Fun with Google Maps for Bicycling

It’s pretty exciting that the folks at Google Maps have added bicycling directions in addition to the walking and public transit options that have been available for a few years. I’ve played with the bicycling directions a bit over the past few days, and they seem to work pretty well, suggesting routes which have bike lanes or bike boulevards, and directing people around steep hills when a good alternative exists. They advise, however, that “bicycling directions are in beta,” and there are definitely some kinks to work out. Gene at Our Oakland, for example, pointed out that Google suggests riding on a “hecka busy, hecka steep” street behind Montclair Village instead of using the much easier (and much more pleasant) rail-to-trail bike path that I wrote about back in January. My favorite suggestion so far, however, is this route between Grand Avenue and Park Boulevard:

This is an unlikely route for several reasons, but the part that amused me the most is near the top, where Google Maps suggests a shortcut between Beacon Street and Merritt Avenue. That might look like a sensible maneuver on a map, but in real life, few (if any) people on bikes would choose that shortcut. To see why, all you have to do is switch to the street view in Google Maps and look at the turn from Beacon Street toward Merritt Avenue:

Oops! I hope your bike is lightweight, because you’ll have to carry it up about 5 flights of stairs, which just happen to be steeper than most—enjoy the workout!

Google is aware that it is using imperfect data to suggest routes, so they are encouraging people to report problems. If they are responsive to feedback, and receive enough of it, then these issues should be easily fixed, but until then, use caution, lest Google send you and your bike flying down any steep staircases…

6 Responses to “Fun with Google Maps for Bicycling”

  1. Gene says:

    That’s awesome!

    Given your knowledge of the area, what route would you have selected? I’m thinking around the lake, then over Brooklyn Ave. The gradients didn’t look too bad for the hills.

  2. dc says:

    Gene: There’s no perfect route because of the big hill between point A and point B, which is probably why Google Maps settles for this zigzagging route straight over a steep hill. Brooklyn would be a decent idea, except that the block between Wesley and Hanover is practically unmanageable—I’ve done it in a granny gear, but even then it was a workout. On the single speed that I usually ride, I doubt that I could even make it.

    I sometimes ride around the lake, then take Brooklyn-to-Newton-to-Hanover-to-Brooklyn-to-Park, but if I am not in a hurry and feel like taking it easy, then I have been known to ride further around the lake and take Lakeshore-to-Hanover-to-Brooklyn-to-Park. If I am feeling really lazy, then I take Lakeshore-to-Wayne-to-Park, which is very roundabout but doesn’t have any significant hill at all. Another option is to go the over the hill the other way: take the MacArthur Blvd bike lane up the hill (it’s not a steep hill, but it goes on and on), and then cut over to Park on Montclair Avenue. (Montclair Ave is unlabelled and only partly visible in the image above, but it’s the street that intersects Park right near point B.) Montclair Ave is almost all downhill from MacArthur to Park, so the advantage of that route is that once you’re done pushing up the bike lane on MacArthur, then it’s smooth sailing down to park on little-trafficked Montclair. Sometimes it’s nice to get the uphill part out of the way early, then coast home…

    The tradeoff between steep, direct routes and flat routes is pretty interesting. Last night I rode over to Piedmont Ave for dinner. I go to that area fairly regularly, so I have a pretty set route: I usually take Santa Clara Ave over the hill between Grand Ave. and Piedmont Ave, unless I’m going to the top of Piedmont near Mountain View cemetery, in which case I might take Grand up and over instead. Just out of curiosity, I checked to see what Google Maps suggested, and I was a bit surprised to see that the suggested route was to take Grand west to Bay Place/27th Street, then take Broadway to the foot of Piedmont and go up Piedmont. That route is much longer, and the hill on Santa Clara doesn’t seem that arduous to me (it even has a bike lane), but the longer route does have the benefit of avoiding the hill altogether. I occasionally take the longer 27th St. route to get to Temescal or Berkeley from my neighborhood, but if I’m going to Piedmont Ave, then it seems excessively circuitous. I often vary my routes depending on my mood, and on how much time I have—if I’m running late, then I’ll choose a direct, more strenuous route, but if I feel like relaxing and taking my time, then I’ll choose a longer, flatter route, or a route with fewer cars where I can relax a bit more.

    It would be nice if Google marked blocks that have steep grades, the way they are marked on the Walk Oakland Bike Oakland map. That way people would have fair warning if Google was sending them up a hill, and could select one of the alternative suggested routes instead…

  3. Gene says:

    It’s not perfect, but there is a map you can overlay with elevation contours. You can adjust what intervals the contours are drawn at to get an idea of how steep hills are.

  4. Gene says:

    Hmm…that link didn’t work. Try this. Or browse the map directory and search for “Elevation Contours”.

  5. dc says:

    Clicking on the second link to enable Elevation Contours, then going back to the map at the first link seemed to do the trick. Cool tool, but it looks like its accuracy isn’t really good enough to be used for block-by-block grade evaluation, at least in some places. For instance, it shows the corner of Athol and Brooklyn as being the same elevation as, or even a bit higher than, the corner of Haddon and Brooklyn, when in fact Brooklyn goes uphill at least 20-25 feet between Athol and Haddon. I think the contours also underestimate the elevation gain on Brooklyn between Wesley and Hanover by at least 20 feet also, making it seem less steep than it actually is. Still, a pretty fun tool to play with—one of these days I’ll get around to familiarizing myself with more of Google Maps’ capabilities.

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