take advantage of this new data.”
Acknowledging the value of on-the-ground expertise, cyclists, bike advocacy groups and municipal councils are actively encouraged to get involved in helping Google chart suitable routes, and cycling bloggers have been busy scouring Google Maps to discover whether their favourite local off-road bike routes have appeared yet.
And Google has the capability to fully cover some of those off-road routes too, through its Google Street View Trike, shown in the video below and designed to help map hard-to-reach destinations. Google is currently running a poll asking for suggestions of where the trike should be deployed in the US, with shopping malls, zoos, historic monuments – Alcatraz, anyone? – and, yes, bike trails all making the shortlist.
Online maps targeted at cyclists are nothing new. New York’s Ride The City helps cyclists navigate the Big Apple’s streets, including its 420 miles of cycle paths.
And on road.cc, we’ve previously reported on similar initiatives in the UK, such as one by local campaigners Cyclox to provide a cycling map of Oxford, as well as the award-nominated CycleStreets initiative, which is expanding from its Cambridge origins to provide national coverage. Meanwhile, in Manchester, a website allows the city's cyclists to plot off-road and bike-friendly routes.
Local initiatives benefit from the knowledge of cyclists familiar with the nuances of a city, such as which bike racks to avoid because of security concerns, or whether a particular street should be given a miss because of potholes or school-run traffic, and CycleStreets’ Cambridge map is an excellent example.
But Google, of course, has a massive advantage due to a combination of its size, the sheer volume of traffic it generates, and the fact that its status as the go-to destination for many people seeking information online, means that its own sites enjoy high levels of visibility in its search results.
And in the shape of Google Street View, it also has a feature that no-one else comes close to matching. As The New York Observer says, sites such as Ride The City are an invaluable resource, but “it's not always easy to look up at the street signs while you're riding down 1st Avenue and trying to swerve around pedestrians, delivery trucks and taxis. With [Google] Street View maps, bike riders would know they'd have to take a left at the Dunkin Donuts on 1st to get on the 21st Street, West-bound bike lane.”
Eminently practical, in other words – and handy of course for any two-wheeled New Yorkers heading down 1st who fancy a quick sugar and carb rush to help them refuel.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.