Elly Blue at BikePortland.org posted a thoughtful article this morning about "chasing the dream of online bike route planning."
Easy mapping for drivers is old news; increasingly, "walkshed technologies" are making walking or taking transit a stress-free experience. But people who want similar tools for cyclists face a steep barrier to entry in the U.S.: a major lack of data about where it's safe to bike. Right now, the bike route-mapping scene is dominated by a handful of startups and software-savvy trailblazers, and even mapping standby Google refers cyclists to wiki-style resource OpenStreetMap:
But the data available is only as good as what has been uploaded — and in many places in this country, bike route data simply doesn’t exist. [Aaron] Antrim says he would love to see the League of American Bicyclists make map data a consideration in their Bicycle Friendly Community awards program. In the meantime, OSM is often updated through company-hosted mapping parties (Chris Smith recently wrote in PortlandTransport about attending one of these). OSM also makes software available that shows undocumented streets so that intrepid users can fill in the blanks.
Another problem with bike map data, according to Antrim, is that there is no universal classification for bike routes. The European Union has a standard classification, but in the United States it’s still a free for all. A “bike boulevard” in one city might be called a “bikeway” or a “low traffic street” in another. There are standard classifications, but as Antrim says “there are many variables in what goes into making a facility, so classifying that is a challenge.”
Bikers can't easily use the same routes that online mapping tools provide for cars. Cyclists need to be sure that their planned route won't lead them by surprise to a highway or dangerous arterial, and customizing the routes manually can take quite a bit of manipulation:
Blue spotlights several emerging resources with strong prospects, including Portland-based byCycle.org, NYC's Ride the City, and Atlanta's multi-modal A-Train. And she reports on some rumors that Google might be launching its own tool sometime in the near future.
Raising the profile of cycling as a mode of transportation to rival cars is a worthy pursuit for North American cities, and those working to gather (and standardize) the necessary data are doing terrific (and time-consuming) work. If this is a conversation you're involved in, or that sparks your interest, Blue's piece is worth checking out in full.
There is already a very useful tool that does this to a degree - and it is largely driven by cyclists. Check out www.bikely.com - plenty of routes already mapped out, and because they're put there by cyclists, rather than car engineers pretending to think about cyclists, much of the guesswork about what's safe and what's not may have already been taken out of the equation.