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Google adds bicycle directions to Google Maps

Google Maps started life in 2005 offering directions for drivers, added transit routes in 2007, expanded to pedestrian navigation in 2008 -- and now it covers bicycles, too.


The popular mapping site's introduction of bike directions follows a couple of years of grass-roots lobbying that led the Mountain View, Calif., firm to disclose plans for this feature last fall.

To request bike routes, select "Bicycling" from the pull-down menu below Google Maps' directions form. As a company blog post explains, the site prioritizes off-street trails (designated with thick, dark-green lines) over separate bike lanes (thinner, light-green lines) over designated bike routes (dashed, light-green lines) and also tries to avoid hills, busier streets and crowded intersections.

Google's trails-first algorithm doesn't always yield efficient results, as a request for directions from the old offices in Arlington to the Post's downtown HQ revealed: The site suggested taking the Mount Vernon Trail over Memorial Bridge and then heading north. That's about 50 percent longer than the route I'd take -- down Clarendon Boulevard and through Rosslyn to the Key Bridge, then across town on M Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and L Street.


Google went astray in a second test when it suggested biking through Arlington Cemetery, which is -- understandably -- not allowed.

On longer routes along such mostly flat paths as the Washington & Old Dominion trail, regular cyclists may find Google seriously overestimates travel times. It suggested a trip from my home to Reston Town Center would take an hour and 37 minutes at a plodding pace of 10.6 mph, about half an hour longer than I usually take.

Google lists bike lanes and bike routes in only 150 U.S. cities, while its trail data -- based on input from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a District-based nonprofit that works to reuse abandoned railroads -- spans the entire country.

Around the Washington area, Google includes such recent additions as Arlington's extension of the Four Mile Run Trail under Interstate 395 and the Wilson Bridge's bike lane.

But some other local routes go missing: the new, separated bike lane on 15th Street NW, the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail and Montgomery County's Matthew Henson Trail.

Worse yet, Google left out almost all of the Metropolitan Branch Trail from Silver Spring to Union Station, even though many stretches of this still-under-construction route have been open for years. (One possible reason: the Rails-to-Trails site files the Met Branch Trail under an "in development" category.)

Google invites users to correct its data through an onscreen form, which I tested by filing a report about the missing 15th Street cycle track.

The target audience here seems to be less avid cyclists than bike owners who may not realize how many short trips are easily done on two wheels instead of four. In that context, Google's site is an easier choice than such competing cycle-cartography ventures as Ride the City. And once Google updates its map software for the iPhone, Android phones and other mobile devices -- which product manager Shannon Guymon said yesterday will happen "soon" -- its bike directions will be far more accessible on the road.

But the company needs to get more of its bike-route data in gear first.

Try out Google's bike directions and post your own review in the comments -- and, if you wish, your guess about when or if competing map sites Bing, Yahoo and MapQuest will match this feature.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 10, 2010; 9:15 AM ET
Categories:  Location awareness , Search , The Web  
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Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | March 10, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

I mapped a bike route from my house to my office in the Tysons area. Google appears to give more weight to minimizing distance for this route than to minimizing exposure to dense, high-speed traffic. Google may wish to investigate using crows sourcing to avoid including certain streets on its recommended routes.

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | March 10, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I tried this out for my bike ride from home to work...75% of my normal ride is on bike lanes (and is a totally direct and distance-minimizing route). Google for some reason gave me a route that completely avoided all the fantastic bike lanes in my neighborhood. Very odd--especially when they're marked in green on the map.

Posted by: monacan | March 10, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I punched in my bike route from the Pentagon City area to my office near L'Enfant Plaza. It came pretty close to my preferred route.

The only difference is that it would have me follow trails once I got into DC, which would take me slightly out of the way, rather than simply taking a more direct route using main roads.

Definitely a neat little tool!

Posted by: whmaurer | March 10, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Google's route from my house in the Four Corners area of Silver Spring to my workplace at USDA on Independence Ave. SW would send me down Colesville Rd. and Georgia Ave., both of which I consider unsuitable for cycling.

Posted by: jgbay | March 10, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Oddly, the bicycling option doesn't show up in Google's own Chrome browser (ver. 4.1, under Win XP), though the option is there in Firefox.

Posted by: ArtCee | March 10, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

I can only describe the route suggested from my home near Eastern Market to my office near Franklin Square as "scenic." The walking directions shows the route I would actually take by bike, not only more direct but safer.

Posted by: kbockl | March 10, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Like other people, so far I've found the concept better than the implementation, although it did do a reasonable job of the (ultimately impossible) bike routing from Bethesda to College Park.

It also doesn't know about pedestrian/bicycle cut-throughs (e.g., sidewalks). Perhaps this is an opportunity to make these known to Google and/or other databases, especially in urban/suburban settings. I went ahead and filed several of these online suggestions.

Posted by: jaepstein63 | March 10, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Google's suggested route for my West Coast urban commute starts and ends identically to my own, but the middle is far more dangerous and does not save significant time, if at all.

I've encountered the same problems using a GSP for automobile navigation.

Posted by: Spectator | March 10, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Google's suggested route from my home to my office was only slightly different than the one I take. Pretty good, except that the final stretch takes me off a main bike route and places me on a four block stretch without a bike lane where two cyclists were killed in the past 18 months. Nice!

To get to my grocery store, it gets me 90% of the way there, and instead of turning left across a lane of traffic into the driveway, it takes me over a mile out of my way (for a trip that should only be a mile) onto a bike path, to turn right off the road into the opposite end of the shopping center.

Posted by: ljcmpls | March 10, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

FWIW, if the District implements its plans to add cycle tracks--physically separated bike lanes--to major downtown roads like I and L Streets and Pennsylvania Avenue, Google's existing routing algorithms could get more accurate in a hurry.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | March 10, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Google only does it's street view thing in easy places to go. The more of it I see, the more I want to call the whole thing "YuppieEarth" because of what they don't bother with at all. There's all kinds of places that have poor overhead coverage, and no street view at all.

Posted by: Nymous | March 11, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

good idea

as others noted though, it;s not really working now

in atlanta it makes similar errors

ignores bike trails and lanes that exist

routes you onto busy dangerous roads

seems to choose shortest non-interstate route and that;s it


Posted by: wlexxx | March 11, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Because Google has well-developed skills for crowd-sourcing, I am not worried about the gaps in its knowledge of local trails or bad stretches of the streets -- bikers will refine its database pretty quickly.

What I find exciting is the ability to ask directions via bike from Elsworth Maine to Portland Maine and generate turn-by-turn instructions instantly. Of course it won't be as good as directions from an experienced local cyclist, but this is a tremendous advance that will keep getting better. And it's free.

Posted by: TandemCaptain | March 11, 2010 8:38 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate that they worked with the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy and put a lot of thought into what we might need in a bicycle direction feature. Yes, it's not perfect, but it beats having to pull out paper bike maps constantly to find bike-friendly routes. That, and as others have pointed out, it's free. I don't expect Google to know details that I as a local cyclist would know, so I'm happy to contribute to making this feature more accurate and usable. I used it to figure out how to get from my gym to work, because I needed a route that would be efficient yet avoid the multi-lane roads providing the only direct link between gym and work. There are very few parallel secondary roads, and everything I came up with prior to the addition of the bike feature was less then optimal. When I tried the bicycle directions for this route, it came up with a route I would not have found easily. I customized it a bit, but it was about 90% of what I was looking for.

Posted by: MacsRock | March 11, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

They should have a way to eliminate bike paths from the suggested route. Most bike paths have a speed limit of 15 mph, which many riders find too slow. Also on the weekends, most bike paths are infested with baby strollers and roller bladers and are just too dangerous for cycling.

Maybe just use the "car" route algorithms but eliminate the limited access highways, and dangerous routes indicated by "crowdsourcing".

Posted by: frantaylor | March 11, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Interesting. I commute daily by bike between Chevy Chase and downtown. The shortest and fastest route is along Connecticut Avenue, which is sort of my default - I have a reasonably high tolerance for riding in traffic, and the drivers along (fairly wide) Connecticut seem to have a fairly high tolerance for me, at least during the hours I'm riding. When I'm not in a hurry, and in nicer weather, I take the Capital Crescent Trail, which at 10.5 miles is significantly longer than the 6.5 miles up Connecticut. Anyhow Google suggested the 60% longer CCT route when I queried it. That's a pretty hefty distance tax for the sake of avoiding cars, at least in my mind. (Notably too, it did not route me through Rock Creek, which is also pretty pacific, and at about 8 miles, perhaps the best compromise.) Other riders of course may feel differently about the distance / traffic tradeoff, and so I suppose that's the thing Google has to confront. How to weigh "traffic avoidance" for a biking population that has greatly varying preferences in that regard?

Posted by: JohnDorsey | March 11, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I got the same screwy result, biking from Clarendon to downtown: takes me straight through the middle of Arlington Cemetery. And to think that Google launched this in D.C.! Embarrassing for them.

Posted by: hpmoon | March 11, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of maps, does anyone know why one can't save a map on an iPod touch to refer to when not connected to wifi? I know you can open one and if you close the app, it'll still be there when you reopen...but why is there NOT an app for saving a map/directions to use 'off line'???


Posted by: howardstuff | March 11, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

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