The Good Route: Google Adds Bike Routes


Last spring, I decided to ride my bike to an event in a distant suburb of San Francisco. So I went to the Internets, plugged in my destination and, voila, my journey was charted.

Except, it wasn’t. About 15 miles into the ride, I ran into a snag: a highway entrance ramp. “When, oh when,” I wondering to myself as I wheeled around suburbia, trying to way-find a bypass around the highway, “will Google Maps finally add bike-specific directions?” That day is here.

To create its bike mapping tool, Google developed an algorithm that uses a number of inputs—these include designated bike lanes or trails, topography and traffic signals—to determine the best biking route from point A to point B. And most importantly, Google Maps for bikes won’t send the user onto a highway.

This is great news for bike advocates, who have collected more than 50,000 signatures on a petition to Google to add the get-there-by-bike feature to its otherwise-awesome Google Maps.

Commuters will dig this tool because it suggests routes around–rather than over–hills. But if you’re looking for more of a workout, you can drag and drop the route over steeper terrain. You can also suggest changes or corrections to the suggested routes—or, if you’re so inclined, send in your favorite secret stash of singletrack—by using the “report a problem” feature on Google Maps.

Google worked with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to add more than 12,000 miles of trail to Google Maps. “Over the course of the last three to four years, we've been out riding the trails with GPS units to collect data,” says Rails-to-Trails president Keith Laughlin.

And in October of last year, Google Maps broadened its library of datasets used in the mapping software, so it now includes more hiking and biking trails in public spaces. 

The look and feel of the maps shifts for bikes. “[Bike] trails are like the highways for cyclist, they are darker green,” Guymon explains. Streets in a lighter green feature bike lanes and dotted green routes are streets that lack dedicated bike lanes but are still recommended due to topography, low traffic, few intersections, etc.

But if you’re hoping to just call up biking directions from your bike saddle, you’re out of luck, for now. “Making the bike route tool available on Google Maps for mobile devices is a high priority,” says Guymon. But it’s one without a launch date.

Also, Google Maps for bikes won’t include the turn-by-turn, GPS-based navigation feature that drivers get to enjoy today.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is a freelance writer, covering the environment, sustainability and outdoor recreation. The Good Route, her blog for Outside Online, is focused on the places where the active life and sustainability merge.