Finding Google’s glitches

It didn’t take long for cyclists around the country to find the kinks in a new feature in Google Maps — turn-by-turn directions for bicyclists.
Until Wednesday, users of Google Maps seeking directions from a starting point — say, your home — to a destination, such as a bike shop, had three options: “By car,” “By public transit” and “Walking.” Now they have a fourth: “Bicycling.”
Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., announced the addition to Google Maps at Wednesday’s opening session of the National Bike Summit in Washington, organized by the League of American Cyclists.
Cyclists had long lobbied for such a feature in Google Maps. An Austin cyclist, Peter Smith, launched an online petition urging Google to add biking directions to Google Maps in February 2008. It garnered more than 50,000 signatures, according to the CNNTech page.
“This new tool will open people’s eyes to the possibility and practicality of hopping on a bike and riding,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “We know people want to ride more, and we know it’s good for people and communities when they do ride more — this makes it possible. It is a game-changer, especially for those short trips that are most polluting.”
Shannon Guymon, a Google product manager, wrote on The Official Google Blog: “Let’s say you want to bike to work, or maybe you want to drive less and spend more time outdoors. 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.”
But some cyclists around the country seemed underwhelmed by the new feature when they typed into Google Maps the “start address” and “destination” for familiar routes.
A story posted by The Oregonian, which serves bike-friendly Portland, said the city’s cyclists give the new Google Maps feature mixed reviews.
“Like a lot of Portland bicycle commuters, Dat Nguyen was popping mental wheelies after Google unveiled bike directions Wednesday on its wildly popular online mapping site,” said the Oregonian story by Joseph Rose.
“But that excitement deflated as soon as Nguyen asked Google Maps to show him the best bike route from his Southeast Portland home to his downtown office.
“‘All alley ways,’ he said. ‘It’s evil.'”
The Oregonian said that the Google function was a hot topic on Twitter and Internet forums on bicycling but that cyclists expressed confusion and frustration.
“Some said the site wanted them to backpedal away from official city bike routes, often adding 10 or 15 minutes to their usual commutes,” The Oregonian said. “Others said it led them to dead ends. One regular rider said Google was trying to kill her — directing her to get on Interstate 5.”
A story posted on the PCWorld blog lamented that the Google announcement lacked word of an app for cyclists who use smartphones.
The post by Jared Newman called the biking directions on Google Maps “a great idea.”
“But the new feature of biking directions is not as useful if you can’t take it with you,” Newman wrote. “Right now I can’t access the Google Maps directions for bikes feature on either my iPhone or a colleague’s Android-based Motorola Droid.”
For cyclists who own smartphones, Newman wrote, “it looks like you’re going to have to print your maps out before you grab your helmet and head out the door.”
Like other cyclists, I did some tinkering with the new Google feature.
It’s not yet possible, for example, to ride the 30 miles between my home in Fort Worth and downtown Dallas on a continuous bike trail. So I asked Google for a route on city streets that will guide me through the urban sprawl of the Metroplex without risking life and limb.
It produced what looked to be a viable route, which I have yet to try.

Chain of Rocks Bridge

I also typed in the address of my sister’s house in Alton, Ill., where I was born and grew up, as a starting point and the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis as the destination — a distance of about 30 miles.
I’ve done parts of that ride quite a few times on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, crossing into Missouri on the old Chain of Rocks Bridge. The Chain of Rocks Bridge once was part of historic Route 66 and is now a biking and pedestrian bridge that links trails along the levees in Illinois to a trail along Riverview Drive, which follows the river to downtown St. Louis. I was pleased that Google Maps showed that route, as well as an alternate down the Illinois side and a crossing into St. Louis on the McKinley Bridge, which was dedicated in 1910 and refurbished during the past few years to include a bike and pedestrian lane.
I also tried the bicycle directions feature on routes in London, where I lived for more than six years. But, alas, Google Maps can’t yet compute bicycling routes in foreign cities. I hope that’s a feature still to come.


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Filed under Cool stuff, Journeys, Travels, Urban cycling

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